My earliest brushes with fame were decidedly nondescript. In a restaurant one distant day during my childhood an old man stopped by our table to inform my parents that I was without a doubt the best behaved little boy he had seen in a long while.
This caused much parental excitement because, I was later informed, the old guy was the famous Secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department. I knew treasures from pirate tales, but treasuries meant little. (And he clearly did not know my other behavior.) Meeting famed Satchel Paige, however, in the bullpen of Fenway Park was quite something else because he was famous to me. I knew his name.
Once upon a time in this America, fame was reserved for relatively few people who had earned this elite status by doing something of genuine worth. Served as president, say. Been first to fly the Atlantic solo. Invented a vaccine. As mass media expanded with movies, glossy magazines, radio, television and, now, the Internet, the criteria for conferring fame changed. Some would suggest it became drastically diluted. All someone had to do, as one example, was be in a movie, good or bad. That conferred fame. Or be seen dating someone famous.
No longer was it necessary to have accomplished some feat worthy of note. These new commercial media with their endless pages and yawning hours of broadcast time to fill needed a steady flood of celebrities, real or manufactured, to photograph and write about for a public presumably eager to consume such material.
Well into the 19th century, it was considered unseemly for U.S. presidential candidates to campaign and seek votes. Interested voters and groups visited candidates, often on the front porch of the politician’s home, and then carried the candidate’s message away. Most of the campaigning was done then by the parties and candidate surrogates, possibly seeking to reap jobs in a new administration, earn IOUs from party leaders and perhaps develop their own fame for their own candidacy later.
Absent the immediate demands of media and their awaiting audiences 145 years ago, that little known Illinois country lawyer named Abraham Lincoln spent his Election Day in Springfield working on law cases, then voting and shopping for a son’s socks. Come evening, he dropped by the telegraph office to learn initial returns before retiring. Lincoln took three days to amble his 6-5 frame over to a local victory rally. There he waved to a happy crowd but declined to speak because, he claimed, he’d already said pretty much everything he had to say.
How times, expectations and America change! At no time in history has there been such a surfeit of fame and deficit of humility as today. Fame can crop up anywhere, even at neighbors if they were on the evening news. Anyone and everyone, it seems, can be famous for a few minutes anyway. Look at American Idol (alright, don’t look but take my word for it). Even the show’s losers are famous for a while. For what? Why? Who knows? Who cares?
Fame is ubiquitous, like the air we breathe. And just like that air, some fame is good, based on an admirable accomplishment, and some fame is not so good, based on nothing, on misbehavior, on a marketing plan or clever media manipulation. People then make choices on products or candidates, for example, based on fame and what seems to be true.
But what is fame? Why do we have so much of it now? Is that good? Should it even matter?
At its base simplest, the dictionary advises us, fame is the state of being well-known or much talked about. In prehistoric times there wasn’t much fame to be had outside of your own cave. You might be tribally famous as a good mastodon hunter, but that was it.
Things changed slowly over time. Following primitive but developing trade paths, bards and troubadours spread tales by word of mouth, some perhaps true. But either way it created fame. For such established centers of power as royalty and the church, for example, the growth of fame created some undesirable competing sources of power. As their fame spread, so too did their challenging ideas. Martin Luther did not tack up his tracts for them—or him—to remain unknown.
In ancient Greece and elsewhere, ancient royalty held lavish banquets to show off their wealth and gain fame and presumably power. Posing days on end for oil portraits or statues to grace public places was not something the shy did to remain ignored.
George Washington—the Revolutionary general, premier president and founding father—was not one to seek the spotlight. After returning to private life at Mount Vernon in the 1790s, a few years before his death, the most famous American in early history noted with touching appreciation in his diary one night that he and Martha had just had their first quiet dinner alone together in 20 years. Fame can confer power. It always has. But there’s a price to fame too.
It seems safe to say that Andrew Jackson would not have become president without the fame of defeating the British invasion at New Orleans in the War of 1812, even if that battle was militarily meaningless because it occurred after Britain and America had signed a peace treaty in Belgium. It took a month for news of Jackson’s victory to reach the nation’s capital and start stoking the cantankerous general’s fame factor. About a decade later that fame translated into political power and election as president. Jackson’s famous face still resides on the $20 bill, albeit a visage clearly experiencing a bad hair day.
Then came the revolutionary mechanization of fame. The printing press and telegraph eased its spread and speed. The photograph boosted fame’s velocity even more. Movies, of course, came along and created a new pantheon of famous people. We first saw those faces on the screen and eventually heard their soon-familiar voices. Radio was a novelty at first, then helped create a broad list of stars and characters who told jokes and stories and became familiar—and famous—for doing so. Fred Allen, Jack Benny. Bob Hope. The Lone Ranger. George Burns. The list goes on as fame spread.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was famous as president. But his brilliant use of radio and those national fireside chats helped turn that fame into enhanced political power—and additional fame.
Across the Pacific in 1945 the first time the Japanese people ever heard any emperor speak was Hirohito’s emergency radio plea, following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that his countrymen accept the unacceptable, surrender. Hirohito was famous, of course. But his unfamiliar voice was not. So rumors of fraud, fueled by diehard militarists, spread quickly and widely, prolonging some resistance.
Then—BAM!—at midcentury along came television. The faces and voices of comedians once known only to select vaudeville or radio audiences became famous overnight as regular visitors on the TV screens of millions of households. The same fame applied to products advertised on TV, which gave them fame and credibility simply by being seen. Stores everywhere put up signs: “As Advertised on TV.” As if having the money to buy TV advertising time conferred some innate value on a product.
What TV did was confer fame, invisible yet powerful. To witness the power of TV and its amazing fame-granting talents, the next time you’re at, say, a major football game, I could not imagine where, watch what happens to hundreds of otherwise intelligent human beings when the TV camera swings to award a passing moment’s fame on the paying throng. Many fans have become deft too at composing signs they know will draw the camera’s gaze and garner a momentary flash of fame.
The last 15 years saw the introduction of the Internet, an anarchic advance that permits transmittal of personal messages, images, rumors, urban legends, myths and outright lies instantly around the planet well ahead of the ability to verify. Jokes and stories, some of them true, become instantly famous there daily.
What this means is it’s an awful lot easier to be well-known or talked about in 2005. Indeed, to satisfy the voracious maw of hundreds of round-the-clock TV channels with their need to personify every story, producing fame has become a necessity. As Jay Leno once said selling a snack chip, “Eat all you want. We’ll make more.”
Few think much about fame, so integral has it become to our daily existence. But there is in America today a thriving industry based on manufacturing, monitoring, prolonging, bemoaning and celebrating fame. You’ve heard of the Auto Industry. The Defense Industry. The Fashion Industry. Like it or not, we have witnessed the post-World War II creation of a sprawling Fame Industry totally devoted to creating new fame, praising it, savoring it and even its clothes, and to monitoring old fame and chronicling its demise into unfashionableness.
It seems like simple empty entertainment but also conveys a broad array of society’s values to its members, especially attentive young people.
Fame coverage encompasses the often meaningless activities of those chasing fame, of those who lost fame and of those still living within it (does it really matter if we witness the opulence of famous bathrooms?). We see them at charity events, receiving endless awards, changing spouses like jewelry. Their loaned clothing is detailed more than a state treaty. We also see the stumbles enroute to and within fame, each chapter providing further opportunities for coverage and comebacks.
Examine the guest lists of the late night TV shows, where so many say they now receive their news. Many of those famous visitors have a new movie, show, book or scandal going on, an event that might suggest the real reason they’re there: to sell something. The questions have been negotiated in advance. Try to recall why these celebrities are celebrated. Many, say, Carmen Electra, are simply famous for being famous. The process ends up feeding on itself.
Oh, and chances are the new movie or show is being distributed by another arm of the corporate conglomerate that owns the network that broadcasts the late-night show. A coincidence, eh?
Or take Paris Hilton. Please. The comely blonde and rich member of the famous hotel family became initially famous for a grainy videotape of certain activities once considered private. The explicit tape was widely distributed on the Internet.
Now she’s interviewed on the red carpet of numerous awards shows. She has a TV show chronicling her fashions, ignorance, social ineptness and conceits as she wanders the country encountering regular people who get their few minutes of fame encountering this young woman who gained initial fame for doing something ordinary. The program’s advertisers gain valuable commercial fame among the sizeable audience watching. And here I am adding to that notoriety.
Look at the newsstands. The number of magazines discovering, creating, nurturing, monitoring and chronicling the rise, the pregnancies, the clothes, the loves, the breakups, the addictions, the falls and, best of all, the comebacks of the famous is dominant. And amazing. And it all sells well.
Even when Princess Diana died, her famous face and seemingly shy smile were marketed for years in this Fame Industry that both creates and strives to satiate its customers’ curiosity about famous people. Some of the highly-touted details may even have been accurate.
Check your TV schedules for Entertainment Tonight and its countless cloners of fame. Even cable channels now convey pervasive fame coverage through biographies and alleged documentaries on famous performers whose music, check it out, just may be marketed through the parent company of the cable channel.
Even trying to avoid fame can add to your fame because your appearances seem rarer. Think Marlena Dietrich. Or billionaire recluse Howard Hughes. Mystery also manufactures fame. Why did singer Michael Jackson wear one white glove? Why did his sister Janet bare one breast on the Super Bowl? Who cares? you might intelligently ask. But it created more fame.
The search for fame can be desperate, even perverse, and so much easier now than actually doing anything heroic or even worthwhile. Capturing a moment’s fame somehow legitimizes and celebrates an otherwise ordinary life. The fiction of fame makes the seeker’s life more real.
Infamy sells better at times than plain old innocent fame. Think Dennis Rodman, basketball bad boy par excellence. His social infamy gained him many more millions from his athletic infamy. In infamy, he sold more tickets. With no time yet to become infamous, soccer phenomenon Freddie Adu can barely drive legally. Yet he’s a millionaire unproven athlete lending his new fame to a shoe company to multiply his earnings several fold.
Martha Stewart, who gained fame and fortune (those words do seem to go together, don’t they?) as a queen of household tips and decorations, also gained infamy and a prison sentence for insider trading. A famous TV producer merely mentioned his desire to do a new Martha Stewart show upon her release and her company’s stock price jumped significantly. Yet none of this is real.
Seventy years ago booking agents vied to get clients’ names mentioned in gossip columns. Movie studios staged fake romances between their stars to provide fodder for fame-making, ticket-selling publicity. Today, platoons of publicists and communications advisers seek to insinuate clients’ images onto home screens.
Some cleverly find fame for one thing—think Marilyn Monroe posing nude for _Playboy_—then translate that public awareness into a more lasting, lucrative activity such as acting. For many, fame is fleeting. Or hollow. Think Darva Conger. She’s the blond nurse who married a millionaire on television, annulled the relationship immediately, posed nude for Playboy and then appeared on Celebrity Boxing, proving in the process that it is possible to be a has-been before being an ever-was.
But in today’s Fame Industry there is money to be had at every stage. There’s always a guest appearance on Hollywood Squares when everything else dries up. And, of course, maybe someday a comeback story.
Besides a third of a century in journalism, interviewing the famous, the infamous, the unfamous and the hope-to-be-famous, I also worked in politics for years. There, fame is a coveted currency that draws crowds to work together on issues, to hear the political sales pitch, to donate time and money. Without fame, no one would go to vote. Without fame, there’d be no assassinations. Safe to say, John Lennon could still be alive had someone not been drawn to him by his fame. Same for stalkers of famous people like Jodie Foster.
Fame, I found with genuine fascination, causes both the famous and those seeking their attention to do strange things—to listen, to prattle, to act silly, silently, respectfully, lasciviously. You can spot fame followers like moths headed for a candle. They angle through crowds to encounter the famous like an accident that is meant to be. They have a case to present, a point to make, an autograph to capture, a picture to take and hang at home to display that they once were in the presence of fame. And perhaps were brushed by a sprinkle of fame dust in the process.
Those who are famous develop—or should develop—alarm systems and defense mechanisms. Never, for instance, leave a famous person alone with a stranger; the famous always want witnesses just in case of false charges someday.
I’ve often thought of famous people—movie and political stars, their wannabes and the latest lineage of American royalty, the professional athletes—as living in sumptuous cages like the different breeds of lions and tigers we would see on a day walking through a zoo. We let these personalities live there in a surprisingly confining luxury, albeit one beyond our dreams, as long as when we walk by they wave or at least nod in recognition and appreciation, give us that friendly hello or maybe even an autograph through the golden bars of fame’s coveted captivity.
Bernie Kosar, a famous college and NFL quarterback, was told by his father to treat every autograph-seeker as if it was Bernie’s first request. He did, signing as long as anyone was asking. He often reached the post-practice shower two hours after his teammates. But when he visited children in hospitals, he had one stipulation: No publicity, please.
Some live within fame with grace and dignity. Some resist and rebel. Some revel. Some show off and indulge. Those who live in fame gracefully with dignity and charity can make more money from the fame by lending their name, visage, presence and attention for positive purposes.
And fame figures in society’s ubiquitous advertising, where knowing the face or voice lends credence to the commercial pitch. Ever see, say, a famous athlete pause to acknowledge an adoring youngster? One of the most famous fame commercials showed a little boy offering a famously mean football player some of his Coca-Cola. In gratitude the player tossed the boy his game jersey. Michael Jordan, the famous basketball legend, once shared french fries with the same emotionally disarming effect.
To be sure, fame can mean more money. And more fame. It also can mean intrusive scrutiny, jealousy, phony friends, much less privacy. Some of fame’s price seems negligible to those not asked to pay it. Devoted fans may ask a hero for only one autograph each. But for the hero, that could be No. 65 so far that day. Yet each supplicant expects a friendliness the tired name-signer is not feeling at that moment. And not every supplicant is polite or appreciative. It takes a patient and generous famous person to accommodate all requests with a smile.
When I was researching a biography of Theo Fleury, once the National Hockey League’s smallest player, I traveled long days with him and his Calgary team. They are cared for, fed and transported with meticulous attention so they might focus on their job, playing a rugged game better than mere mortals. On a sunny cold January day in Pittsburgh he had just finished a tiring game-day skate in Mellon Arena, about four long blocks from the team’s downtown hotel. The players would all spend the afternoon resting in their rooms. But first came the required team dinner together at noon. It was 11:25 a.m at the arena.
“We better get going,” said Theo.
“Why?” I said, “You’ve got 35 minutes to go four blocks.”
“You’ll see,” he replied.
We walked out the arena’s underground delivery entrance. There, as always, atop the truck ramp, silhouetted against the wintry sky was a fan sentry. He promptly signaled others. They came running, pens and cameras in hand. They surrounded the famous player, holding out pads, trading cards, hats, shirts, wanting for one moment to be there with fame and gather some piece of evidence to prove that to others later. Theo signed everything, even the stacks of trading cards held by youngsters hired by professional collectors who knew youngsters are harder for famous people to turn down. (And the women who bare their chests to arriving busloads of professional athletes may have something else in mind.)
He also made small talk with each supplicant, asking their advice on defeating their team that night and generally joking with the fans on the windy sidewalk for perhaps 10 minutes. Every minute or two he took a gentle step to politely break free. More joined the crowd as some departed. “Thanks, Theo,” some said. “You bet,” he said without looking up.
On the next block another gaggle awaited. And a third on the third block. The fans of fame knew the hotels and the route. Their requests, chatter and items were all the same. Finally, after more than 100 autographs, the hockey player reached the door to his hotel, where the telephone switchboard puts no outside calls through to famous people. But there was one more sidewalk request: a father wanted his little boy photographed next to the little player. Theo kneeled down on the snowy sidewalk, put his arm around the youngster he knew not and would never see again and they both smiled broadly. Click went the camera.
The fame dragon had been fed for another morning.
Later on that chilly January game day in Pittsburgh I was walking out of the team hotel to board the bus to the evening’s contest. I do not resemble a professional athlete. Still, several excited youngsters with notebooks ran up. “Are you famous? Are you famous?” they demanded.
“Uh, no,” I said. “I’m not famous.”
And in the end, after all that, I’m happy for it.
Andrew H. Malcolm is a veteran author, newspaper correspondent and communications adviser who often contributes to this magazine. After several years residing in Southern California, he is an aspiring hermit who writes editorials for the Los Angeles Times.