Famous for being famous

I’m a celebrity, please don’t get me out of here!

Kim Kardashian photo by Nicole Alexander

The greatest warriors, philosophers, playwrights and politicians of the Roman and Greek empires dreamed of being remembered and acclaimed forever – but after death. The Romans had a word for it – “fama” – the kind of fame earned by great and memorable deeds. These days it’s different. Fame is for anyone prepared to get out there and grab it, and it’s for now, for the moment. Far from heroic deeds or historic achievements, many of our modern-day celebrities are famed for being famous, little else.

The most successful “celebs” have millions of social media followers, all clamouring for yet another online selfie, glam photo, or video. It might be a revealing personal tweet, or even better, a highly publicised exclusive appearance and interview in a huge-circulation fan mag. Nothing is left out and all sensational news is laid bare. Until next time.

Celebrity culture is big business, and although twenty-first-century fame is mostly trivial and often fleeting, it can also be fun and fortune-making, for as long as it lasts. However, some self-made “stars” struggle to cope with the sudden adulation and constant invasive attention brought by their newfound celebrity status, while others adopt an inflated opinion of their standing and true social significance.

Then the headlines and social media postings can quickly turn from adulation to spite, insults and offensiveness. But as one star fades at least two more are always on the rise, and so the celebrity phenomenon continues, despite some casualties along the glittering way.

In her book, The Drama of Celebrity, author Sharon Marcus argues that the first model of contemporary celebrity was French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who died almost a hundred years ago. Marcus claims that Bernhardt became the “godmother of modern celebrity” because her career coincided with several inventions, which she cleverly used to promote herself. The rise of photography made pictures of her widely available. The penny press, cheap mass-circulation newspapers, mentioned her every role as well as her life offstage – which was sometimes tragic, often highly controversial and even scandalous, but always fascinating. She owned a pet lion! Steamship and rail travel saw her tour the world as few actors had before. Telegraphy had arrived, so news about her could travel faster. “Almost
everyone had heard of her, read about her, or seen her,” Marcus says.

Bernhardt’s fame and celebrity lasted her entire adult life. She died in 1923, “peacefully, without suffering, in the arms of her son.” At her funeral in Paris more than 30,000 fans and admirers gathered to pay their respects and an enormous crowd followed her casket from the church to the Père Lachaise Cemetery, pausing for a moment of silence outside the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt. No photo opportunities, no selfies, just complete, respectful silence. The inscription on her tombstone is simply the name “Bernhardt”. Now that’s celebrity – that’s “fama”.

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