Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity

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9780865479098: Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity
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How was Nike able to take a gamble on an unknown Michael Jordan and transform itself from a $900 million company to a $9.19 billion company in less than fifteen years? Why did the artist Jeff Koons’s Balloon Flower (Magenta) sell for a record $25.7 million in 2008? What does the high school football star have in common with the Hollywood headliner? And why should an actor never, ever go to Las Vegas?

Celebrity—our collective fascination with particular people—is everywhere and takes many forms, from the sports star, notorious Wall Street tycoon, or film icon, to the hometown quarterback, YouTube sensation, or friend who compulsively documents his life on the Internet. We follow with rapt attention all the minute details of stars’ lives: their romances, their spending habits, even how they drink their coffee. For those anointed, celebrity can translate into big business and top social status, but why do some attain stardom while millions of others do not? Why are we simply more interested in certain people?

In Starstruck, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett presents the first rigorous exploration of celebrity, arguing that our desire to “celebrate” some people and not others has profound implications, elevating social statuses, making or breaking careers and companies, and generating astronomical dividends. Tracing the phenomenon from the art world to tabletop gaming conventions to the film industry, Currid-Halkett looks at celebrity as an expression of economics, geography (both real and virtual), and networking strategies.

Starstruck brings together extensive statistical research and analysis, along with interviews with top agents and publicists, YouTube executives, major art dealers and gallery directors, Bollywood players, and sports experts. Laying out the enormous impact of the celebrity industry and identifying the patterns by which individuals become stars, Currid-Halkett successfully makes the argument that celebrity is an important social phenomenon and a driving force in the worldwide economy.   

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About the Author:

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett is the author of The Warhol Economy and an assistant professor at the University of Southern California. She holds a Ph.D. in Urban Planning from Columbia University and lives in Los Angeles.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1 Celebrity Today

M and I met briefly several years ago on a tree-lined street in New York City’s West Village. He knew the man I was with, and when M said hello he introduced himself to me as well. We spoke for perhaps ninety seconds. I have not seen him since. He did ask for my e-mail address, and at some point I got an e-mail asking if I would like to be friends with him on Facebook. I accepted in the way that most of us accept Facebook friends, as long as they’re not Charles Manson.

In the several years since I first met M, I have learned a lot about his life. He works in media. He seems to fly back and forth between Los Angeles and New York at least once a week. I don’t think he has a girlfriend, but from his Facebook photos he seems to spend time with attractive women and semifamous people, and he goes to lots of parties. I pretty much always know when he’s watching a movie, getting brunch, listening to new music, unable to sleep, or feeling pensive, gloomy, or euphoric. I know what parties he goes to, what he ate for breakfast, and when he’s in Los Angeles or New York, running late for a flight to Los Angeles or New York, or anywhere else.

I am not a stalker. Every time I go on Facebook and see my “News Feed” I am assaulted with information about M. Between my log-ons, M has updated his “Status” multiple times, sometimes several times in an hour. I know about him and really about everything in his daily life with minimal effort. I can also tell that I’m not the only one fascinated with his fascination with himself. Recently, M uploaded a picture of his sofa with a laptop open and the status update, “This is my sofa view when I’m not living the glamorous life,” to which a flurry of friends commented: “all too familiar” and “without love it ain’t much” (the latter of which made no sense to me), and M was able to respond in kind. For someone who several posts later wrote “M is busy” (which also received several comments by friends), he sure has an amazing amount of time to spend online. Many people (any of his three thousand–plus Facebook friends) are reminded of the intimate details of his existence several times a day. Whether they want to know these things or not, no one ever forgets that M exists. Ironically, I’ve grown attached to M. The other day there was an entire nine-hour hiatus between status updates. I genuinely wondered what the hell was going on. As much as I’d like to say that people like M are annoying, in truth, I click on their Facebook profiles more than on the people who never update their statuses, and I notice when they have gone silent. I can’t help myself.

All of us know characters who seem to have no job, hobby, or chore other than updating their blog or Facebook status. Twitter, the online social-messaging and “microblogging” system accessible by personal digital assistant (PDA) applications, short message service (SMS) text messaging, or computer, tantalizes with the question: “What are you doing?” Users are challenged to answer in 140 characters or fewer, and they do. Dozens and dozens of times per day. We “follow” (in Twitter-speak) people’s lives via a click of a button, and people follow ours as well. Britney Spears does it. So does British comedian Stephen Fry and Hollywood heartthrob Ashton Kutcher. So does one of my favorite economists. And my graduate school adviser. And my husband (though, recently, I’ve put a stop to that). And yet their status updates, or tweets, as it were, would lead us to believe they have extraordinarily exciting lives (which some of them surely do)...so extraordinary it’s a wonder they have time to do anything other than live it. They are “off to Brazil,” “heading to the Super Bowl,” “eating brunch with Mickey in Santa Monica,” “stayed out waaaayyy too late” “pondering between steak frites and a cheeseburger at Balthazar.”

I choose to pay attention to M’s news feeds more than those of any of my other friends on Facebook for reasons I can’t fully explain. I don’t know M personally and I don’t think he is particularly remarkable, and yet I find him fascinating. But here’s something you might have picked up on already: My seemingly banal, casual interest in M, or any of the Facebook or Twitter characters each of us develops a personal affection for, is no different from our interest in the average celebrity gracing the cover of OK! magazine. The socialite may feed gossip about herself to the tabloids while M employs Twitter and Facebook, but these distinctions are pretty academic: Our interest transcends any talent these individuals may or may not have; they provide us with personal information that we really shouldn’t know, and we remain consistently engaged in their lives and want to know more. My “friend” M, the perpetual Facebook updater, is as much a star as the high-profile socialite giving us constant new information about her boyfriends, new shoes, and where she goes clubbing. We can find versions of celebrity—that collective obsession with someone—in all of our lives. And just like with Hollywood fandom, in our desire for information from him, his friends (including me) are the essential participators in cultivating M’s celebrity.

I have a particular affection for M’s updates in the way that someone else may have an interest in the New York socialite, or perhaps his or her own Facebook celebrity. I’m not entirely sure if M’s updates are true, but then again, Hollywood publicists have been spinning stories to the media since the beginning of time. Asking whether his updates are credible is missing the point. M is able to create a fabulous persona that engages a wider public in a way never possible before. M’s star power is a function of new forms of social media that allow him to share intimate information about himself and enable his “fans” to attain his personal details with very little effort.

The phenomenon of celebrity—that collective fascination with some people over others—is everywhere. The way we use Facebook and Twitter demonstrates that star power is not just about “special people in special places.” This disproportionate interest exists in the most prosaic and ordinary places and is directed at people who are not conventional stars. In fact, we confuse celebrity and its accoutrements of tabloids, TV programs, and flashbulb lights with a basic maxim: We just care about some people more than others. Celebrity on the big screen and plastered across glossy magazines is just a magnified version of a phenomenon present in our own lives.1 M is a celebrity in his Facebook world, in the way Paris Hilton is in the world at large. The high school quarterback is as much a celebrity in his small town as Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers was to America at large. And in this respect, celebrity has a significant importance in illustrating some of the fundamental principles of human and social dynamics. This process of selecting some people over others happens everywhere and almost always requires the same elements: a collective public, some type of mechanism for distributing information (whether People magazine, Facebook, or the small-town local newspaper), and interest in these people for reasons other than any contribution they make to society.

Celebrity is the special quality that some individuals possess that propels society to care more about them than about other people. This quality, most visible on the big screen, is present in every layer of society, in every pocket of the world, and in all types of social circles from Hollywood to the family reunion. Some celebrity can be chalked up to charisma, the magical trait that catalyzed the public frenzy surrounding Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy, for example. Some celebrity is sheer determination to be noticed: M spends way more time updating his Facebook page than most other members, and as a result, I’m more aware of his existence. Some celebrity is the luck of being born beautiful or being in the right place at the right time. Undoubtedly, the attainment of celebrity on the big screen or Facebook or in small-town America is not a simple formula. Not all stars achieve their status through the same means or characteristics. Yet these diverse individuals are tied together by the basic fact that we are interested in them.

This book is about celebrity as a social phenomenon that exists everywhere. Far from being frivolous, celebrity permeates our social dialogue and generates millions of dollars in revenue for celebrities themselves and the various people and companies that latch onto these individuals. A person who possesses celebrity may win elections, get the lead role in a movie, or become homecoming queen. Despite the seemingly vast difference between M and Paris Hilton, they are connected by their common attribute of being interesting to their respective collective publics. This assertion leads to many questions. What basic “rules of stardom” do celebrities abide by? Can we predict who will become a celebrity? What makes someone so captivating? What makes us want to know more about someone over another? How does celebrity work?

Before getting into the different aspects of stardom, it’s worth taking a moment to look at where we are now, which is in a state of unprecedented oversaturation and decentralization. Yes, undoubtedly, in order to be a film star one must pass through Los Angeles. But the deluge of social media has provided a virtual geography with no barriers to entry, such that people like M can permeate a collective consciousness around the world like any other celebrity. No, he will not grace the cover of US Weekly, but his wide and diverse social circle will be aware of all the intimate details of his life and may discuss him just as they would a conventional star. Similarly, Bollywood film stars (and their fans) care not at all about breaking into Western markets, and why would they? Hollywood is not the only pinnacle of celebrity. As such, celebrity is a definitive example of cultural multipolarity. Just as many argue that a central political superpower or financial center no longer exists, the point should be extended to celebrity, which increasingly has no one particular type, market, or fan base.2 People can become extraordinarily celebrated and reap the financial rewards of their celebrity without ever stepping into a film studio executive’s office. The ability to ignore the conventional channels of stardom is due to celebrity’s changing definition. Today’s celebrity is different from the past in three interweaving ways. First, anyone seems to have the chance of becoming a star. Second, we want more from our celebrities than ever before. And finally, new media and technologies make both of these trends possible.

Let’s start with the first defining trait of contemporary celebrity: anyone can be a celebrity. Yes, celebrity has always existed in smaller versions in our own lives, whether the high school quarterback or our favorite aunt. People like M have always existed on a smaller scale, but our awareness of so many people like him is a product of the massive rise of new democratic media forms. YouTube celebrities, the Gosselins, and Tila Tequila are not just celebrities within their own proximate social worlds; they are everybody-knows-your-name stars who are on the tongues of average Americans and yet for reasons we cannot pinpoint. They are not notably talented, beautiful, or starring in blockbuster films. Instead, these individuals emerge, by their own volition, through the various new entry points made available. Otherwise unknown people come out of the woodwork in the form of YouTube videos, reality TV, MySpace profiles, and obscure web-based phenomena like ROFLCon, an organization and annual conference devoted to promoting what we now call “Internet celebrities.” Great Britain is abnormally fixated on Big Brother, a reality show (with splinter series in multiple countries) that bunks up complete strangers in a confined space and records their every move in creepy, overexposed Orwellian style. Each week, a housemate is “evicted.” Meanwhile, the housemates are sequestered from all forms of media, news, or information from the outside world. Needless to say, extraordinary things occur.

Mark Frith, former editor of Britain’s celebrity tabloid heat, had an epiphany while observing Britain’s obsession with the show. He was presciently aware that despite the utter ordinariness of these people, society was fascinated with their inner workings. Voyeuristically, Britains peeked into the housemates’ lives and wanted to know everything about them, despite—or almost because of—their banality. Just by putting the characters of this reality TV show on the cover of the magazine, heat increased its circulation by 50 percent. “Anyone is now a celebrity,” Frith said. “We’ve [heat] been the first to realize this and it’s something that is helping us immensely. No one else has picked up on it.”3 Frith was onto something big. These individuals being obsessed about went on to be rewarded with TV contracts, book deals, and so forth.

Big Brother was only the beginning of a worldwide trend of making celebrities out of nobodies. Tila Tequila got a reality TV show because she was the most popular girl on MySpace (based on number of page views), and lonelygirl15 captivated the world just hanging out in her bedroom doing nothing (or so it seemed) and recording all of this nothingness on gritty YouTube footage. In Britain, Katie Price, otherwise known as “Jordan,” went from a tabloid pinup girl to reality TV star to equestrian clothing designer, author of children’s books, and novelist, earning more than £50 million for just being an ordinary girl from Brighton with a nice smile, giant breasts, and an affection for bad language and hot pink.

As celebrities themselves have changed, so has our relationship to them. Celebrities have existed since the formation of social and economic stratospheres in society. Anyplace where differences exist in social class, there will be an elite group that is revered and focused upon more than the rest.4 Early cultivation of celebrities had two important qualities. First, the public accessed stars primarily from a distance. Sightings were limited to official events, like the Oscars, which showcased the stars looking glamorous and perfect. Second, stars’ public personae were carefully constructed and micromanaged: The public rarely got a taste of them as regular people. Even though Marilyn Monroe’s life was filled with sordid and tragic tales, she still maintained an aura of glamour and sexiness. She did not truly unravel or become pathetic in a way that would challenge her stardom.

The other quality of past celebrity is that stars historically attained that position through possessing something special, whether power, talent, social status, wealth, or achievement. Leo Braudy notes in his definitive book on the history of fame, Frenzy of Renown, that Alexander the Great attained celebrity through conquering much of the known world. Later, Julius Caesar achieved renown through his creation of the Roman Empire. The French saw their aristocrats as celebrities, and the British still do. Yet possessing something special and extraordinary is not necessary to attaining contemporary celebrity. So what changed?

Madame Tussauds Wax Museum has been the definitive celebrity monument for almost two hundred years. Tussaud’s wax representations are a reflection of society’s changing relationship to stars throughout history. Born Marie Grosholtz in 1761, Tussaud herself was a young woman from Strasbourg, France. Her mother was housekeeper to Phillipe Curtius, an affluent doctor with a skill in waxworks. After years as his apprentice, Tussaud finally produced her first solo waxwork, a statue of the French Enlightenment writer and...

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