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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

When I first started doing research for Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, I wanted to trace the history of celebrity coverage to see how we got here today.

Before I began reading old fan magazines (I ended up reading hundreds over the course of four years) it seemed to me that coverage is now much more invasive, obsessed with celebrity’s private lives and Schadenfreude—building up icons only to tear them down.

What surprised me the most while doing the research was how much less things had changed than I once thought.

Today we tend to think of the 1950s as an era cloaked in innocence. Here are some examples of stories from that decade that might remind us a lot of coverage today.

While not exactly a fan magazine, Confidential—“Uncensored and Off the Record”—exposed celebrity secrets until a 1957 lawsuit effectively stopped it from publishing rumors. This story (left) from a 1954 issue alleged several actresses had cosmetic surgery, just as fare from a contemporary tabloid might.

Pregnancy and babies were big news in the 1950s, much like today. This 1957 Photoplay story featured actress Jeanne Crane checking her weight. One big difference—I did not observe mainstream fan magazines speculating about “baby bumps” and running unflattering pictures as “evidence.”

Magazines did speculate on possible marriages, though, as this 1957 Photoplay article about actress Kim Novak does (Novak did not marry the man mentioned in the article).

And also like today, there were many photo spreads featuring celebrity’s private lives, implying they were “just like us.” Below in this 1954 Photoplay story we see several actresses pictured with their dogs.

OK, celebrity coverage is a lot different today. There is no more studio system controlling a celebrity’s image or the content in mainstream celebrity magazines. And Confidential-style coverage is much more common than it was a half century ago. Television made celebrity coverage daily, and the internet made it instantaneous.

But there are still some thematic threads from the past with us today.

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