The psychology of celebrity 2: Celebrity as narrative


In this second post on the psychology of celebrity, Dr Jane McGee looks at the connection between celebrity and narrative – the stories associated with celebrities and their lifestyles.

So what turns a famous person into a celebrity?

One answer to the question seems to be narrative. The main reason we want to read about certain individuals in the glossy magazines such as Hello or Grazia, or we want to watch them on chat shows or follow them on Twitter, is that we are interested in their stories: in Cheryl Cole’s latest tattoo, Nigella Lawson and Charles Saatchi’s divorce or in the serial romances of Katie Price or Simon Cowell’s love child. Queen Elizabeth and the Archbishop of Canterbury may have fame, but they don’t have stories.

According to Gabler (1998) a celebrity provides some form of human entertainment. Gabler does not mean a conventional entertainer but a person who, by the very process of living, provides entertainment for us. This definition embraces most conventional entertainers, such as movie and television stars, whose lives fill the gossip columns and magazines, but also businessmen like Sir Allan Sugar, politicians like Barack and Michelle Obama, fashion designers like Vivienne Westwood. What all these people and things have in common is that they are living out narratives that capture our interest and the interest of the media, their narratives have entertainment value.

Boorstin himself realized that fame had a narrative component, but he explicitly separated the narrative from the celebrity. Using aviator Charles Lindbergh as an example, Boorstin saw Lindbergh’s greatness and subsequent fame flowing from his accomplishment of having flown solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. Lindbergh transmogrified into a celebrity only when his publicity and popularity reached a critical mass where they became the story, usurping the accomplishment itself and making Lindbergh well known for being well known. More contemporary examples can be seem in the recent team Team GB members who achieved success followed by publicity such as Bradley Wiggins, Tom Daley and Mo Farrah.

In the taxonomy of celebrity stories, one might call these sorts of narratives ‘star-driven’, and it is axiomatic that the bigger the star, the less compelling the narrative has to be, which is why Brad Pitt or Lady Gaga need only attend a function or eat in a restaurant to get press coverage. But just as there are movies that rely on the ingenuity of plot rather than on star power, so there are celebrity narratives that are plot driven.