The psychology of celebrity 1: Defining celebrity

Many thanks to Dr Jane McGee for kindly allowing our Psychology Blog to post the following extract from her work on the psychology of celebrity. This is the first of four posts on this fascinating A2 topic, in which Dr McGee discusses a definition of celebrity:

Is celebrity worship a modern form of sacrifice?

Is celebrity worship a modern form of sacrifice?

The concept of celebrity worship is not only a topic of media interest, but is now a focus of psychological investigation. Celebrities are often placed on a higher platform. This stage promotes both constant observation and idolization. According to Marrow (1997) celebrities are what we have instead of gods and goddesses. The psychoanalyst Fairbairn (1999) suggests that celebrity worship begins in childhood and each child needs to maintain an exaggerated belief in the competence and benevolence of his parents. In adulthood we idealize the famous as a way of sustaining this belief. Becker (1999) maintains that the purpose of setting up figures that seem super powerful, infinitely kind and larger than life, is to make us feel safe.

The idea of celebrity is not new and has its roots in the 18th century, according to Inglis (2012). However, Payne (2009) argues that celebrity worship can be traced back even further and sees Britney and Katie Price as the successors to the cows and goats sacrificed in Athenian temples. David Beckham, Damien Hirst and Jade Goody have predecessors in Joshua Reynolds, Lord Byron and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.

Celebrity is a much-used word and is just as hard to define. The cultural historian Boorstin (1961) offered a tautological definition of celebrity as a “person who is known for his well-knownness.” He is the “human pseudo-event” who has been manufactured for us but who has no substantiality –– something hollow that is a manifestation of our own hollowness. Boorstin’s observation that celebrity is a function of “well-knownness”is fundamentally correct. Needless to say, a celebrity must be well- known or they are no celebrity, which is why publicity is a prerequisite. Boorstin was incorrect however, in seeing celebrity as only a function of being well known. While there is no such thing as a celebrity who isn’t famous, there are famous individuals whom most of us would not consider celebrities. Queen Elizabeth is famous, but one doubts whether psychologist would call her a celebrity.