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What is a celebrity, and why do we care?

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APRIL 30, 2021

Last July, I created a Twitter account for my social media class that was supposed to document Youtuber drama. I used a photo of Jeffree Star as my profile picture and reported on the hot topics of the time, such as Shane Dawson’s downfall and certain TikTok creators’ COVID-19 superspreader parties. It had very lukewarm success in terms of gaining “clout,” but it worked well enough for the assignment, and I ended up walking away with an A and promptly forgot all about it.

It wasn’t until the next time I opened my Twitter app a few months later that I noticed a strange message in my inbox. Someone had mistaken me for Jeffree Star and had sent me a very sincere and heartfelt message detailing how they wanted to meet me very badly and even made a YouTube account in order to get enough recognition to be on my radar. They said they wished they could be my friend and then ended the message insisting that I probably wasn’t going to see it since they were “just a loser, a nobody.”

After taking a few minutes to understand what was happening, I was absolutely stunned. Since I have never had any sort of following, I had never seen a message like this before, and I started thinking about its implications. How was it possible that someone looked up to Jeffree Star this fervently, even during a time where he was being “canceled” for very legitimate reasons (namely racism and manipulating others)? What did it feel like to be Jeffree, to have messages like this flooding your inbox every day to boost your ego, no matter how bad of a person you were? What kind of existence was this, for both the celebrity and the fan?

Many of us spend a lot of time looking at media involving celebrities, and while some of us just view it as a hobby or a way to spend free time (Hannah Shlesinger, a student at UC Berkeley, says she follows internet drama mostly because “it’s entertaining”), there is a growing concern that fan culture and celebrity worship are getting out of hand, mostly because of social media. We only have to look at the fiasco that was the COVID-19 “Imagine” video in March 2020 to see how magnified the missteps of celebrities are, how much our adoration of them inflates their sense of importance and how harshly we judge them for it.

Every time someone gets canceled or praised, it sparks a conversation about whether this type of hyperfixation on idolizing or demonizing people is humane, whether we’re all wasting time engaging with this stuff and whether this is bad for people’s mental health. With all these conflicting opinions floating in the zeitgeist, is it actually bad? And why do we even care?

To answer these questions, we first have to define what a celebrity is. Josh Jackson, assistant director of media studies at UC Berkeley and specialist on the intersection of popular culture and industry, defines a celebrity as someone who attracts public attention.

“Not everyone who’s in the public eye is a celebrity,” Jackson explains. “If you tell a friend that you saw so-and-so walking down Telegraph Avenue, and they’re like, ‘Who?’ and you’re like, ‘Oh, you know, that person. He was the love interest for this character in this movie, he was also in this other movie,’ and they think, ‘Oh, I wonder what he was doing in Berkeley?’ That person is not a celebrity. But if you say you saw so-and-so celebrity walking down Telegraph Avenue, and your friends say, ‘Oh, what were they like? What were they doing? Did they seem nice?’ That’s a celebrity. Because there’s that added interest in wanting to know what they’re really like in their personal life.”

By this definition, anyone who even has a meager following, so long as it is intense and devoted, could be classified as a celebrity, whether they’re a multimillionaire actor or a Twitch streamer. According to Jackson, a celebrity is not defined by the actual level of public fame someone has, but by the investment fans have into their persona. This seems to fit in with the general ethos of how social media gives an opportunity for everyone to create their own following from scratch and for people who already have followings to foster more intimate, close-seeming connections to their followers.

One chief concern about celebrity media now is the way that social media has morphed the way we consume celebrity news and interact with celebrities. But how much has this actually changed from the before the internet era, and how much of it is just the same patterns with new technology to house them?

Edwin Lin, UC Berkeley professor of sociology and teacher of Sociology 167, a class about virtual communities and social media, says this: “In the past, basically you have a lot of mediated interactions between the public and celebrities … But now, because you can self broadcast, because people can also self follow, which means that you can choose whoever you want to follow and whoever you want to engage with, very easily you have that kind of direct access and direct contact.”

One chief concern about celebrity media now is the way that social media has morphed the way we consume celebrity news and interact with celebrities. But how much has this actually changed from the before the internet era, and how much of it is just the same patterns with new technology to house them?

The easy interpretation of this is to assume that there was an abrupt switch between the and pre and post-internet eras in how direct our access to celebrities are, and this is what fosters the intensity in which our celebrity culture manifests itself today — some kind of lapse in the homeostasis of how we’re used to being kept at a distance from celebrities. But Jackson insists it was a more gradual process.

“If we consider a history of celebrity, we can see, at least according to one narrative, a history of increasing intimacy,” Jackson says. “In the days of film, celebrities were literally larger than life, a dozen feet tall on the big screen. With television, we invited celebrities into our home, in the intimacy of our domestic environment, and we had a much longer ongoing relationship with them. Oprah fans would tune into Oprah an hour a day, five days a week, for decades now to date, not only to see what she’s talking about and who she’s talking to, but to further engage with their appreciation for Oprah, as a person … So from film to television, we see this increasing intimacy and potentially tighter bonds through repetition. And in social media, this is further extended.”

Despite the fact that social media does increase our intimacy with celebrities, Jackson believes this is just a logical next step in a process of crumbling boundaries that was already happening. One concern with this increased intimacy, however, is that social media can foster unhealthily intense and possibly even delusionally close relationships between fans and their idols. The rise of “stan culture” over the past several years might give people the impression that these delusional relationships are on the rise, along with a more general sense of rabid, uncritical engagement with celebrities.

“I think it kind of points to how being a follower of someone is in itself kind of a problematic, or like, a difficult position or identity to take up,” Shlesinger says, expressing her concerns about stan culture. When you idolize a real person to the point where you’re like, this person is basically a god, when you think about how people can’t stand anyone talking terribly about God, you know, like it doesn’t matter what they do, people won’t respond well to it.”

But Jackson feels like the dangers of crazy fans are overblown in cultural conversations.

“There have always been fans who have taken things too far. And at the same time, there have always been discourses found in the media about obsessive fans,” Jackson says. “On the other hand, the interactivity fostered through the immediacy of social media allows celebrities to — on purpose or as a side effect of their celebrity — martial fans, that someone can tell their followers, ‘this is unjust,’ and encourage their followers to take action.”

This might lead to events such as Demi Lovato’s attempt last week to get everyone riled up about a frozen yogurt place using what she deemed to be diet culture terminology to sell its products. Because of social media, celebrities can point to things they like or dislike, think are just or unjust and their fans can follow their lead until, in extreme cases, they create a movement.

But why exactly do people join these movements? Why do we feel the need to foster communities with others who admire the same people we do, and why do we even admire other people in the first place?

Jackson says the allure of the celebrity for the fan is threefold. First, the fan can live vicariously through them, and experience, if only tangentially, a life of fame, wealth and glamour. Second, the fan hopes to get a behind-the-scenes look at how a celebrity does their craft because we want an opportunity to better appreciate it. And third, the celebrity represents something ideologically to the fan.

Celebrities are a source of public fascination,” Jackson says on this last point. “And this fascination can be drawn by seeing a performance of identity, etiology, beliefs, values, perspectives, aesthetics, that the person doesn’t find in their immediate community. (Someone can be) looking around them and feeling like, ‘there’s no one here to use as a model for how to be, no one reflects my interests, beliefs, etc, etc.’ But there can be a celebrity to do so, a celebrity who models values, a self, a form of self-presentation that’s meaningful to them. They follow them online as a role model of someone who’s not just talent is important to them, but someone’s performance of identity.”

Lin agrees that a lot of our fascination with celebrities has to do with personality and identity. “The following of a person is not as much about that person as it is about the community that that person creates, and that person represents a certain personality or a certain culture. So if you think about a person, you know, they could be sarcastic, they could be funny, they could be dry, they could be very intelligent, logical. These all create a community that actually resembles those same characteristics, kind of like a culture based around their personality … It just creates an environment and people like that environment, and it’s probably because they resemble that environment too, they have some of those qualities or they like those qualities.”

So not only do celebrities have traits that we would like to have, but they often have traits that we already have. And we like them because they can serve as a model for us on how to use those traits in a way we find admirable.

But if celebrities play a role in our sense of our identity, is this a bad or a good thing? After all, some people may say that it’s bad to look up to people too intensely, and it’s important to foster your own sense of identity outside the influence of idols. But Shlesinger notes that there is a difference between blindly idolizing someone and just taking interest in them.

“I definitely don’t idolize them,” Shlesinger says about the various authors and YouTubers she follows. “ I would say my interest in them comes from a place of like, finding them inspiring. They’re successful in a field that I’m interested in. I’m more invested in, like, what they’re doing.”

Not everyone who follows a celebrity, whether niche or mainstream, is doing it out of a need to attune their own identity, and if they are, it certainly isn’t the entire reason. It’s possible to admire someone and aspire to certain aspects of their identity without adopting their full persona and trying to turn every aspect of your being into them. But, of course, there are people out there who follow celebrities more deliberately and take things too far. The internet may make it seem like people who identify with celebrities to an unhealthy degree are multiplying, with people trying to replicate their looks and mannerisms online.

But Jackson asserts that most people know that their relationships with celebrities aren’t as deep as their relationships with real people in their lives. “In my experiences, talking with fans, I think they’re well aware that a YouTube celebrity who has 1.2 million followers and is following 672, and that you know, they see the power dynamics performed again and again, in terms of followers versus followings, in terms of how many comments, on a post where a celebrity says something vs someone talking to the celebrity, in norms where if a celebrity says something, the person is probably going to respond, but if a fan says something, the celebrity is probably not going to respond to that. I think most fans are likely constantly reminded of the power imbalances here,” he says.

As I listened to Jackson talk about this, I thought about the message I got from the stranger on my drama Twitter account. It was true that they seemed to look up to Jeffree Star in a creepy, concerning way, but it was also true that they seemed to be aware of how little of a chance they had at accomplishing this. Yet, they still reached out, implying they thought there might’ve been a chance that they’d get a response. Even though it might be true that most adults can keep a healthy distance from the people they admire, I thought about all the young people, as I assumed my “fan” was, who may not have developed the critical reasoning skills yet to understand they were never going to actually interact with a celebrity. Was there more of a concern for children and teens on social media?

But Jackson asserts that most people know that their relationships with celebrities aren’t as deep as their relationships with real people in their lives.

Lin doesn’t appear to be very worried. “Yes, it’s a concern, but it’s a concern about anything, meaning it’s a concern about walking down the street and looking at ads or, you know, going to the movies, watching TV. I think that generally speaking, this is a kind of narrative that’s often overblown where we exceptionalize something, we demonize something and we like to demonize technology or new trends that are fearful, and we’re worried about, especially when it comes to young people, we panic about these kinds of things as a society. The reality is, in like five, 10 years, this is all going to seem normal. No one’s going to care.”

He continues on that there are many more important things at stake when it comes to raising children.

“I think the larger question, which, unfortunately, it’s not sexy to talk about, but you know, the truth is, when it comes to kids, it has more to do with parent-child relationships, right? Like if you have a healthy relationship with your mom or dad, or, you know, your family, chances are you’re gonna be okay, like no matter what you watch, what movies you see, what influences you have online, you’ll filter them.”

For children who are spending a lot of time online following celebrities, the chief concern would be not with the celebrities, but with their parents offering them the right resources to thrive. But this still leaves a lasting concern. There are adults who don’t necessarily over-identify or obsess about celebrities. Rather, they simply feel anxious about the time they spend on social media, which often includes going down rabbit holes about celebrity drama. They may feel like they should be doing something more productive, and feel guilty about wasting time. But both Jackson and Lin think that it’s not that big of a deal.

“If people are following celebrities, it’s because those celebrities represent something that’s important to them, something that’s useful to them, something that brings them pleasure,” Jackson says. “I don’t see interest in celebrities or specific celebrities as any different from interest in a particular sport or sports team, or a particular genre like sci-fi. People are attracted to these because it’s meaningful to them. And if it’s meaningful to them, then obviously they’re finding it useful or important or applicable to their lives.”

Lin has a similar outlook, comparing it to people who may say basketball is a more constructive use of time. “We could say, ‘Oh, it’s healthier. It’s X, Y or Z.’ But it’s also, you know, it could be too competitive or aggressive, there could be negative sides to that just as much as negative sides to following people in the same way. I could probably say following people helps you engage with people. Maybe it helps you empathize, maybe it helps you have more understanding or learn more about how other people think or how other people engage. I don’t think it’s better or worse.”

Even Shlesinger, who expressed guilt about spending so much time looking at internet drama, was able to forgive herself. “On the one hand, I’m like, yeah, this is a total waste of time, I need to be doing my homework, I could be reading a book, I could be learning something. I could really be doing anything else. But then I think, like, a lot of people binge-watch television shows, or they binge-watch other things, or people spend our time doing, like, whatever … People have watched, like, all the sitcoms ever, like ‘The Office’ and ‘Parks and Rec’ and stuff. And that’s not for me at all … But on the other hand, I can put up, like, a vlog, or something. And it’s the same thing for me where it’s like mindless entertainment.”

Most people can’t spend all their time doing something productive, and sometimes it’s necessary to unwind and consume some mindless entertainment. Whether you choose to do that by looking at celebrity drama, watching TV, playing a sport or doing some other hobby, it doesn’t really seem to matter that much.

“People have free time and they use that free time for whatever interests them.” Lin says. “In the past, they were interested in TV or video games, or you know, books or the radio or whatever. This is just probably a different way. And it’s in some ways more sociable.”

So go ahead and watch that hourlong “documentary” on YouTube about Selena Gomez, Jake Paul, The Doors or whoever else. It may be good for your socializing and identity, and you probably don’t have anything better to do anyway.

Contact Landon Iannamico at [email protected]

MAY 02, 2021

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