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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

Category Archives: Consumption

While watching various networks’ coverage of the 2011 Emmy Awards, I noticed that under the “Live” banner read “Hollywood, California.” But the event was actually held in downtown Los Angeles, not Hollywood.

This is not unusual—awards shows have been held around town over the years, in Pasadena (at the Civic Auditorium) and in Exposition Park (at the Shrine Auditorium), most notably.

There is a section of Los Angeles called Hollywood. I once lived there, and much of it is anything but a representation of the Eden the name conjures.

Out of town guests would always be disappointed when seeing my old neighborhood and reluctant to do much walking in the area. Blocks upon blocks of apartment buildings in various states of repair do not represent the celebrity lifestyle Hollywood is supposed to embody.

Hollywood is less a physical place than an idea.

But an idea can only go so far for tourists, so spaces have been created representing Hollywood in order to allow people to “consume Hollywood” during visits to the Los Angeles area.

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The Hollywood and Highland complex, which I recently blogged about, was largely created to draw tourists to some of Hollywood’s destinations, like Grauman’s Chinese Theater, pictured above.

Visiting physical spaces, sociologically speaking, can be viewed as  similar to pilgrimages where travelers feel personal connections with important cultural and religious places and events.

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In addition to the famous concrete footprints and signatures of celebrities, these spaces draw performers dressed like movie characters who pose for pictures with tourists for tips.

Often struggling to achieve the Hollywood dream themselves, the characters have been banned by the Los Angeles City Council after complaints that performers are too aggressive with tourists when seeking tips. (A person in a SpongeBob Squarepants costume was recently caught on video fighting with two women as well).

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Besides Hollywood Boulevard, Rodeo Drive has been a long-time tourist destination. In fact, visitors will typically find far more camera-toting visitors than actual celebrities shopping.

Hoping to lure tourists who might splurge for the occasional big ticket item, shopping has traditionally been one way people can consume celebrity culture, in this case, quite literally. As I write about in Celebrity Culture and the American Dream:

Celebrities’ consumption habits become associated with high status and an aspirational lifestyle….Even if we feel disdain for an individual celebrity, as members of an elite status community they serve as examples of what wealth and status might bring. We can hate them and still love the stuff they own. (pp.10-11)

Buying the same goods that celebrities might, using the same beauty products we hear they use is a powerful engine boosting our consumer-driven economy.

Shopping at the same stores we think celebrities really shop at is another part of the pilgrimage, a way to feel closer to celebrities.

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As you can see in the photo above, taken outside a store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, visitors are drawn to take pictures of the display of high-priced shoes and handbags. Inside the store there were no actual shoppers.

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Can you find traces of the American Dream at a shopping mall?

You don’t have to look to hard to find the American Dream at Hollywood and Highland, a mall situated in the middle of the tourist attractions on Hollywood Boulevard. The shopping center’s floor features quotes of anonymous showbiz success stories, highlighting their rise from obscurity to stardom.

The mall opened nearly ten years ago, in November 2001, as part of a major revitalization project to clean up a then seedy Hollywood Boulevard. While the project had been in the works for some time, its opening coincided with an attempt to encourage Americans to travel and shop again after the terrorist attacks two months prior.

The floor tiles, like those pictured below, encourage us to keep the American Dream alive:

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“Give the kid a break,” the quote above reads, a staple in celebrity back stories. These quotes reflect the notion that success can happen to virtually anyone who possesses determination, moxie, and a dose of good luck.

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Stories like these are compelling, and tell us about more than Hollywood, but the American Dream itself. As I write in Celebrity Culture and the American Dream:

Hollywood has historically produced the dreams that fuel the continuing belief that America is a place where true social mobility exists…part of the fascination with the private lives of celebrities…involves learning what it is really like to be one of the chosen.

You can even see how your hand and footprints match up with celebrities of the past at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Sharing similar-size hand and foot prints remind us that they are just like us in many ways—and we are just like them. Or so we might hope.

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It’s tempting to go to a news organization’s website, often loaded with celebrity gossip, and presume that they’re just giving the public what we want. Are they?

While audiences bear some complicity in consuming celebrity gossip, there are a few other important reasons that news organizations regularly feature celebrity stories too.

As I discuss in chapter 9 of Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, celebrity “news” provides cheap filler content at a time when news budgets have been cut. According to the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, newspaper advertising revenues have dropped dramatically as well. Celebrity stories take relatively few (if any) resources and are easy for audiences to follow.

When television networks first broadcast news reports, they were not under nearly as much pressure to earn profits and ratings. Considered public service rather than entertainment, news broadcasts were significantly shorter than today, especially considering the proliferation of 24-hour news networks and the internet.

News-oriented magazines have seen their circulations plummet in recent years. As I note in chapter 9, ad revenues declined significantly for the eight best-selling news magazines, including Time, Newsweek (which was recently sold), and U.S. News & World Report.

By contrast, magazines that feature celebrity content like People and US not only outsell news magazines, but their circulations are steady or increasing. Several new magazines, like In Touch and Life & Style have thrived in this otherwise dismal economic climate for magazines.

As I argue throughout my book, celebrity stories serve a purpose beyond mindless entertainment. And yet they should by no means replace traditional journalism, which is vital for any democracy. Journalism is struggling to reinvent itself as a profitable enterprise during the internet age. As profit and loss sheets increasingly dictate content, we are likely to see more, not less, celebrity stories in the news.

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Being a celebrity might be lucrative for a person of renown. Beyond individual celebrities or even the entertainment industry itself, celebrity is a major engine of commerce.

At a time when the magazine industry is struggling to stay in business, celebrity-based content is thriving. News magazines like Time and Newsweek have seen their circulations plummet, so much so that the owners of Newsweek sold the 50-year-old magazine last year.

But not so for new celebrity magazine start-ups. Life & Style, launched in 2004, is doing so well that in 2009 it raised its advertising rate base.

Beyond just offering celebrity gossip and profiles, magazines like Life & Style promote products that reflect their content. According to the publisher, Life & Style:

showcases up-to-the-minute Hollywood fashion, beauty, body and lifestyle trends and helps readers incorporate them into their own lives with engaging, informative shopping features and expert advice.

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Traditional fashion magazine Mademoiselle ceased publication in 2001, just as a new crop of celebrity magazines arrived.

In Touch began in 2002 and OK! in 2005; Star reinvented itself as a glossy celebrity magazine in 2004.

Celebrities have been selling lifestyle products for at least a century. As you can see from these ads, silent stars frequently hawked beauty products.

Motion Picture Classic, December 1916

Besides featuring celebrities in ads, the magazines included lifestyle features, like photo spreads of wedding gowns as in the June 1918 issue of Photoplay below.

Photoplay, June 1918

Celebrities have been vital in selling a lifestyle of abundance, beauty, and glamour. Even if we don’t care for a celebrity personally, their lifestyle still may be a draw for advertisers.

Besides the ongoing celebrity sagas covered in celebrity gossip and paparazzi shots, we see their outfits, their accessories, their cars, where they dine and vacation. Celebrity is as much about selling products as selling the people themselves.

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