12.03.10

Long History of Celebrity

From the Ancient Greeks to Britney Spears, celebrity has a long history as three new books prove, says Kevin Canfield—and the parallels through time are surprising.

Please forgive him for devoting a chapter of his new book to a historical contextualization of Britney Spears’ infamous shaven head because Tom Payne really does have interesting things to say about celebrity.

For instance, the belief that our heavily mediated age is unique in doling out renown to every Tom, Dick and Kardashian? It’s off the mark, Payne points out in Fame: What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity. The 14th-century bard Chaucer, he notes, wrote about a couple of slackers who petitioned the monarchy with this elegant, if unconvincing, plea: “We have done neither that nor this/ but spent our lives in idle play/ Nevertheless, we come to pray /that we should have as good a fame,/ and great renown, and well-known name/ as those who have done noble deeds.”

Had these bold strivers been born 700 years later, they might’ve secured a six-episode commitment from VH1. But for our purposes, they serve as evidence that, as three new books remind us, celebrity confounds as often as it entices.

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Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity By Elizabeth Currid-Halkett 320 pages. Faber & Faber. $26. ()

In Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity Elizabeth Currid-Halkett uses a mathematical formula to explain how fame gets spread around. Expounding on the renowned sociologist Stanley Milgram’s assertion that most human beings are separated by six degrees, Currid-Halkett, a professor at University of Southern California’s School of Policy, Planning and Development, posits that “celebrities exhibit just 3.26 degrees of separation from one another.” This is a very specific way of saying that because there are fewer of them, famous people rub elbows more than the rest of us. Whatever we make of her findings, this much is clear: Kevin Bacon’s been working overtime.

Currid-Halkett’s case study is Vogue Editor Anna Wintour, whose “friend network” is the subject of a full-page chart. Designers (Zac Posen), moguls (Donald Trump), actors (Harry Connick, Jr.) and socialites (Tinsley Mortimer) all make appearances in the chart, but membership in this group is less a matter of kinship than a means of perpetuating various degrees of status. “Wintour’s social life effectively demonstrates the basic principles of celebrity social networks and the various possibilities for attaining celebrity,” Curid-Halkett writes. “Once penetrated, her network, like all celebrity networks, enables a person to get to particular people.”

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A Short History of Celebrity By Fred Inglis 322 pages. Princeton University Press. $29.95. ()

Fame, of course, has always been a matter of gaining access to the right crowd. Fred Inglis’ A Short History of Celebrity explains that in 18th century London would-be celebrity actors were compelled to will themselves “into a style of life. To do this the artist must become known: known for character qualities, artistic personality, moral, political, aesthetic originality—mixed with familiarity.” David Garrick, an actor, was among the first to crack the code. He added seats to his Drury Lane Theatre, organized a roster “serious repertory” and in the process, Inglis adds, “bequeathed to us the nationally acclaimed figure of actor-producer-knight, mingling in his manners inevitable scandalousness and lordly remoteness, offstage untouchable, onstage the people’s personality.”

But even then, in an age long before Us Weekly and E!, those who sought fame weren’t safe from the sort public reprobation meted out to today’s celebs. As it happened, Garrick’s theater was surrounded by “brothels, licentious taverns, and the deep squalor of the street,” writes Inglis, who has taught the social sciences in Britain and the U.S., and “their adoring, hypercritical, hypocritical, duplicitous, and often indifferent public smacked their lips over the trivial sexual misdemeanors, studiedly outrageous fashions on and offstage, high jinks and low drunkenness of” the stars of the day.

If the impulse to censure celebrities dates to another era, so does the desire to emulate them. In Fame Payne reports that “Valeria Messalina, the wife of the (first-century Roman) emperor Claudius, would sport a coiffure that crested like a wave emerging from her crown and its peak broke into ringlets. It was widely copied.” Britney Spears’ decision to shear off her blond locks in 2007 wasn’t quite as influential from a fashion standpoint. But, dare we ask, was there something historically instructive at play when she decided to go bald? Payne isn’t sure, but he points out “the ancient Greeks…placed enormous importance on hair.” The playwright Euripides, for one, wrote that one of his protagonists would be honored in death by “unyoked maidens (who) will cut their hair for you;/ the great grief of their tears shall be your tribute.”

Spears doesn’t give the impression that she’s a big reader. But keep an eye out for the next round of paparazzi shots. If she’s carrying a copy of Euripides’ Hippolytus, we’ll know Payne is on to something.

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Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Film Comment, Bookforum, and other publications.