True fame stands upon a plinth, toga-clad and wreathed in laurels. It is the reward for great deeds, leadership, or genius, securing homage and then immortality. Later generations reinterpret it, but this renews it without questioning its validity. Celebrities flare up in an instant, noisy and effulgent, more intense for the very ephemerality that condemns it to eternal silence and darkness once the excitement dies. Its fuel is not greatness, but talent, glamour, and novelty.

While fame wins reverence from passive onlookers, celebrity is transactional, born of an individual but shaped by the audience, especially by fans. Devoted and adoring, fans are demanding too, wishing the celebrity to look and act a certain way and provide inspiration. The celebrity discerns fans’ wishes and adjusts her demeanour accordingly. The focus on her as a person overshadows what she did to bring herself to notice in the first place.

The audience have almost no real contact with the celebrity. Instead, the relationship is mediated by the managers, agents, publicists and others who constitute the celebrity industry. This industry wants fans to feel they know a human being, not a contrived image, and to that end various pseudo-interactions are staged. Fans’ admiration for a celebrity is interpretative, and odd behaviour, emotional troubles and suspense as to what she will do next, all carefully deployed by the celebrity industry, strengthen their urge to understand and sympathise with her.

Sarah Siddons. Postcard after Thomas Gainsborough. (c. The First Celebrities, Amberley Publishing)

Since the celebrity’s handlers control access to her, they have leverage over how she is covered in the media. But the celebrity industry only succeeds by staying behind the scenes, which it does by giving credit for her success to the celebrity herself, to her star quality. The object of all this effort is profit, yielded by fans who buy tickets, merchandise and other offerings.

Some of this profit goes to the celebrity and is a big incentive for seeking the limelight. A second incentive is psychological. The would-be celebrity has the normal human desire for praise, but with greater force, and not just for what she achieves, but for herself. She leaves behind a mundane, obscure life, escaping from the crowd by winning the crowd’s plaudits. And the fact that what is celebrated is an image does not spoil her pleasure, for this image seems, at least initially, to be the best version of herself.

But this comes at a price. The celebrity image draws substance from the real person, yet differs from her. It is simplified, more coherent, and over time it is fashioned ever more by audience expectations. Fans become assertive in trying to find out more about her, and she and those working with her have to feed them information that is not the whole truth but cannot be entirely false, establishing a pattern of mutual manipulation.

Interior of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Hand-coloured aquatint by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin. Plate 32 of Microcosm of London (Bensley, 1808). (c. The First Celebrities, Amberley Publishing)

The celebrity may cope with and even play up to her image, but having sought validation in her renown, she is disconcerted to find that qualities others see in her do not match those she values. Having opinions to express, she finds the audience, primed by the industry, are more interested in her clothes, daily life and relationships. Worse, these questions encroach ever further on the private realm. She feels less and less like her public image, while the real self into which she can retreat seems to dwindle.

The inability to quarantine self from image threatens the celebrity’s wellbeing, and addiction and mental breakdown are common. It is almost as if self-alienation is a punishment for her ambition. Having coveted celebrity as a form of transcendence, realising the idea of who she really is, she sees this turn into a caricature that weakens the foundations of identity. Liberation becomes entrapment.

Turning now to the effect of celebrity on society, we see good and bad. It launches people of modest origins to prominence, whereas for much of history fame has only been open to the well-born. Positive too is the fact that we can discuss a celebrity with one another. Her familiarity makes her a test case for attitudes and conduct, for the social codes governing people’s lives. Even when she divides opinion, she is a whetstone on which moral awareness is sharpened.

'Frontispiece to the Illustrations to Almack’s’. Caricature by Henry Heath. (c. The First Celebrities, Amberley Publishing)

She further provides her fellow citizens with a sense of wholeness through emotional identification, a solace to those who have suffered by the erosion of traditional community structures. And the interest in a celebrity, being shared by many people, brings them together in communal activity, online or otherwise, that fosters real friendships.

Further, the audience gain a sense of power from their role in shaping the celebrity’s story. They applaud her triumphs, pity her when she meets with reverses, judge her if she sins, forgive her if she makes amends, and condemn her finally if she trespasses too far. Her failings make them feel better about setbacks in their own lives.

This can appear unkind. Indeed, the melodrama of greed, carnality and deceit enacted in the mass media feeds a base desire to punish errant individuals in the public eye and gives vent to various prejudices. Also, in censuring celebrities’ misdemeanours, the media undermine notions of privacy and propagate a prurient, judgemental tone in the public arena.

Stowe House. Watercolour by John Buckler. Buckinghamshire County
Museum, Aylesbury. (c. The First Celebrities, Amberley Publishing)

A second problem is the corrosive effect of the inauthenticity of the celebrity-audience bond, mediated as it is by a celebrity industry spawning facile morality tales about stars and fake experiences for fans. When indirect relationships with celebrities supplant direct ones with friends and family, being preferred as easier and more glamorous, social and personal impoverishment occurs.

The curious thing about celebrity culture, with its meshing of three agencies – individual, audience, industry – is that no one is in charge. Once we grasp this, we know that any depiction of celebrity as simply the reward for personal excellence, the unhealthy mania of fans, or the vehicle for third-party enrichment is inadequate.

Peter James Bowman's book The First Celebrities is available for purchase now.