[22 November 2010]
Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s Starstruck is a straightforward and succinct account of why some successful people like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett are merely famous yet others possess a certain “celebrity residual” that almost compels the public to be obsessively curious about their daily comings and goings. Not limiting her analysis to stars like Jennifer Aniston and Paris Hilton, Currid-Halkett also discusses the artists Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst and sports stars Alex Rodriguez and David Beckham, among several others, to illustrate the value of creating that “something extra” in a public persona.
The book, however, is more about the commercial structures that gives rise to today’s celebrities than about why we are so captivated by those who stand before the flashing lights, that is, why we are so starstruck. For a partial answer to this latter question, I refer the reader to Daniel Herwitz’s The Star as Icon: Celebrity in the Age of Mass Consumption or work in the recently launched Celebrity Studies journal.
Currid-Halkett uses social network analysis, interviews with leading publicists, and other approaches to probe the business dynamics that seek out and nurture what she calls “the special quality that some individuals possess that propels society to care more about them than about other people.” Rather than try to articulate a new theory of contemporary celebrity, the book’s core conceptual contribution is its idea of a “celebrity residual”, the extra flare in a uniquely crafted persona that strongly resonates with a segment of the public. The author repeatedly returns to the case of Paris Hilton, who seems to work so hard to keep herself in the spotlight despite very limited acclaim for her acting or musical talent. I bristled, however, at the casual lumping together of Paris Hilton with Edie Sedgwick. Although they can both certainly be seen as fame-seeking heiresses, in no way can I imagine Hilton playing Sedgwick’s roles in Lupe, Beauty No. 2, or Face.
A fascinating set of accounts based on empirical research is among the book’s strengths. This includes an innovative attempt to apply social network analysis to the inner circle of Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, who has proven to be a valuable ally to Zac Posen, John Galliano, and the designers behind Proenza Schouler, Rodarte, and Thakoon. A related analysis of where celebrities are photographed is instructive to the rising stars of tomorrow. Perhaps not surprisingly, 80 percent of the over 600,000 images of celebrity events captured by Getty, the world’s largest photographic agency, are taken in New York, Los Angeles, and London. But hanging around LA hotspots non-stop or spending too much time in Las Vegas will prove detrimental to a would-be celebrity’s ambitions. As the author writes, “A-listers stay on the move. Being busy, important, or in demand around the world, or at least pretending to be, is strongly associated with the top stars.”
Readers seeking analysis of contemporary celebrities like Tina Fey, Robert Pattinson, or Rihanna will not find them here. Instead, Currid-Halkett’s account is unfurled with references to Jervis Johnson of the Games Workshop hobby empire, the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, and famous-for-being-famous individuals like Cory Kennedy and Jade Goody, about whom I knew almost nothing before reading this analysis of celebrity. “Democratic celebrities” like Goody are those “everyperson” reality-TV stars on whom viewers can project their own commonplace identities, in contrast to those who are upheld as icons of glamour. One example of this kind of democratization of stardom is American Idol, what Currid-Halkett calls “one of the most compelling shows in television history precisely because it achieves exactly what it sets out to do: making stars out of seemingly ordinary people.”
Obviously, a whole monograph could be devoted to the question of how social media like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are changing the careers of cultural producers. As Currid-Halkett writes, they “demonstrate the purest form of cultivation of celebrity because, for the most part, their entire purpose is to feed us unessential personal information.” Having written a dissertation on the careers of the highest ranking “stars” of the Army officer corps, I appreciated the section where a UK-based publicist tells the book’s author, “You can be famous, but do you have a career? You can be on YouTube and have twenty million hits—but will twenty million people pay a dollar? Business is what it’s all about. You can’t pay your grocery bill with a cutout from a newspaper.” This tension between online popularity and building a sustainable career begs for the kind of empirically grounded analysis that Currid-Halkett is trying to develop as well as a meaningful theoretical account of why we seek to uplift, observe, and emulate those among us who have that extra bit of sparkle.