Manufacturing Identity: The Art Behind the Cult of Celebrity

Benjamin Wright


P.T. Barnum has been referred to as “the Shakespeare of advertising.” And rightly so. Many credit Barnum with not only creating “The Greatest Show on Earth,” but with establishing the first (creative) mass-marketing campaigns and manufacturing the first modern celebrities, including such notables as General Tom Thumb and the songbird Jenny Lind. Barnum took advantage of new changes in media (advancements in printing and the advent of photography in particular) to give us new celebrities, men and women famous for – as cultural historian Warren Susman writes – their “personality” rather than their “character.”

Whereas in previous generations people were celebrated for great achievements – particularly military figures, authors, great thinkers and political leaders – the new media changed this and P.T. Barnum was one of the early pioneers charging forward into the brave new world made possible by emergent technologies, catapulting unknowns to fame and selling people to mass audiences (sometimes with talent, as in the case of Jenny Lind, and in other cases sellable merely for a combination of personality and peculiarity).

A common aphorism often attributed to Barnum is that there is a “sucker born every minute,” and whether or not Barnum actually coined the phrase it was these “suckers” that Barnum banked on, expecting them to buy into his humbug craft and the personalities that he was essentially selling to the public. But, of course, Barnum was only taking advantage of the opportunities that capitalism presented, using the dazzling new technologies of the day to line his pockets and simultaneously transform the notion of fame-worthiness. A century before Andy Warhol predicted that the future held for all 15 minutes of fame and before he manufactured his so-called “superstars,” Barnum assembled his own cast of sideshow personages, people famous largely because they were craftily marketed to the public.

Since Barnum, the concept of celebrity has changed many times, with new types of stars and personalities thrust into the limelight, reflecting in some ways changes in societal values and the introduction of newer technologies. But as much as some things have changed, others have remained the same.



Types of celebrity and the role of technology

The great American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson made much ado about men of character, men with self-reliance, “representative men.” For Emerson these representative men included the likes of Plato, William Shakespeare, Emanuel Swedenborg, Michel de Montaigne, Napoleon and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, some overlapping with the “heroes” identified by Emerson’s contemporary, Thomas Carlyle. Many of the names of these heroes and great men would likely be unfamiliar to large segments of the public today, replaced by fleeting names like Honey Boo-Boo, Katy Perry and even Brad Pitt. Although celebrities have existed for millennia, first in the form of religious figures and great leaders, the nature of celebrity has transformed considerably over time, particularly since the era when Emerson and Carlyle were writing. In early America celebrated figures included men like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, men believed to be made of noble virtue and strong moral character.

With the revolution in new technologies that was part of the larger revolution in industry more than just strong character and virtue was needed to be famous. In the age of television commercials, public relations and televised debates (as the Kennedy-Nixon debate amply demonstrated) it is questionable whether a man like George Washington could be elected president if he were to run for office today, when image has in so many ways supplanted substance.

The Industrial Revolution brought changes in the way people received information. Changes in printing and the introduction of photography morphed not only how individuals received news and information, giving a major boom to newspapers (as circulation exploded during this time), but it also transformed how individuals thought about people and events. It wasn’t good enough to read or hear that someone was great or talented anymore. Photography gave audiences an image to associate with this greatness or talent. And P.T. Barnum was one of the first to exploit these new changes in media, selling his collection of side show characters to mass audiences, people who were willing to spend their time and money to see these anomalies of nature. Even if they were too poor to afford admission people flocked outside of the tents where the likes of Tom Thumb, the Feejee mermaid and Jenny Lind were being featured, sometimes creating disturbances to gain entrance.

By the late 19th century, generals, scholars and politicians may still have been celebrated figures, but they were quickly being shoved to the sidelines to make room for actors and artists, a phenomenon that continued to grow with the new changing technologies of the early 20th century, most significantly the advent of film.  



In the 1910s, film stars were being created due to audience demands, none perhaps more recognizable than Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, but also including the likes of Florence Lawrence and Theda Bara. In the 1920s, Joan Crawford, Rudolph Valentino, Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson were some of America’s best-known faces. With the introduction of “talkies,” many film stars of the silent era were abandoned for actors whose voices were more suitable for the screen and whose celebrity was not too entrenched in the silent era, something beautifully captured in Michel Hazanavicius’ 2011 Academy Award winning film The Artist.

When the fan magazine Photoplay was introduced, soon to be joined by many competitors, it offered fans glimpses into the daily lives of their favorite celebrities. The public appetite for celebrity culture was rarely sated and it became so great that audiences cared less about whether the stories presented by these fan magazines were legitimate or not than they did about just having that one little portal into the “real lives” of their favorite actors and actresses, even if they knew that these glimpses were nothing more than publicity gimmicks employed by the studios.

With the introduction and rapid growth of radio and later television (which quickly came to displace the dominance of film as the major source of American entertainment), the concept of celebrity changed yet again, with a big boost to the celebrity power of recording artists, athletes and television stars. On I Love Lucy the notion of celebrity idealization was lampooned by Lucille Ball, herself one of the most recognizable ladies of the small screen.

Politics also became a good source of entertainment in this era. A century earlier the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates were a media spectacular in their own right, boosting Lincoln’s public image and demonstrating the powers of media in shaping public opinion, but by the 1950s, the McCarthy hearings, Eisenhower’s landmark use of televised political ads and Richard Nixon’s “Checkers Speech” (a speech heard by 60 million Americans) reshaped the image of the politician and the means by which he communicated his message. While Roosevelt popularized the use of radio for political purposes, the 1950s saw orchestrated efforts by politicians to promote their agendas and improve their public images via the possibilities presented by the new medium of television.



And the Kennedy-Nixon debate, televised in 1960, amply demonstrated the importance of image in this new era. Though the issue is considered somewhat contentious it has been suggested that at least part of Kennedy’s success was that his image, compared to that of then-Vice President Nixon, was much more likeable and appealing. Whereas Nixon came across as stiff and nervous, Kennedy appeared more confident and relaxed, as well as more physically attractive. 

With the demise of the studio system in film, the presence of more independent film companies, the rise of television and the growth of public relations, the concept of celebrity became more splintered than it was in the earlier part of the 20th century. In the 1950s and 1960s the power of television was unveiled with the appearances of Elvis Presley and later the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, defining pop culture events of the century that both shattered TV viewing records, drawing in some of the largest audiences of all time.

By the late 1960s, the concept of fame was rattled. Andy Warhol was promoting his “superstars” and shaking the bourgeois art sensibilities of the day, predicting that in the future everyone would have 15 minutes of fame. With more niches and diverse interests, more celebrities were able to creep into the American consciousness, their fame short-lived but sometimes quite memorable. And decades after Warhol first started toying with our minds, with the vast expansion of television networks, the existence of round-the-clock television broadcasting and the marvels of the Internet, celebrity has certainly been extended to many who would not have been able to achieve recognition in earlier eras.

There are still talented stars today (people whose fame is undoubtedly deserved), but there are also many more whose celebrity is fleeting and fragile, particularly with the introduction of television talk shows and later “reality television” and YouTube. And while there have long been people who were, as Daniel Boorstin writes, “known for  . . . well-knownness,” the rise of reality television, public relations and diverse and short-lived public interests have led to a boom in the number of celebrities who are “famous for being famous,” with Paris Hilton and the Kardashians being just a few of the more familiar names. But the same could be said of the hirsute rednecks of Duck Dynasty, the superficial cast of The Hills or many other reality TV “stars.”   




The Art of Identity Management

Sociologist Erving Goffman, implementing a dramaturgical analysis, postulated that there is a certain artistry to the idea of managing one’s identity, controlling the information that the public knows about an individual. Of course, while Goffman’s work is a seminal one in the field of sociology, what he said was less novel than how he said it, for Shakespeare had already suggested in works such as The Merchant of Venice and As You Like It that the world is but a stage where we all act out our various roles.


Goffman elaborated on this, distinguishing our front stage (where we perform) from our back stage (where we let loose and be ourselves), and identifying the methods people employ to define how society views them. He also dedicated in his work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, an entire chapter to the concept of maintaining control over one’s identity, titled “The Arts of Impression Management,” wherein he discusses methods used by actors (i.e., everyday people) when their performances are interrupted or when the performance may not go the way they had planned, methods well-known to many who work in the field of public relations or in the theatre.

With the introduction of television and the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Paramount Pictures (1948) – in which the production-distribution-exhibition oligopoly of the Big Five studios (MGM, RKO, Warner Brothers, Fox and Paramount) was ruled to be in violation of US antitrust laws – the studio star system was shaken up, many stars becoming managers of their own identity for the first time since they achieved celebrity status. Rather than the studios controlling their images, by the 1950s many film stars were given free(r) reign over their presentation of self to the public.

And along with this change in the management of identity, a big responsibility for some, entered the talent agents, publicists and PR men who helped celebrities create and recreate their images using all kinds of tricks, many more sophisticated versions of those found right in the playbook of the old huckster P.T. Barnum.



But even when they didn’t have public relations men in their service, those in the spotlight tried their damnedest to manage identity themselves: changing their names, creating fictitious pasts, getting their names in lights no matter the cost, even getting cosmetic surgery when it seemed advantageous to their career trajectory.

True these were all tools used in the early studio years, too, sometimes implemented by the actor’s free will and other times under coercion from the studio men, attempting to create a sellable image. When the English actor William Henry Pratt traveled to Canada at the beginning of the 20th century, he changed his name to Boris Karloff, finding it more exotic than his birth name. The studios later pigeonholed him as a horror movie actor, making his name synonymous with that image.

Theda Bara is another notable early example. Born Theodosia Goodman in Cincinnati, Ohio, Bara was given a more exotic name and the studios also crafted for her a colorful new background, transforming the little Jewish girl from Ohio into an Egyptian-born actress who pursued a stage career in France before making her way to Hollywood.

Other celebrities, and particularly female ones, have dyed their hair, changed their names, underwent the knife and have even had teeth extracted (or so it is rumored) to accentuate their cheekbones. Norma Jean Baker’s transformation into the screen siren Marilyn Monroe is perhaps the most famous example.

And, of course, in music there is perhaps no case more prominent than that of Elvis Presley, who was metamorphosed into one of the most recognizable celebrity brands of the 20th century. Elvis had been described early on by theater critic Edwin Howard as follows: “Pimples all over his face. Duck-tail hair. Had a funny-looking thin bowtie on. He was very hard to interview. About all I could get out of him was yes and no.”  But under the management of Colonel Tom Parker, a carnival barker in his youth, Elvis was transformed into the face of early rock n’ roll, his name and image tied to all kinds of merchandise.



The musician Dave Van Ronk observes that Bob Dylan, another master of public image and illusion (something well-documented in Todd Haynes’ 2007 film I’m Not There), merely followed an “old showbiz tradition” not at all uncommon in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s: “Everybody changed their names and invented stories about themselves. . . . personal reinvention was the order of the day.” Van Ronk holds up Dylan and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott as two excellent case studies (Elliott was born Elliott Adnopoz and had been encouraged by his surgeon father to follow in his footsteps before he ran away from home, joined the rodeo and made himself the cowboy singer “Ramblin’ Jack”), but we could just as well hold up the example of Peter, Paul and Mary, whose image was largely an invention of manager Albert Grossman – a wholesome folk group that he could easily sell to the American people.

Through interviews, press conferences, press releases and public relations stories, celebrities could continuously shape and reshape their identities, at times trying to best maintain their image in the eyes of the public, as with Hugh Grant’s very well-publicized appearance on The Tonight Show following his arrest for lewd conduct with a prostitute or many a celebrity interview with Barbara Walters or Larry King. But, sometimes publicity and interviews can backfire and tarnish a celebrity’s reputation, such as with Richard Nixon’s interviews with David Frost.

And in the age of social media we have the issue of rogue celebrities, whose actions and comments on sites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram become controversies and embarrassments for record labels, studios and television networks. But this too could be viewed also as sometimes intentional, trying to get a celebrity’s name back in the headlines, for as MTV teen mom Farrah Abraham can surely attest any publicity is arguably better than no publicity at all.

Celebrity Today

While we still have mega-stars like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie or George Clooney and Julia Roberts, the concept of celebrity in the past few decades, particularly since the rise of the Internet and 24-7 broadcasting and with the introduction of so many new cable channels, has become much more fragmented than it was in the past. Just as there have long been local celebrities whose fame existed only within certain zip codes, today while there are many celebs whose names are known in nearly every household, there are also many more whose fame is fragile and is known to only a small demographic or subculture – the alt/punk crowd, the foodies, the “metalheads,” the reality TV junkies.

The Internet has also created many small-time celebrities like Tila Tequila, who became well-known through her exploitation of Myspace, and so many YouTube sensations (which has become another outlet for creating fame, particularly when there is talent present as well, as with Justin Bieber or Lana Del Rey). While there are more outlets for achieving fame than in the past, and while fame may be more marginal than in previous generations, there are also more celebrities today who are famous for nothing more than being famous, whose celebrity status is ephemeral.

And yet, even if we know that some people are famous for no legitimate reason, we often still buy into the cult of celebrity, subscribing to magazines like US Weekly and People, or watching television shows like TMZ. Even if we know that we are being duped by “reality TV,” we sometimes enjoy it for the purposes of pure entertainment. Whether or not Barnum actually said it, there is truth to the dictum that “there is a sucker born every minute.” And some of us realize that we are suckers, but we play the game nonetheless.

Though the technologies and methods used to sell celebrity have changed over the years – much like changes in the art of photography, writing or acting – the art is still fundamentally the same. Celebrities may not be sold to us anymore on flyers or by carnival barkers, the studio system may not be able to micromanage celebrity identity as it did in the past, there may be more players in the game for shorter periods of time, but it is still the same game of creating and selling an image, a personality – real, false or a combination thereof. But while it may be most noticeable to us that celebrities control and manipulate their own identity, an artistry of sorts, we are all constantly molding our public image, controlling what others know about us, selling ourselves to the public (especially in the age of social media), acting out our own parts on the grand stage of life, the players of the real “Greatest Show on Earth.”     


Author Bio:
Benjamin Wright is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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