Celebrity, descriptive name given to individuals, male or female, who capture public attention, largely through the media, and who have a broad general significance in contemporary society and culture. It has largely taken the place of fame, a concept with a long history going back to the ancient world. The claim to fame was related to achievement, measurable in different ways at different times, but often having the adjective “lasting” attached to it: there was also an emphasis on the “rise to fame”, sometimes a long process. Celebrity is, by comparison, a matter of fashion. It hits the headlines. Anyone can become a celebrity, if only for a day. Fame was carved in stone on gravestones and on monuments. Celebrity can be ephemeral.
Yet such comparisons and contrasts should not be pushed too far. Celebrities are still thought of as “famous”, picked out from the rest of the population, their private lives subjected to media exposure, and consequently open to public condemnation as well as to admiration. They are “in the spotlight” and are expected by politicians, preachers, and opinion-makers to serve as role models, a 20th-century term. The expectation is perhaps highest when the celebrities belong to the world of sport.
An older word than the celebrity in that and other contexts is “hero”. This word, too, like fame, goes back to the ancient world when it was related to exceptional skill, bravery, and extraordinary human qualities, especially endurance. Heroes were proven through war, as they still are, as well as through sport. Nineteenth-century writers extolled them. There was even a cult of hero worship. The term passed into literature and cinema. Novels and films had heroes, sometimes anti-heroes. The film, dependent on photography, was particularly important as the visual medium that made “looks” count as much as voices. It created celebrities too, the “stars” who performed on the screen. Television has followed relentlessly in its wake.
Because of this, images of celebrity are almost an essential element in the 21st-century concept; and since the making of images, like the organization of sport, has become intensely commercialized, the economics of celebrity are basic to the rise and fall of celebrities, a minority of whom have become “icons”. Advertising is a key element in the economics, as it is in the culture, and a celebrity industry has been created with agents and publicity managers as intermediaries. What celebrities wear and how they spend their money becomes as relevant as their looks.
How many celebrities—and which ones—will pass from the news into history cannot be predicted from such data. In their lifetimes, when they compete for prizes, even medals, some of them appear as subjects of postage stamps, and when dead some of them, recorded as they are in words and pictures, may be known through their saleable memorabilia. Some, like Mae West or James Dean, will be associated with a particular period. Others, like Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley, may well seem to transcend history. All will depend not on them or their lifetime fans but on the millions from whom they were distinguished when they established what in their case may still be called their claim to fame.