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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

In my research of fan magazines dating back a century, one of the central tensions in celebrity coverage has been whether celebrities are really “just like us” or uniquely different. Are they mortals or demigods?

In some respects, being famous sets one apart by virtue of definition: in Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, I define celebrity as “anyone who is watched, noticed, and known by a critical mass of strangers” (p. 2). This is purposely a broad definition, since celebrities can (and do) exist within smaller groups and may remain largely unknown in other groups, but still enjoy the benefits of limited celebrity status.

In fan magazines throughout history, celebrities have been regarded as special, important, and worthy of public attention. That makes them different from the collective “us,” obviously.

They seem to lead struggling along compressed.jpg magical lives at times, and many can afford a lifestyle only available for the wealthiest earners. As the story “Struggling Along on $50,000 a Year” (at right) from the February 1928 issue of Motion Picture Classic sarcastically notes, celebrities had to make do with just enough to pay their servants, buy mansions, and maintain their fabulous wardrobes. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, $50,000 is the equivalent of nearly $650,000 in 2011 dollars).

And yet this “just like us” theme persists. In the earliest fan magazines, this theme meant to reassure readers that “picture players” were morally upright in a time when the movies and their performers were often viewed with suspicion.

As movies gained legitimacy, fan magazines let readers know that the new movie industry represented economic opportunity, and that successFIGURE 1.2 was right around the corner. As in this ad below—from the February 1916 issue of Motion Picture Classic—readers were invited to write and act in the movies and earn their fortune too.

Today the suggestion that we too can make it big is more subtle, but it is still here. Rather than an ad asking readers to write a screenplay, the “just like us” paparazzi shots of a celebrity shopping or taking a child to school reminds readers that celebrities are mere mortals, and not so far removed from everyone else. If they can make it, maybe we can too. And if they experienced dramatic upward mobility in their rise to stardom, perhaps it is proof that the rags-to-riches story is not just a fairy tale.

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