What Makes a “Celebrity”? It’s Not in the Definition

Wednesday, March 292 min read

In Self-Consciousness: Memoirs, John Updike wrote, “Celebrity, even the modest sort that comes to writers, is an unhelpful exercise in self-consciousness. Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face. As soon as one is aware of being ‘somebody,’ to be watched and listened to with extra interest, input ceases, and the performer goes blind and deaf in his over-animation. One can either see or be seen.”

Beyoncé. Thomas Edison. Oprah Winfrey. Princess Diana. LeBron James. Oscar Wilde. Taylor Swift. Each one was, or is, a celebrity in their own right, and for vastly different reasons. But what does “celebrity” even mean?

To Be or To Have, That Is the Question

Dating from the mid-19th century, the definition of the word “celebrity” is, quite simply (and vaguely), “a famous person.” While the concept of celebrity may feel like a modern construct, the history of the word is quite ancient, and its origins are hard to pin down. The Oxford English Dictionary attributes the first recorded use of the word “celebrity” to Geoffrey Chaucer around 1400, when he equated “celebrete” with “renoun” (renown).  Chaucer is also credited with one of the first uses of the word “famous.”

Prior to the mid-17th century, “celebrity,” while rarely used, referenced an event rather than a person — a solemn rite or ceremony, such as a coronation, for instance. The 17th-century French scholar and lexicographer Antoine Furetière defined celebrity as, “Pomp, magnificence, a ceremony which renders an event celebrated.” As the word’s usage further evolved, it came to mean “to be well known.” Thus, you could have celebrity, but you could not (yet) be a celebrity.

A Star Is Born

It wasn’t until the 1840s that “celebrity” started being commonly used to describe individuals. French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt — known as the “Divine Sarah” — has been called “the godmother of modern celebrity” by Sharon Marcus, author of The Drama of Celebrity, because the flamboyant actress’ career coincided with certain modernities, including the mainstream use of photography and mass-circulated newspapers, which she shrewdly used to her benefit.

In the first half of the 19th century, larger-than-life personalities began to be compared to celestial objects, such as the famous being referred to as “stars” and their accomplishments as “achieving stardom.” “Star,” meaning “lead performer,” was used as early as 1824, while the diminutive “starlet,” meaning “promising young female performer” was first used in 1911 to describe Italian soprano Emma Trentini.

Being Known for Being Well-Known

In A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1962), American historian Daniel Boorstin, former librarian of the United States Congress, drilled down on a concise, if cynical, 20th-century definition of “celebrity.” “While heroes are assimilated to one another by the great simple virtue of their character,” he wrote, “celebrities are differentiated mainly by trivia of personality. To be known for your personality actually proves you a celebrity. Thus a synonym for ‘a celebrity’ is ‘a personality.’”

While the advent of motion pictures, cinemas, and, later, television, expanded on the idea of global celebrity in the 2oth century, the game changer in the 21st century has been the internet. The 24-hour news cycle, coupled with the widespread use of smartphones and social media, has caused the idea of celebrity to become a form of digitized currency. To “go viral” is to share something via the internet that quickly spreads to millions of people — thus making it possible for anyone, anywhere, to achieve a level of celebrity status, for better or worse.

Featured image credit: Robert Daly/ iStock

Daily Question