The psychology of celebrity 3: perishable celebrity

Image by Mark Hillary, from flickr

Image by Mark Hillary, from flickr

In this post on the psychology of celebrity, Dr Jane McGee considers what happens when the narrative behind a celebrity runs out of momentum.

Shane Ward and Leon Jackson (who? you may ask) were both thrust into minor celebrity roles due to their wins on the X Factor – a talent show which commands a large audience and press attention, though, given the fact that these narratives are all one-shots without the foundation narrative or much likelihood for elaboration, they provide a more evanescent form of celebrity. As the central narrative fades, there is little more these players can do to sustain it, however: although Ward and Jackson may try, there isn’t the publicity for their work that conventional stars enjoy when they are out promoting a movie or TV show. In time, the stars of plot-driven celebrity run out of plot and necessarily run out of celebrity, becoming the equivalents of faded film stars who no longer have their pictures to keep them in the public consciousness.

Boorstin, looking at the dearth of achievement in celebrity, saw all celebrity as perishable. Once the publicity is withdrawn, so is the celebrity since there is nothing, presumably, left behind. But a counterargument to this is that celebrities don’t perish because the publicity is withdrawn. The publicity is withdrawn because they cease to provide a narrative that is worth writing about or broadcasting, or, from the audience’s point of view, worth watching or reading about. This is especially true of conventional stars when their foundation narrative falters and there is no success to fuel another story. So long as you can provide a story, there need not be closure until you die, though there are individuals like Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy, whose narratives continue through revelations and reinterpretations long after the stars themselves have departed.

Whether they still qualify as celebrities in death is open to debate, but one could make a powerful case that celebrity also requires a corporeal
protagonist who can continue to provide a dynamic plot and who has not just left behind a narrative to be amended and reworked by others like some ancient text. Instead the stories of dead celebrities are entombed. Since celebrity is a kind of performance art, if audiences don’t feel there is a live personality starring in the narrative or that the narrative can take new and surprising turns, if they don’t feel that they could actually meet the protagonist, there may be some essential frisson missing. Celebrity seems to depend to some degree on the idea of tangibility.