OCTOBER 21, 2020
IT TICKLES ME that a public historian named Greg Jenner has written a history of celebrity. Those famous sisters with whom he shares a name do not appear in Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen, but he does name-check their more famous sister. (Is any book on celebrity complete without a mention of Kim Kardashian?) But that and other seemingly obligatory references to pouts and Instagram are made mainly in passing, for this is not a tut-tutting book about 21st-century celebrity culture. Instead, Dead Famous is a gambol through history that seeks to disillusion us of the idea that celebrity is a solely hyper-modern phenomenon.
Jenner is an author, broadcaster, and consultant on the much-loved British children’s television show Horrible Histories. As he explains in the introduction to Dead Famous, he originally planned to write what would have been the first biography of Bill Richmond — the American bare-knuckle boxer who became Britain’s first black sporting celebrity in the 1800s — but found himself more curious about the history of fame. Is it inherently anachronistic, he wondered, to describe a 19th-century figure as a “celebrity”?
Dead Famous ends in the 1950s, where many books on celebrity culture often begin. As a result, the book does not offer a detailed exploration of the effects of television, the internet and social media. Instead we see how instrumental modernity’s earlier technologies were in propelling celebrity culture. Jenner is explicit about the importance of print media: newspapers spread tales of celebrities but also helped to form and solidify the “general public” to which they would appeal.
While Jenner’s oldest references are to the Bronze Age idea of fame, he argues that celebrity emerges in the early 1700s — thanks in part to the invention of the daily newspaper in 1702. The first figure worthy of the nomenclature is Doctor Henry Sacheverell. In 1709, the English clergyman gave an incendiary speech on “false brethren” from the pulpit of St Paul’s Cathedral. Crowds thronged to hear him speak, and the Whig government’s ministers attempted to try him for sedition. After he was charged with high crimes and misdemeanors and suspended, riots broke out in his defense. He was a political rebel, a “living martyr.” He dined with the Tory hoi polloi and toured the country. His speech became a best seller, shifting over 100,000 copies and his image was everywhere, reproduced on cloth and wax. It is particularly this emergence of Henry Sacheverell, the lucrative brand, that for Jenner makes him “every inch the modern celebrity.”
Jenner defines his concept of celebrity several times in Dead Famous, drawing on the ideas of historians like Simon Morgan, for whom a celebrity was “a known individual who has become a marketable commodity.” Here is one of the factors on which Jenner’s idea of celebrity hinges. The “micro-economy” around Sacheverell means he was not merely famous or renowned, but specifically a celeb. For celebrity is the “trialogue” between a profit-oriented media industry, an interesting individual, and a hungry audience.
It is common for books on celebrity culture to talk about the public’s relationship with it as a kind of “need.” Celebrities “help us belong; they glue us together,” Jenner writes. But today, with the COVID-19 pandemic and protests for racial justice, celebrities seem to be overestimating the extent to which the public needs them, after all. As Amanda Hess wrote of Gal Gadot and company’s cringeworthy “Imagine” video, “their contributions suggest that the very appearance of a celebrity is a salve.” Celebrity culture has always seemed to easily accommodate both “ironic detachment and zealous emotional investment” but as Jenner also writes, “audiences are complex and rebellious.” What Arwa Mahdawi has called “the great celebrity backlash of 2020,” accompanied by the biting command “open your purse,” shows a disdain that threatens to give way to what is truly frightening for the celebrity: apathy. Jenner claims his focus isn’t on contemporary celebrity but rather to ask where it began, what has changed in the centuries since, and what has remained the same. But if the adage says you can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been, then there is an implicit question in this book about what celebrity’s origins tell us about its future.
From feuds to fandom, Jenner situates the beginnings of almost every facet of contemporary celebrity culture in an earlier age. Our preoccupation with celebrity bodies is foreshadowed in the stories of Eugen Sandow and Veronica Lake. Sandow (born Friedrich Wilhelm Müller in Prussia in 1867) became a famous strongman and a “prophet of physical purity” in the late 1800s/early 1900s thanks to his impressive musculature. The public were enamored, inspired, and all too happy to buy his cocoa drinks and nutritional supplements. In the 1940s, an era we more commonly associate with celebrity, actress Veronica Lake’s blonde peekaboo bangs caused such a stir that Life magazine went into disturbingly forensic detail to describe her hair for the reader: her head boasted “some 150,000 hairs […] of 0.0024 inches in cross section. The hair varies in length from 17 inches in front to 24 inches in back and falls 8 inches below shoulders.”
But while fans examined Sandow’s and Lake’s bodies with obsessive precision, the celebrity body has also long been a site for fantasy and projection. Jenner quotes film theorist James Monaco on the idea of the celebrity as “quasar”: it is “not who they are or what they do, but what we think they are that fascinates us.” In a way then, the person themselves is very nearly irrelevant. This idea is illustrated particularly well in the case of those who came to represent much larger ideas of race and nation.
Daniel Lambert, born 1770, gained his celebrity for weighing 53 stone. From 1806, when he began exhibiting himself to earn money, to the year he died in 1809, the Englishman was depicted in paintings and prints as a John Bull figure (the English equivalent of Uncle Sam), a patriotic symbolic weapon contrasting Napoleon. A few years earlier in Belfast, in the tense months after the Irish Rising of 1803, a younger, smaller symbolic weapon was forged. Master Betty — William Henry West Betty — debuted as a child actor in Belfast after his Unionist father saw the patriotic potential in his young son. His father was on the money, and audiences “went berserk for him.” By 1804, Bettymania was in full swing. Jenner describes Master Betty as a “human Rorschach test [who was] small and beautiful and perfect and innocent”: a contrasting image to his surroundings. Likewise, the Great Depression in America birthed the all-singing, all-dancing, “blonde-ringleted” Shirley Temple to cheer America out of the biggest financial crisis it had ever known. A darker story, of course, is that of Khoikhoi woman Sara Baartman, who became famous for the grotesque “fascination” her body held particularly for those who saw it as proof of black inferiority. In Baartman’s case, racism was the unifying force, but all four figures were avatars used to foster a sense of white national cohesion in tumultuous times.
It’s the gap between person and persona that allows for the projection of unifying myths, for good or ill, but that gap can also sow distrust between a celebrity and their audience. One man managed to make a business of that suspicion. A large section of Dead Famous is dedicated to the “grand emperor of self-promotional hoaxes,” P. T. Barnum. Barnum’s early ruses were infamous in their brazenness. He bought Joice Heth, an enslaved woman, in 1835 and publicized her as the 161-year-old nurse of George Washington. Her autopsy, of course, revealed that she was no older than her 80s. His Feejee mermaid was not a beautiful mythical creature but a frightening and crude chimera of a monkey and a fish sewn together. Being exposed meant little to Barnum, for he recognized that despite the protests, his audience always returned.
However, this game between a showman and an audience willing to suspend their disbelief to engross themselves in an entertaining story is one that must be played carefully. Ziegfeld of the eponymous Follies and his wife, Anna Held, toyed with their audience and the media in a similar way, organizing hoaxes and planting rumors until it backfired: in 1906, Held and Ziegfeld were traveling into Pennsylvania by train when Held’s satchel containing $120,000 worth (almost $3.5 million today) of jewels and cash that was stolen. It took a statement from the police to convince the media and public the incident was not a publicity stunt. Ziegfeld and Held had perhaps overestimated how long the public and the media would play along with them.
Other cultural historians and writers have also attempted to define celebrity in relation to its cousin: fame. Essayist William Hazlitt seemed to define celebrity by negation when describing fame as “not popularity, the shout of the multitude, the idle buzz of fashion, the venal puff, the soothing flattery of favor or of friendship.” For historian Daniel J. Boorstin, a celebrity was “a person who is well known for his well-knownness” and celebrity itself was a corruption of “deserved fame.” For his part, Jenner demarcates between celebrity, fame, and renown. The latter is being known primarily for your work. Fame is too but with the caveat of some interest in your personal life, what Jenner calls gossip. His definition of celebrity rejects Boorstin’s “celebrity cynicism”; in Dead Famous, “celebrity isn’t the antithesis of talent; instead, it’s to experience a very distinctive, intense type of public reputation.”
If it isn’t just journalistic hyperbole and celebrity culture is indeed “burning,” where are we headed next? Could the sudden thrusting of other not-so-glamorous figures like Dr. Anthony Fauci into the spotlight provide a clue? Fauci is known for his work, his image is now familiar to millions across the world, but his private life is not really consumed as human entertainment. That sounds like renown. But then he appeared on the cover of InStyle magazine, sitting by a pool in an unbuttoned shirt and sunglasses. Then he threw the first pitch at MLB Opening Day. There are Fauci bobbleheads and socks. Fauci-mania has already waned if not mostly dissipated already. But that sudden and intense attention, both positive and negative, at this specific moment in time, is revealing. “I believe, in fact I’m certain, that the country, in a very stressful time, needed a symbol of someone who tells the truth, which I do,” Fauci told the Financial Times. Who else but a public figure in limbo between renown and celebrity could be asked and answer so plainly about the meaning of their own fame? He is perhaps a product of the increasing self-awareness with which we anoint figures that reflect the anxieties of our age, in the same way that the celebrity of Lambert and Temple reflected the anxieties of theirs.
But Fauci, turned into a political football, is far more of a divisive figure now than Lambert and Temple were in their own time. Celebrity has felt so much more acutely political, the only way a public figure might transcend these divisions is in death. For, as the recent passing of actor Chadwick Boseman has shown, there is nothing like the ritualistic collective grief that emerges after the death of a celebrity to remind us of the very old and universal mythic tendencies that underpin it. Jenner declares he was previously ambivalent about celebrity. The catalyst that resulted in his vivid fascination was David Bowie’s death in 2016. Had the book been written before his death, or had Bowie never died and Jenner not witnessed the public grief that made him realize he had “undervalued the emotional power of fame,” he admits Dead Famous would have been “snarkier.”
Throughout, Jenner is funny and attuned to the inherently ridiculous aspects of celebrity, but there is also a persistent underlayer of empathy and horror both at what people will do to gain celebrity and for the human tragedies it leaves in its wake. The book is all the better for having steered away from snark. It is still a lighter popular history written for a general audience, but Jenner treats the subject of celebrity with the enlightened touch of somebody who has over four years of research evolved from not knowing there were Kardashians other than Kim to finding a viewpoint on celebrity culture that avoids the stereotypical eye-rolling of op-eds and the heavy intellectualism of cultural theory.
Is this book a condemnation of celebrity culture? Jenner refers to it as a parasitic system, a machine in which celebrities are cogs. And the people who follow them are portrayed intermittently as intense and obsessive in adoration one minute and apathetic and even cruel the next. We threaten to kidnap their children, send them body hair, stand outside their hotel rooms all night, and uncritically accept the most implausible and cruel gossip about them. Jenner, in describing celebrity as a “grim purgatory,” elicits a sense of pity I was not anticipating at this particularly fraught moment in time, but which nonetheless seemed to identify the unexpected and unspoken emotion evoked watching celebrities flounder and stutter in their attempts to remain relevant. And yet this is how it survives. It finds a way to cleave to our all our instincts, good or bad. Dead Famous’s narrative inadvertently demonstrates the tenacity of celebrity culture. Even political division in the end is no match: celebrity began with politics, with Sacheverell. No matter how vapid and useless it looks in the face of war, disease, and poverty, celebrity culture finds a way to insinuate itself, knowing we will always need comfort, inspiration, and scapegoats. Less like a machine and more like a living creature, “more slippery than a fresh-caught eel,” it adapts.
Aida Amoako is a freelance writer from London. Her writing about arts, literature, and culture has appeared in publications such as The Times Literary Supplement, Art Review, Hyperallergic, and The New Inquiry.