Nobody can say we weren’t warned. Fifty years ago, the historian Daniel Boorstin rang in 1962 with a scowling doomsday jeremiad. American culture had entered the age of the celebrity as “human pseudo-event,” he argued. Instead of looking up to heroes, Americans were now valorizing “a new kind of eminence”: “a person who is known for his well-knownness.” Boorstin decried the passing of a perhaps imaginary era in which accomplishment or moral fiber was a prerequisite to fame, and he shook his professorial fist at the new breed of superstar, whom he dismissed as nothing more than synthetic “receptacles into which we pour our own purposelessness.” And that was before Kim Kardashian was even a thing.
Boorstin was pretty prescient considering that he wrote at a time when real housewives were actually real housewives and reality itself was essentially one’s default state of being rather than an opt-in entertainment niche necessitating the use of air quotes. But half a century later, our relationship with celebrities—and theirs with us—has outraced his direst forecasts. We’re way past the bad news and deep into the ramifications. Andy Warhol’s 1968 exhibition-catalogue note that “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes” had already come true by 1979, in Warhol’s own estimation. Today, we’re all living out one consequence he might have anticipated—if everybody is famous, nobody seems worthy of fame—and one he probably didn’t, which is that we are all permanently stuck in the sixteenth minute, in which the attempts to extend the cash value of one’s star power go on and on and on, past the point of hope, interest, or reason. Even the tiniest comet, it seems, has an endless and tedious afterburn.
In these pages, we’ll try to decode the new economy of fame, top to bottom—the salary structures so complex that the contracts look like the Human Genome Project, the balance of endless freebies against the high price tag that comes with maintaining one’s brand, the spectacular amounts of money a celebrity can make for doing virtually nothing and the equally spectacular sums spent to maintain a level of privacy and security that most of us take for granted.
The relationship between fame and money is nothing new, of course, nor is the inexorable trend of celebrities toward self-commodification. Consider Elizabeth Taylor, who for decades remained central to whatever the most salient definition of celebrity was at that moment. Taylor may have been, in Boorstin’s dismissive terms, at least partly famous for being famous, but she was also one of the first stars to get her head around the monetization of celebrity; she knew that if she could get people to buy movie tickets, she could also get people to buy other things. (Appropriately, one of her warmest obituaries ran in Advertising Age, which commended her long and lucrative history of endorsing everything from Whitman’s chocolates to shampoo and even branding products with her name.) In fact, Taylor was always gratifyingly unsentimental about her own status as a product, keeping her brand viable with pronouncements even when she wasn’t selling anything. Is it any surprise that among her last public utterances was a 2011 tweet to, yes, Kim Kardashian? The odd couple clearly shared a canny grasp of how to work an ever-evolving system.
However, it’s quite a plummet from Taylor to a 72-day marriage built around a made-for-cable “fairy-tale wedding” produced by Ryan Seacrest. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, to quote the noted social theorist Tony Soprano, “things are trending downward.” How did we get here, from famous to famous-for-being-famous to kinda-famous-for-being-sorta-contemptible to trying desperately to make even that quality generate income? (This was the year, remember, of the Charlie Sheen “comedy” tour.) But those in search of a big-bang moment might look at 1993, when InStyle magazine merged the aspirational appeal of celebrity glossies with the à la carte ease of mail-order-shopping catalogues. InStyle allowed celebrities a doorway into the world of the “soft” endorsement—drink what I’m drinking, wear what I’m wearing, buy what I’m buying. Love me, love my stuff. Instead of appearing in advertisements, the featured famebots became walking billboards selling ordinary readers the means to be more like them. Of course, unlike readers, those billboards didn’t have to pay for anything—they were the first avatars of swag-suite culture, in which stars get everything for free, in the hope they might accidentally advertise a cocktail ring or a flavor of Vitaminwater on the way to the gym or down the red carpet. For them, taking all the things you can is almost an act of noblesse—how else will average consumers know what they should want?
In celebrity life, there have always been more runners-up than winners, so in an age in which nobody can quite believe that fame is fleeting, it’s no surprise that the only things many of the also-rans have left to sell are their disgruntlement, their desperation, and their decompensation. The reality-TV boom of the last decade created an entire subclass of people who misunderstood their fifteen minutes as a stepping-stone to a more permanent level of renown. They won’t step out of the spotlight without a fight, and it didn’t take them long to figure out that self-mortification can be a viable economic model. If InStyle was the celeb-lifestyle bible of the nineties, the Zeitgeist mag of the aughts was Us—reinvented in 2000 as a weekly horror show selling its audience of young, non-famous women on the lurid piety that young, transiently famous women are mostly trashy idiots. In the Lohan-Hilton-Hills epoch (Anni Celebutanti I to IV), an arrest, a public meltdown, a slap-fight, a dognapping, an eating disorder, and a trip to rehab were no longer scandals that could tarnish a celebrity’s brand: They could be the brand. Anything could be the brand.
A canny celebrity can put a self-protective patina of irony on this whole process—Kathy Griffin rose from C-list to B-list by publicly reinventing herself as D-list. And A-listers don’t get immunity. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie play the game, too; the difference is that they’re playing it at a high-stakes table in a secure VIP room. When they preemptively auction off pictures of their newborns to the British press for more than $10 million, it’s understood not as greed or self-promotion but as canny anti-paparazzi strategy, And if they tire of that particular blood sport, they both have actual talents to fall back on.
But how do you make it work financially when all you have to sell is your own desire to be bought? The D-listers may reside under the same dome as the genuinely famous, but they’re still a world away from them. If we’re on the outside looking in, they’re on the inside looking in; all their energy goes into holding their few square inches of turf, trying to stay under the lights until they can make something happen. They’re playing the short game, not the long game, and their fear of coming so close to realizing their desire only to miss their chance makes them both repellent and, sadly, relatable. They are truly “human pseudo-events,” like those science-class cutaway humans that render terrifyingly apparent all the monstrous viscera that make the machine run. Perhaps they fascinate us because they’re just like every other celebrity, minus the protective trappings—agents, publicists, handlers, spinners, business advisers, crisis managers—whose job it is to grease the wheels of commerce while making the effort behind it invisible. Money always matters, but the whole point of being A-list is that when, for instance, you decide to pick up some extra cash by working a paycheck gig for a Chechen despot or doing yogurt ads in Japan, nobody is supposed to see.
In a sense, celebrities with nothing to offer but their celebrity are no different from anyone else who’s been backed into a corner as we’ve morphed from an economy of production into an economy of consumption. But what it seems to mean for those of us who consume and are consumed by the famous is that as long as we get a steady diet of them, the particulars of that diet don’t matter all that much at any given moment; celebrity may be indispensable, but any individual celebrity is completely disposable. And considering that anybody is now a couple of clicks away from opening a Twitter account, acquiring followers, and keeping minute-to-minute track of their own fame, maybe the meaning of the word has become so porous as to be useless. Who, even a few years ago, could have foreseen a world that would offer the entertainment of fake Twitter accounts in which the non-famous imitate the slightly famous? Just a couple of weeks ago, an unreal version of New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani (@CriticMichiko) inspired the plaintive ire of another tweeter purporting to be the real Kakutani (@ActuallyNYTMK), who wrote, “Please stop impersonating me. I am me.” CriticMichiko curtly replied: “Existentially urgent, but unprovable.”
I should note here that I have no reason to believe, and some reason to doubt, that the “real” Michiko Kakutani in this exchange is any realer than the fake one. But either way, there’s no question that he/she has come up with the cri de coeur of the new age of celebrity: “I am me.”
This is where we’ve landed, 50 years after Boorstin’s long sigh. If “I am me” is all it takes to be a celebrity, then how do we come up with a workable post-Warholian definition of fame? Lacking any other yardstick, perhaps it’s time to start treating fame as an ecosystem of its own—and if you harbor dreams of glory (or at least a little face time on E!), you may want to take the stories here as both a user’s guide and a warning. “I am me” is a claim anyone can make. But if you can say, “I am me—and I can make you pay for it” … well, congratulations. You’ve just made it all the way up to the bottom rung.