Histories    |     Facts    |     Archives    |     About Us    |     Contact Us

From the Gods to Reality TV Stars

A History of Celebrity

In our celebrity-obsessed culture, tabloids, TV shows, Internet blogs, and even legitimate newspapers are often full of the latest celebrity news, gossip, and scandals. Indeed, it seems like our current society cannot get enough information about the daily lives of celebrities. Yet, how did celebrities become such an important force in our culture? Were we always so awe-struck by the lifestyles of the rich and the famous? While people have always shared a certain obsession for the fantastic and the famous, the notion of celebrity, as well as the types of people termed “celebrities,” has evolved greatly throughout the ages. 

Gods and Olympic Athletes

The first celebrities of the ancient world were the powerful and awesome gods of Greek and Roman pantheons. (In fact, the word “celebrity” has its roots in the language of the ancient Roman civilization. The word we now know to mean as “a condition of being famous” or “a famous person” derived from the Latin word celeber, meaning “frequented or populous.”) Citizens of these civilizations believed the gods had a direct impact on their lives and it was, therefore, important to know about the gods’ own personal lives. This need to know led to the creation of myths, which personalized the gods and involved them in ancient celebrity scandals that titillated and excited the common people. While monarchs and political leaders were also important celebrities of the time, their fame could not compete with that of the gods.

During ancient civilization, amateur and professional athletes also began to make an impact on the celebrity culture. Victors in the ancient Olympic games were treated as hometown heroes and were often elevated to god-like status. In the ancient Roman civilization, gladiators (the equivalent of today’s professional athletes) were also revered by the common people for their heroics and seemingly superhuman strength. 

Celebration of Sainthood

As Europe moved into the Dark Ages, a time when athletics and the arts were largely forgotten, monarchs and rulers continued to maintain celebrity status, while religious figures, saints, and martyrs took on newfound fame. The miraculous lives and fascinating deaths of the saints lent excitement to the lives of common people when there was often little else to be excited about. But in a time when only a small number of people could read, fame could be spread only by word of mouth, and few people were rewarded with any lasting celebrity. 

Rise of the Arts

During the Renaissance period, as Europe emerged from its long neglect of the arts, painters, sculptors, and artists of all types began to take on a level of notoriety. This period of appreciation for the arts lent a sense of celebrity to artists who were noticed for their works and their personal achievements. It was a time when artists would begin to trump political and religious figures for supreme celebrity--a trend that would continue into later centuries.

While the celebrities of the ancient and early modern civilizations were able to achieve moderate and sometimes lasting fame, mass celebrity as we now know it would not begin until the advent of the printing and publishing industry in the late eighteenth century (Orth 2004). The rise of printing was accompanied by a huge increase in the literacy rate of common people, allowing celebrity news to reach a mass audience for the first time. Suddenly, the lives of authors, political figures, war heroes, and other celebrities could now be read about by people around the world. Print gave normal, average people the opportunity to become intimately knowledgeable about the individuals they most admired.

Celebrities in the Modern World

As print media expanded into film and radio in the early 1900s, movie stars began to be the true A-list celebrities. The bright lights and warm sun of Hollywood became a perfect setting for the city of the stars, and the lives of these celebrities became increasingly more interesting to regular people. As radio began to make its way into the average home in the 1920s and 1930s, professional athletes also began to take on star status, as their games and exploits could be broadcast over the air for an entirely new audience (Orth 2004). The rise of television in the 1950s only cemented the premier level of celebrity that film stars, professional athletes, and television actors now shared. While political and religious figures would still maintain some celebrity, their fame paled in comparison to the new celebrities of the modern era.

In the twenty-first century, the rise of the Internet has only continued to nurture a culture obsessed with celebrity. It is now possible to know intimate details about a famous person’s life by simply entering a few keywords into an Internet search engine. The emergence of reality television shows in the late 1990s has also made it possible for average people with little talent or athleticism (but a hint of charisma) to enjoy their 15 minutes of fame on the television screen. Reality television has now made it possible to be famous not for doing anything in particular, but simply for being. As the meaning of celebrity continues to evolve and redefine itself in a quickly changing world, there is no telling who the general public will be obsessed with next.

-- Posted May 9, 2007

References

Halpern, Jake. 2007. Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America's Favorite Addiction. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Orth, Maureen. 2004. The Importance of Being Famous: Behind the Scenes of the Celebrity-Industrial Complex. New York: H. Holt.