The Destructive Endurance

of Celebrity Attention


In comparing the public humiliation of unintended celebrities with catastrophic accidents, Jon Ronson describes in his book how a friend recalled a car crash: “one second the car was her friend, working for her, [...] then a blink of an eye later it had become a jagged weapon of torture” (Ronson, p.70).

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (2015) catalogues examples of accidental celebrity and public humiliation in the age of social media and the ways in which press attention affects individuals negatively. The development of celebrity culture is so often unique in that it has not been possible to exist far removed from it; as unlike the high arts, or regional cultures that are registered to pre-ordained demographics, celebrity culture has appeared to be all-pervading, self-creating and sustaining—an evolving concept of evolving definition.


It may seem at first glance that celebrity culture is a purely contemporary phenomenon of the information age—a natural adaptation of social reflex to communication technologies, or a sustained effort by celebrity individuals to exert cultural influence over a population. As Chris Rojek argues, modern celebrity “promotes a culture of belonging”, bringing people together who share a collective identity: “The growing significance of celebrity culture, as so to speak, the backcloth of routine existences reinforces the proposition that, as it were, “post-God” celebrity is now one of the mainstays of organizing recognition and belonging in secular society” (Rojek,C., p.173).


However, the existence of celebrity and criticism of celebrity culture has a history as long as academic study of culture itself, the cases reasoned for and against our manifestation of celebrity culture often being reflective of the society’s political attitudes towards social issues. Late McCarthyism and distrust of political figures throughout the Cold War gave rise to negative opinion of celebrity: “He or she is ‘well known for his [or her] well knownness” (Boorstin, p.221), is what Boorstin wrote of celebrity phenomena—arguing that the use of graphics in print media and communication had “severed fame from greatness”, and accelerated fame towards something of a notoriety. A largely negative and dismissive argument towards celebrity culture, but one driven by the same attitudes that dictated the study of culture almost a century earlier, with Edward Tylor.


Tylor in 1871 was amongst the first to define the concept of “culture”—as a means to explain variations in societal behaviour. “Culture or civilization… is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by a man as a member of society.” (Tylor, p1). Classist divides during the Victorian Era were reflected in academic attitudes towards cultural studies—research was done primarily on the role of the fine arts, and cultural traditions of the elite, also defined as “The best that has been in the world” (Arnold, p.13).


As liberal attitudes replaced the traditional, academic study of culture after Tylor’s era was more inclusive and generalised—from the sociological, Ernst Cassirer in referring to culture,  “[it] appears to be one of the most clearly known of human phenomena” (Cassirer, p.137)—to the semiotical; “culture is a notoriously difficult concept due to it being used for important concepts in several distinct intellectual disciplines and in several distinct systems of thought” (Williams, p.77).


Many have argued that to truly visualise the destructive power of celebrity is to cast eyes back to the British Regency era – a time emergent from the romanticism of Bonaparte, when figures within the public eye had suddenly the apparatuses to gain notoriety by distributing images by print press (Stott, p.199)—coinciding with a heightening social interest in the private activities of others. Joseph Grimaldi can be described in no other way than as an archetypal clown; the iconic white face make-up, reddened lips and striped attire are all often attributed to his performances. So too, however, are many of the negative stereotypes of circus performers—ones of mental instability, or deliberate concealment of real identity—consider our derived contemporary clichés, Batman’s Joker, or The Simpson’s Krusty the Clown.


Grimaldi’s personal life held this darker side; he suffered from depression and alcoholism related to physical disabilities and eventually passed away alone (Dickens, p.205). Andrew Stott argues in his biography that Grimaldi’s alcoholism and depression was at first revealed and later fuelled only through the growing “culture of personal fascination” that celebrity culture allowed (Stott, p.200)—the distressing irony of which that the very depression ruining Grimaldi’s life was also that which thrust him into fame and the spotlight for so many years.

A 1931 Lithograph of Joseph Grimaldi

Grimaldi would be taunted throughout his career by known “press-gangs” on his wilting ticket sales and weakening performances—the chain-reaction fission of celebrity news eventually taking hold and translating into other forms of pop culture— as for the scrutiny of public figures to work, they have to be fictionalised (Ronson, p.62)—and he eventually was, with a younger Charles Dickens making work by re-editing Grimaldi’s memoirs for a friend – and later immortalising his character within his first novel, The Pickwick Papers.


By the end of Grimaldi’s time in the press machine, the media portraits of Grimaldi had been disconnected from the physical man—instead raising him to such a position where he demanded attention different from a regular citizen. “The Irresistible force of celebrity had continued to erode the idea of actors as public servants, replacing it with a sense of them as a special breed” (Stott, p263)—a special breed that demanded special attention and scrutiny. Grimaldi often lacked a voice on his portrayal—as after media reports escaped his pantomime career, his condition was abstracted, rendering him unable to control his own image—the issue eventually becoming a national conversation on the shame behind celebrity and popularity.


With the advent of social media we are all granted voices—but still created unequally, and often unfair. Even if culture is differently defined to what it was coined as almost 150 years ago, ever expanding technological capabilities, ease of human movement, and rapidly changing societal structures all allow for increased speed of change within cultural spheres. With things like social media playing a large role in people’s everyday lives, accessibility to instant celebrities and the lives of private individuals has never been easier.


Justine Sacco was one such individual, attributed celebrity for reasons of controversy. Shortly before a plane flight from New York to London, Sacco tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”.


At the time she had only 170 followers—one of which forwarded the tweet to a journalist, with what followed only being described as a coordinated world-wide and brute-force public humiliation of Sacco for her joke—misinterpreted, she later said; “Living in America puts us in a bit of a bubble when it comes to what is going on in the Third World. I was making of fun of that bubble.” (Ronson, p.73). She was abused, comments Ronson, because “she was perceived to have misused her privilege.” (lbid, p.85)


The curse of celebrity that had befallen her twitter page had rallied thousands in an attempt to have her fired—and trending hashtags were made so that all could add to the global conversation. Justine Sacco was eventually dismissed from her job as a PR spokesperson for IAC—not because she was bad at her job, or had broken company rules, but because social media had demanded it—and held the virtual reputation of her employer at ransom.


A few hours after take-off, she arrives understandably shocked, wearing sunglasses and shading her face behind a cell phone. “She was losing herself. She was waking up in the middle of the night, forgetting who she was.” (lbid, p8)


Ronson remarks during his TED talk covering the culture of unintended celebrity, “Justine’s name was normally Googled 40 times a month. That month, [...] her name was Googled 1,220,000 times.” He estimates this amounted to somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 dollars in advertising revenue for Google—implying that those actually partaking in the online shaming got nothing. It is almost no different than during Grimaldi’s time, in which the competitive sensationalism of newspaper publishers was driven by profit.


The undeniable power of the celebrity cult has had a long history of creating power for the personality—in ways both celebrated and controversial. The Kardashian-Jenner family have been derided for appearing “talentless”, and Andy Warhol’s prescient comments on his command of early celebrity culture have forever embalmed him within art history—but it is important to remember and regret the cases of negative or undeserved celebrity, where those unfortunate enough to have miss-tepped in the public eye can undergo public humiliations—it is as Meghan O’Gieblyn wrote in a review of Ronson’s book, which covers Sacco’s incident: “This isn’t social justice. It’s a cathartic alternative”.