The psychology of celebrity 4: fact and fiction


Does a real platform sign make Harry Potter a real celebrity?

In the final post in this short series on the psychology of celebrity, Dr Jane McGee looks at whether fictional characters can truly be celebrities, and concludes that celebrity is nothing without its audience.

Psychologists also debate whether fictional characters such as  Harry Potter, Mickey Mouse or Pepper Pig can ever be considered celebrities since they lack both tangibility and personal narratives. It may have been with this in mind that Walt Disney back in the mid-1930s felt compelled to construct a back story for his own putative celebrity, Mickey Mouse. Children would write to Disney wanting to know if Mickey and Minnie were married. They were keen to find out about Mickey and Minnie’s life narrative. In order to fulfil  that narrative expectation, Walt once told a magazine interviewer that Mickey and Minnie played boyfriend and girlfriend on screen but that in “real life” they were married. Thus did Mickey make his bid for celebrity — one that was fated to fail should children discover that Mickey wasn’t real and that they could never meet the original, only the facsimile at Disneyland or Disney World in the same way they might meet Santa Claus at Hamleys.

In the search for a meaningful definition of celebrity, what is clear that celebrity is not, as Boorstin theorized, a thing that one acquires the way one might acquire fame, simply by being grazed by the media spotlight. Like any work of art, celebrity is the product of a process. A celebrity needs a performer, a personal real-life, or purportedly real-life, narrative, even if it is only the foundation narrative. One needs publicity for that narrative. And last, but by no means least, one needs fans — an audience to appreciate the narrative and admire its star; for in the end, celebrity without someone to consume it is like a movie without someone to watch it. Or to paraphrase Berkeley (1996),  if a celebrity story is generated and there is no one to hear or see it, it doesn’t make a sound; any movie star without the screaming mobs wouldn’t be celebrities. As Gabler (1998) concludes:

‘As fans, we get the dispensation to watch them, to share them, to consume them, to enjoy them, to bask in their magnificence and to imagine that we might have a narrative of our own some day, allowing us to join. Celebrity taps some of the deepest contradictions about who we are and who we would like to be’.