BBC Two’s recent documentary series Celebrity: A 21st Century Story is thankfully more than just a bunch of talking heads reminiscing about the singers and models who dipped in and out of the spotlight over the last couple of decades. Running for four hours in total, the series has plenty of time to consider the place that ‘celebrity culture’ has in our society, and what shapes its changing trends. Commendably, the programme’s focus is on economics, and how celebrities contribute to the revenue of profit-hungry mass media giants. A famous person will draw in viewers to a TV show, readers to a magazine or newspaper, or subscribers to a social media account, as well as making money through sales of any music or other commodities they directly contribute to. Advertisers are particularly keen to latch on to celebrities, hoping to leech on their popularity to find customers for whatever tat they’re marketing. All of this is linked in with whatever technology is currently in vogue across the media, technology which itself is driven by what is profitable.
Narrating Celebrity: A 21st Century Story
is Diane Morgan
(otherwise known for her mockumentaries in the guise of Philomena Cunk), and alongside the archive footage are interviews with journalists, paparazzi and (now-faded) stars reflecting on the highs and lows of their time in the public eye.
The series begins with what could be described as an expansion in the market. When the first set of contestants walked into the Big Brother
house and onto our screens in 2000, they also marked a shift in what we mean by a ‘celebrity’. Celebrity status was no longer just reserved for a distant few, but could also be for ‘ordinary people’. The exploits of the Big Brother
housemates (especially when they found their own pantomime villain in ‘Nasty Nick’
) were soon all over the tabloids and in office water cooler chats. Not long afterwards, the talent show format was revived, with Pop Idol
and its ilk feeding on the aspirations of any of us proles to sell out Wembley and top the charts. The new breed of talent shows emphasised the contestants’ emotional journeys, and then let the public decide whose dreams would be crushed. The phone-in vote, also used for Big Brother
, was less an exercise in democracy than a way of increasing revenue for the programme-makers; income from the cost of calls soon generated over £3 million for Pop Idol
. More money came in from CD sales; combined, runner-up and winner Gareth Gates and Will Young’s first singles sold three million copies. Big Brother
brought in a quarter of Channel 4’s advertising revenue in its early years due to its popularity. ‘Ordinary people’ being elevated to star status had become another source of profit.
TV production companies, record labels, advertisers and agents weren’t the only ones keen to make money from this new trend. Celeb-focused journals saw a boost in sales, with Heat magazine’s circulation doubling thanks to it tapping into the popularity of Pop Idol in particular. A gossipy article about any celeb needs to be accompanied by eye-catching photos, and the mid ‘00s was a lucrative time for the paparazzi. Candid shots of Fern Britton on the beach or Charlotte Church in Tesco were sold for thousands of pounds to glossy mags such as OK!, Hello! and Heat. Their online equivalents were the even trashier websites like Holy Moly! and Pop Bitch, which had the advantage of being able to share snaps and titbits with their voyeuristic viewers straight away. The push for more brazen and irreverent content led to many women celebrities being victim to body shaming and upskirting. Even a celebrity’s mental health problems and substance misuse (usually fuelled by being in the limelight) have been turned into a spectacle by websites and print. One of the most severe examples was in 2007 when singer Britney Spears (struggling in her personal life) confronted one of the photographers stalking her, and attacked his car with an umbrella. This turned out to be another goldmine for the paparazzi who sold pictures of the incident for $400,000.
A consequence of the profitability of celebrity gossip magazines and blogs was a decline in newspaper sales, with tabloids losing millions of readers in the mid ‘00s. One way they responded was by branching out online. A newspaper’s website, unlike its printed version, can be used to find out how many people read each article, just by measuring how many clicks they attract. This data, along with statistics on the demographics of those who clicked, can then determine the interests of readers so that adverts can be targeted to their most receptive audience. This advertising then, of course, provides revenue for the newspaper and the products being flogged. These websites are really just marketing platforms, with articles to draw the punters in. Other tactics used by newspapers have been far more surreptitious and cynical. Journalists found material for stories by digging into the tax and medical records of celebs and their families, and hacking potentially thousands of peoples’ phones, most notoriously for The News of the World.
Celebrities had lost control of what details of their lives were made public. Some, like Britney Spears, suffered under the pressure of being constantly scrutinised and used. Others turned this to their own advantage, such as Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, who both became famous through ‘sex tapes’ being leaked onto the internet. This exposure gave them hundreds of millions of fans, who became the audiences for their newly commissioned reality TV shows. Having a fly-on-the-wall documentary is a tried-and-tested way for celebs to keep on delivering new content to fans; model Katie ‘Jordan’ Price and the Osbournes had discovered this by 2002. And when broadcasting their usual routines becomes stale, there would be the option of reinventing themselves by signing up for Celebrity Big Brother, Strictly Come Dancing or I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!.
Capitalism turns us all into commodities, things to be bought and sold, but celebrities take this to an extreme by commodifying everything about their lives, and turning themselves into a brand. And this brand has to both stand out and be malleable to what the public supposedly wants. Around 2010, this approach morphed into the new genre of ‘structured reality’ TV programmes like The Only Way Is Essex and Made In Chelsea. These shows stuck to the template of having cameras follow people round, but with the twists that these are ‘real people’ and that their lives have been made more watchable by producers giving them scenarios to improvise, such as ‘x dumps y after being told y was flirting with z’. The participants’ public profiles were raised not just by the shows, but also by their social media accounts, which have become an increasingly important way for celebrities to manage their image, or have it managed for them. When pop band One Direction were manufactured from X-Factor contestants, each member had their own social media profiles to gauge the views of their fanbase. A Facebook page or Twitter account became a valuable combination of instant market research, an advert which distributes itself and, especially importantly, a means to sell endorsed products. Viewers of matchmaking show Love Island use an app not only to vote for contestants but also to buy whichever design of bikinis are being worn on that week’s episode. The app has generated £12 million in sales for ITV and its brands. Stars have been endorsing products for decades, but what was emerging was the ‘influencer’, who uses social media to tie together their fame and what they market. The biggest influencers have had enough clout to shape trends, and not just in what clothes or jewellery people buy. For example, Kylie Jenner rose to prominence by being part of the Kardashian family on their TV show. By the age of 20, she had over 100 million followers on social media app Instagram. Because of her influence, one message she posted criticising Instagram’s rival Snapchat apparently took £1 billion off the latter’s stock market value.
Social media isn’t just used by influencers, it also helps create them. Bedroom broadcasters became a new type of celebrity from around 2012, when 4G technology had spread enough to enable more people to make their own videos and upload them to YouTube. A gaming or make-up vlogger whose videos get hundreds of millions of views a month represents hundreds of millions of potential customers to target with adverts and endorsements. By 2015, ‘YouTube creators’ had become more popular and influential than ‘traditional entertainment stars’, according to a survey carried out
Social media has become the main way for anyone with a public image to stay relevant. The Royal family, who a few years earlier would have thought that such things were beneath one, also jumped on the bandwagon, led by Meghan Markle. Before she married into The Firm she had already used her acting roles to attract readers to her lifestyle blog, which brought her tens of thousands in sponsorship and endorsements. Now, she and Harry have their ‘Sussex Royal’ Instagram account to promote themselves, while other Windsors also have profiles on Twitter and Facebook. This allows them to shape whatever pronouncements they make, without needing to go through traditional intermediaries like the press. Politicians have done the same, and Donald Trump took full advantage of this, using his Twitter feed to criticise much of the mainstream media and inflict his many deranged thoughts on us.
The rise to power of both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson can be attributed in part to how they celebrified themselves by building their brands through the media. Johnson came from a journalistic background, and Trump was the star of The Apprentice USA, so they were both aware of the need for media presence. Before Trump started presenting The Apprentice in 2003, his business had been in the doldrums, and the show made his companies and therefore him look bigger than they had really been. As the documentary says, Trump then ‘used the tools of reality TV not only to win viewers, but to win votes’. Boris Johnson was keen to use any and every publicity stunt to further his career, including appearances on Have I Got News For You and EastEnders. It’s nothing new for politicians to use TV to talk at the public, but recent years have seen them using the medium to try and make themselves more relatable. Johnson himself once quipped during a speech ‘if Parliament were a reality TV show, then the whole lot of us, I’m afraid, would have been voted out of the jungle by now’. Politicians have seen how celebrities use TV to gain a following and want to ape this for themselves. Jeremy Corbyn went on Gogglebox, Ann Widdecombe and Ed Balls rhumbaed on Strictly Come Dancing, George Galloway pretended to be a cat on Celebrity Big Brother, and even Boris Johnson’s family have got in on the act, with his father and sister slumming it on I’m A Celebrity… Interviewed for the documentary, ex-Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Balls says that being a politician put a ‘thick prism of glass’ between him and other people, and his appearance on Strictly broke down this barrier so people could see the real him. He adds that doing Gangnam Style meant that ‘I’d done my bit to make the country feel a little bit better’.
While politicians have tried to tap into the world of celebrity to get support, celebrities have also used their status to make a political stand. Kim Kardashian was influential enough to encourage Donald Trump to pardon and release Alice Marie Johnson, who had been convicted of drug trafficking. And actresses attending the 2018 Grammy and Golden Globe award ceremonies wore black and brought Me Too and Time’s Up activists with them to the red carpet in support of the movements, given impetus when film producer Harvey Weinstein was revealed as a sex offender.
Celebrity status now carries some political power, as well as economic power. How this has been expressed has changed over the years, alongside the developments in media technology, from print journalism and TV through to the internet and, especially, social media. And as technology has become more sophisticated, it has led to more precise ways of analysing us as consumers and pushing us to follow celebrity trends and buy more. Watching reality TV, or flicking through a copy of Heat, or subscribing to a YouTube influencer is often just a ‘guilty pleasure’, a brief escape from our own humdrum, stressful lives. But as Celebrity: A 21st Century Story illustrates, celebrity culture has been shaped by what the media industry finds to be most profitable for its owners, and so manipulates and exploits both celebs and ourselves.