Updated: Feb 6
It was news to me, a practising Catholic, that the Pope invited eleven YouTubers from around the world – the high priests and priestesses of social media -- to meet him at the Vatican in 2016. They included Louise Pentland from the UK who, it seems, vlogs about her daily life as a mum and has over 2 million followers on Instagram alone.
An intriguing fact from an intriguing series, “Celebrity: A Twenty First Century Story”, four documentaries now available on IPlayer. Shown just before the 6 January riots at the Capitol in Washington, the programmes instantly raised questions about the link between the cult of celebrity, a 20th century phenomenon, and the pro-Trump rampage, an event we have barely begun to process.
The start of the phenomenon of celebrity, suggests the programme, was marked the rocketing to stardom of people who are “just like us”, the boys and girls next door, embodied in David and Victoria Beckham – shown frolicking in Yankees baseball caps and sneakers on their gold wedding thrones.
Before celebrity there was just fame. Those who are famous have exceptional talent and maintain strict boundaries between their public and private lives. Celebrities’ only discernible talent is their capacity for self-exposure – the selfie being the perfect symbol of that – attention seeking and exhibitionism. Celebrity is one of the dominant memes of secularism. Its features are the commodification of people, an emphasis on sex and sexuality disconnected from relationship, and the blurring of the boundaries between public and private life.
Celebrity was a generally upbeat survey of two decades of the rise and various guises of celebrity which took us from the Beckhams through Katie Price/Jordan, Gareth Gates, Paris Hilton, the Kardashians, the Johnson family, Donald Trump, One Direction, Harry and Meghan, to “Toff”. Perhaps you like me do not know who some of these people are. When I turn on Strictly, which I love, for the first time in the autumn, I rarely recognise the names, apart possibly from a sports star or token politician. I have never watched Big Brother, I’m a Celebrity Get me Out of Here or Love Island. I learned never to watch the first episode of The Apprentice having been uncomfortably hooked a couple of times.
Celebrity is clearly addictive – to the stars themselves, the fans, all those who move in its orbit: the paparazzi, the promoters, the armies of assistants. The deeply thoughtful Sunday Times journalist Brian Appleyard once told me he had been invited to write a book about celebrity and turned it down because he was afraid of being embraced by its tentacles. Now I think of it, that must have been at the end of the nineties, just around the time that the series Celebrity begins its survey. Celebrity offered a fascinating window onto another world.
The programmes nodded at the dark side – suicide, misogyny, political manipulation – but presented celebrity as essentially benign. Fame too has its dark side. There has always been fame and tragic early death, fame and drugs and alcohol, fame and exploitation: think Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Andy Warhol, Judy Garland. There have always been alliances between fame and politics, a potent mix of glamour and power. Think Elvis and Nixon, Marilyn and the Kennedys, Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Perhaps Diana, Princess of Wales, and her death the year before this series begins, marked the transition from fame to celebrity. Her death is only mentioned in a clip from Prince Harry towards the end of the series.
Misogyny and exploitation were briefly mentioned but not explored -- Piers Morgan was described as “exploiter in chief”. Music promoters, magazine and website editors, PR professionals are all shown as turning celebrities into cash cows. The programme admits that young working-class women stars were given a rough ride. The series shrieked loud and clear, but did not name or address what to me was a silent cry for help – the grotesque transformation of these averagely pretty young women into Thunderbird puppets. Breast enhancements – sometimes extreme – are it seems almost de rigueur, closely followed by lip fillers and eyebrow shaping.
Celebrities are usually young people, sometimes very young, of ordinary background who by participating in the ladders and snakes of visual and social media -- Big Brother, Pop Idol, to Heat Magazine, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Made in Chelsea and Love Island – achieve undreamt of stardom and wealth. The narrative of Celebrity asserted that a key development was the change in celebrities’ control over the telling of their own stories and the use of their own image – implying that there was something less exploitative about posting your own nude selfies versus those stolen by paparazzi. Bizarrely, two of the editors, xxx of Holy Moly, and Lucy Cave of Heat magazine took high moral ground. Cave admitted that the body shaming that was Heat’s stock in trade would never happen these days. Xxx spoke of another celebrity gossip site as having gone too far.
In claiming to be about “reality” and “authenticity” is the distortion of truth. Reality TV is not about reality, it gives the illusion of reality. As the programme acknowledged, the reality offered by celebrities is a front – they all have private lives and social media identities behind the front offered their millions of followers. Celebrity is based on the illusion of authenticity, that these people are just like us, when nothing could be further from the truth. The most significant element of the cult of celebrity is its relaxed attitude to the truth, and ultimately the consequences of this are playing out in Washington as we approach the inauguration of Joe Biden as president of the United States.
The Trump phenomenon is based, as many have pointed out, on lies. The greatest of these, the Big Lie as historian Professor Timothy Snyder puts it, is that he won the election, and it was stolen from him by Joe Biden. His followers do not care about the truth. The followers of celebrities do not care whether what they read is actually true or not, as long as it “rings true to them”. This level of delusion is bad enough when applied to the world of celebrities. It becomes infinitely more dangerous when applied to politicians. The programme featured three members of the Johnson family: Boris, his sister Rachel and his father, Stanley. Boris Johnson is a many times proven liar, who is sometimes compared to Donald Trump. Johnson’s followers like his clownishness. They find it refreshing. They don't care either whether he is telling the truth. The old-fashioned contract between a politician and the ordinary voter is dead and gone. Politics is in danger of falling prey to the delusory and Faustian pact between glamour and power.
Stanley Johnson and Toff, the young woman who started out on Made in Chelsea and then won I’m a Celebrity justified the value of “influencing”, implying it had more than monetary value – at the same time as having grown rich themselves presumably on its back – but fail to acknowledge that the cult of celebrity is rooted in a moral vacuum. Which has ultimately led to the storming of the capital. The documentaries conclude that celebrity is here to stay and at least benign. But should we be thinking of it more critically? Can we envisage a society without celebrity? Marcus Rashford’s lobbying for free school meals and Black Lives Matter are mentioned as signs of celebrity’s gestures towards justice and equality. But are they enough to defend it? Who gained more from the brief alliance between Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump? Arguably Alice Marie Walker, who received clemency from the President for her life sentence, but did anything actually change as a result? Since July 2020, Trump ended a 20 year hiatus in the federal death penalty – eleven fatal injections have been administered since then at the federal prison in Terre Haute Indiana, and four more are projected to take place before 20 January.