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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

When News of the World ceased operation this year after reports of widespread voicemail hacking, it became clear that some organizations would stop at nothing to obtain intimate details about people’s private lives.

Information about the famous, infamous, or even people involved in well-publicized crime stories has long held value in the marketplace. This dates back to the nineteenth century, when scandals and true crime stories were regular fare in that era’s penny presses. If editors back then had the opportunity to illicitly hear voice mails or read emails, I have no doubt they would have hacked into them when the battles between the Hearst and Pulitzer papers were waged.

But celebrity hacking is not always motivated by money.

A Florida man was recently tracked down by the FBI for breaking into the email accounts of several celebrities. He would comb the internet for information about these individuals, using published personal profiles from publications and their own postings to guess their passwords, gleaning information on their pets, siblings, and other information that celebrities sometimes share about themselves.

He then spied on all of their emails, even intercepting a nude photo one celebrity sent via email, which was posted online. Reports suggest that the man did not attempt to sell the information or blackmail the celebrities.

If money was not his main motivator, what was?

Perhaps it was the illusion of intimacy, of being close or on the inside of the celebrity world. While thanks to the internet and social networking we have likely never had so much access to information about so many people than ever before, it is never enough.

Sociologist Erving Goffman described public life as existing “front stage” and private life as “back stage.” As celebrities increasingly offer access to their lives off-stage, it essentially becomes part of their public life, thus increasing interest further in what they had hoped to keep private.

As I write about in the final chapter of Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, even if an individual celebrity has not participated in a reality show or provided many details about their personal lives, thanks to those who have opened up their lives to the public demand for personal stories is high.

The value placed on privacy means that information about those in the public eye can be sold at a premium, especially if it contradicts a person’s public image….As traditional-style soap operas go off the air, real-life celebrity soap operas have taken their place. (p. 228)

Stories like this also serve as a reminder to the rest of us, that even though strangers might not be interested in our emails or voice mails, in the information age privacy and electronic communication often don’t mix.

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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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