Why Being a Celebrity Is Big Business

celebrity culture

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Columbia University's Sharon Marcus discusses her book, The Drama of Celebrity, about how celebrities manipulate the media to shape their own messages.

Portuguese soccer great Cristiano Renaldo has 183 million followers on Instagram, making him the most followed celebrity on the social media site in 2019. In fact, Renaldo has more Instagram followers than his native country has people — Portugal’s population stands at a little more than 10 million. His feed is rather banal, with plenty of pictures of family members and him playing soccer, yet fans pore over every shot. The world’s obsession with celebrity culture is the focus of a new book by Sharon Marcus, an English and comparative literature professor at Columbia University.

The Drama of Celebrity reaches back to the 19th century to show that stardom and the struggles that go along with it are nothing new. Getting to the top is hard enough, but staying there is even tougher. Marcus explains how the most successful celebrities learn to manipulate the media of their day to wrest control from outside forces and shape their own messages. She recently appeared on the Knowledge Wharton radio show on SiriusXM to talk about her book. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: Why did you choose this topic for a book?

Sharon Marcus: There’s a personal answer to that question, which is even as a very young child, I was interested in celebrity. As a sign of my future nerdom, I was interested in dead celebrities. Where my friends were talking about David Cassidy or Captain and Tennille or which Charlie’s Angel they liked the best, I was really interested in Elizabeth Taylor and old Hollywood. This was the 1970s, and I was looking back to the 1930s and 1940s.

I think part of what I was interested in is what we’re always interested in regarding celebrities, which is you have an image of someone. It might be very compelling because they’re beautiful or they’re great at sports or they’re charismatic, and you want to know more. That was my introduction to celebrity, and I was always interested in why I and other people were so interested in celebrity.

Then there’s an academic, scholarly answer to that question. My last book was about Victorian England, and I got very interested in Oscar Wilde when I was writing it. The more I learned about him, the more surprised I was to learn that he started out as a really popular celebrity. What we know about him now is that in his 40s, around 1895, he was put in jail for “gross indecency between men,” which was a crime at the time. What we forget is that when he was in his late 20s, he was famous in the United States and in England for being eccentric. He was kind of like the David Bowie of his time. He had long hair. He wore dandyish, foppish clothes. The question that intrigued me there is, why do we so often reward people who are doing something anti-social? Why are we so fascinated with defiant celebrities who break the rules and who change the norms? Those were the two questions that got me going on this project.

Knowledge@Wharton: You focus on the late French actress Sarah Bernhardt. Tell us more about her and how she fits into the book.

Marcus: Sarah Bernhardt is somebody that most people confuse with the comedienne and singer Sandra Bernhard, who had a brief moment of mainstream fame when she was kind of, sort of Madonna’s girlfriend back in the day. But Sarah Bernhardt was born in 1844 in France, which was then the theater capital of the world. She became an actress, classically trained in the French National Theatre, which was considered the best in the world. What she did that was so interesting was she established herself as a great actress, truly talented — say, Meryl Streep-level. She also established herself as a fascinating personality, someone who kept exotic pets like a lion, a monkey named Darwin, and so many dogs and so many birds. The other thing she did to establish herself as a personality was get into a lot of fights with her managers to show that she was feisty and independent and had her own mind. She had herself photographed sleeping in a coffin. Just weird. She knew she could get attention by presenting herself as different.

The third thing that made her such a great celebrity was that she was a terrific show woman. She had the talent of a Meryl Streep, the bizarreness and boldness of someone like Cardi B, and she was like P.T. Barnum or a great TV showrunner today, or a great publicist. She was her own publicist. She knew that if she had herself photographed sleeping in a coffin, everyone would talk about her.

She understood new media and took advantage of them, whether it was the mass newspapers of the day whose circulations were shooting up all the time and attracting more and more readers; or whether it was photography, which was just beginning to become accessible to the average person. When the iPhone became something everyone had, everyone started putting all this content on iPhones. When the photograph became something anyone could buy, everyone who wanted to be famous made sure they were photographed.

She also took control of her own career by leaving the French National Theatre at a relatively young age. In her 30s, she went and did a tour of the United States that made her the equivalent of a millionaire at the time. From then on, she leased or bought her own theaters, hired her own fellow actors, chose what roles she would play, sometimes commissioned playwrights to write roles for her and really had a lot of autonomy over her career.

“When the photograph became something anyone could buy, everyone who wanted to be famous made sure they were photographed.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Control is a recurring theme in the book. We’re seeing more artists now trying to reclaim their careers after decades of control by big Hollywood studios.

Marcus: This is a really interesting point about the history of celebrity from the point of view of the history of business, of economics, of entertainment as an industry. Theater was decentralized. It was very hard to make money in the theater because it was unpredictable who would come, which plays would be successful. But actors in the 19th century, if they were big stars — Sarah Bernhardt, Edwin Booth in the United States, Henry Irving in England — they bought their own theaters and created a kind of personally vertically integrated industry. They were the director. They were the star. They were the creative managers.

When film came along, it created a separation between the actors and the producers. The people who put up the capital — Louis B. Mayer, Adolph Zukor — wanted to have some control over their product, and that meant having control over their workers. Those big studio moguls had a bit of a conundrum as entrepreneurs. They knew that stars could guarantee an audience, then as now. People would go to movies because they recognized the actors and liked them. You don’t know if you’re going to like the story; you don’t know anything about the movie except, “Oh, I like Mary Pickford, so I’m going to go see this.”

So, they needed stars, and they needed the stars to have names. But the bigger the stars got, the more they wanted to be paid, the more they wanted to decide who they worked with, what movies they made. And they didn’t necessarily have the same canny insight into the market that the producers had.

What the producers started doing is taking very young talent and signing young unknowns to highly restrictive, long-term contracts. Marilyn Monroe and Joan Crawford [were] some of the biggest stars, respectively, of the 1950s and 1960s. When they break into the movies, they are young starlets, naive. They don’t really know what’s going on. They have no clout because no one knows who they are. They’re signed to a contract that says, “You’re going to work for the studio for 10 years. We decide what you get paid. We tell you what to do.” Marilyn Monroe, who we think of as kind of naive and babyish, was a shark when it came to negotiating. She got on great with journalists, and she knew how to use them to negotiate with her boss. She said, “No, I don’t want to make that movie. Actually, I want you to pay me more.”

Her boss at the time, Harry Cohn at Columbia Studios said, “Yeah, you know what? I’m suspending you.” She said, “I’m going to go marry Joe DiMaggio, the most famous baseball player the moment, and that’s going to get me a lot of publicity, and I’m going to have a chance to talk to the press. And I’m going to say how sorry I am that I can’t make the movies that I want to make, and that you, Harry Cohn are so mean and a big, bad bully. Then I’m going to go to Korea and entertain 100,000 troops and be all over every newspaper in the United States, entertaining the troops.”

Harry Cohn caved. He said, “OK, you don’t have to make the movie you don’t want to make, and I’ll let you make more money. And I’ll give you a higher percentage of the net profits of your next film.”

Hollywood as a business model was always about total control. It wasn’t just control of the actors. For decades, Hollywood producers also owned all the theaters and told the theaters what to play. That was in place until there was a lawsuit. It was seen to be too much of a monopoly, and they couldn’t do that anymore.

“Hollywood as a business model was always about total control. It wasn’t just control of the actors.”

Knowledge@Wharton: What do you think is leading the shift now that we’re seeing people like Taylor Swift and other artists who are really trying to reclaim a lot of that control by managing their content? In this digital age, it’s not so much about record sales. It’s the downloads. It’s getting people into the big stadiums for the 70,000-seat concerts.

Marcus: Exactly. The studio system broke down in the 1960s for a whole bunch of reasons. What a lot of people who study celebrity have said is, “Oh, that was the end of the era of great stardom.” But if, as I’ve done, you take a longer view and really dive more deeply into what was going on in the 19th century, the picture that emerges is that Hollywood was an anomaly. It has never been the case in other periods and in other industries that it was so easy to control the stars.

What I argue in my book is that celebrity culture is the constant negotiation between media — and that can be producers, it can be journalists, it can be radio interviews, it can be photographers and celebrities themselves — and the public. No one group controls the narrative. No one group controls the outcome. That’s part of the reason we’re so engaged. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out.

A lot of what we see today owes its roots to the 1980s and 1990s, when anybody could get a relatively cheap video camera and take videos of themselves, but there was no way to distribute them to a large number of people. That’s what phones have allowed. What we see today is that celebrities can have much more direct contact with their publics without having to deal with gatekeepers like heritage newspapers. It used to be both the public and celebrities were really limited by a smaller number of gatekeepers, and they’re gone. Now, the problem we have is that it’s hard to know in the public how to find anything that interests us, right? As a celebrity, anybody can have a Twitter account or a YouTube channel, but how are you going to make sure that people come to it?

Knowledge@Wharton: But isn’t the public the conduit in that process?

Marcus: That is an interesting way to think about it. We’re used to thinking of the media as the conduit, but I would agree with your way of putting it. It is, in fact, the public that’s the conduit. Because what I also saw by taking this long, historical view is that although we think of the media as making decisions and being in control of who is in the public eye, the media is very responsive to what interests the public. The media is always trying to figure out, “What do people care about?”

Sometimes that’s guesswork. Sometimes it’s based on word of mouth. It feels to me like these days the newspapers are following social media more than the other way around. If something blows up on social media, it becomes a news story.

To go back to the question you were asking about how celebrities today relate to the producers of media, there was a really interesting example when Apple rolled out Apple Music. They were initially not going to pay the artists because you don’t necessarily have to. Taylor Swift took to some major social media platforms with an open letter to Apple Music. It was a very trenchant, articulate letter. She said, “We don’t ask you for free iPhones, so why are you asking us for free music? I don’t need the money, but I’m writing this on behalf of artists who do.”

And Apple Music, like Harry Cohn with Marilyn Monroe, caved because Taylor Swift commands a huge audience and could have gotten millions of people who love music to not sign onto Apple Music. They knew that. She didn’t actually make that threat, but they knew that that could be her next step. That’s an example of a celebrity really driving economic policy of a major, major company.

“No one group controls the narrative. No one group controls the outcome. That’s part of the reason we’re so engaged. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”

Knowledge@Wharton: You also talk about the social component when a celebrity is well-known, such as boxer Muhammad Ali. In the 1960s, he was an activist, and that drew a lot of positive and negative attention to his fame.

Marcus: Social and political. I’ll talk about Muhammad Ali in a second, but look again at Taylor Swift. When we talk about the #MeToo movement, I think a lot of us forget that right before the big story broke with Harvey Weinstein, Taylor Swift was in the news because she sued a photographer who groped her. She sued him for a penny because she was making a point that this wasn’t about money. It was about it not being OK. She was extremely articulate on the stand. Many celebrities have real aplomb dealing with the public. They’re able to improvise. They’re able to be spontaneous but also come off being very calm and collected, which is what you need to do if you’re in the courtroom. And she won. She raised a lot of attention to the ways that even the most famous, supposedly powerful young women are being exploited and mistreated. I think that that was a crucial example of a celebrity using their media presence and influence for a social and political purpose.

Muhammad Ali, as an African American boxer in the 1960s, raised awareness about civil rights, about the Vietnam War. He refused to serve in the Vietnam War well before there was a massive protest movement against the Vietnam War. As a result, he was put in jail during what would have been the height of his boxing career. I think all of that was a great example of how many celebrities go against the grain. They take unpopular positions that then become the norm in many ways.

Knowledge@Wharton: Hasn’t that evolved over time? There was a lot of blowback against Muhammad Ali, especially considering that those were his personal beliefs. Now, I think we have a different mindset about looking out for some of the issues that are very important to us, in comparison to what business is looking out for. I think it’s important to note that a lot of the people who are making these moves today are making them for very important reasons, and they shouldn’t be scathed in the media for doing so.

Marcus: They shouldn’t be, but at the same time, celebrity thrives on controversy. It’s a long game. In the short term, maybe you’ll be boycotted for taking a position that’s unpopular with at least one segment of the population. But that can also build your audience. It can create loyalty among more people. It can get you more attention.

I think that the biggest celebrities are not necessarily cold and calculating and conscious about how celebrity works. But they grasp implicitly and intuitively that you can go farther and become better known taking unpopular positions, instead of being timid and only going with what is safe.

Knowledge@Wharton: How has the internet changed the fame dynamic?

Marcus: I think what’s really different is how people are able to go on auditions for mass attention via a platform like YouTube. In the old days, if you wanted to reach a large public, you had to audition for an actual play or do a screen-test for a studio or cut a demo for a record company. Now, you can just bring it directly to the public. But I don’t think anybody really understands yet why some people on YouTube end up with 10,000 followers and some end up with 1 million and some end up with 3, and they’re all thumbs down.

“What I argue in my book is that celebrity culture is the constant negotiation between media and the public. No one group controls the narrative. No one group controls the outcome.”

I would also say here again that we shouldn’t overstate how new this is. In the 19th century, if you go back and read a newspaper, every week there’s some flavor of the week. There’s some nine-day wonder. Somebody rescued a baby from the train tracks, and they’re famous for three days. If you lived in that moment, you knew their name. But there’s no way that anybody 10 years later would know who they are.

Knowledge@Wharton: Let’s go back to Sarah Bernhardt. Was she really one of the first people to get this idea of self-promotion?

Marcus: She understood how to use the newspapers. She would befriend some editors. In other cases, if people published coverage of her that she didn’t like, she would write letters protesting it. Sometimes she sued the papers. Either way, whether the coverage was negative or positive, she kept herself in the news.

Speaking of taking social and political positions, she took positions both controversial and popular. During World War I, she traveled in the United States, encouraging the U.S. to join the war and help support France. She would do shows that showed how France was suffering in the war. On that same tour, she visited San Quentin and published an op-ed protesting capital punishment as inhumane. Interestingly, she said at many times that she didn’t really believe women should get the vote. She was never shy about taking a position. One of the ways of thinking about that is it always kept her topical, up to the moment and in the news.

Knowledge@Wharton: You also write about Princess Diana, whose celebrity ultimately led to her death. Yet years later, she is still beloved and thought of in such gracious ways.

Marcus: I talk about her in the introduction because when I would try to find an example of a celebrity that everyone, including young people, had heard of, Princess Di was somebody that everyone had heard of. They hadn’t heard of Sarah Bernhardt. They were a little hazy on Marilyn Monroe. In terms of today’s celebrities, it’s hard to find someone that everyone has heard of. Princess Di was this universal celebrity.

One of the most interesting things that I learned about her when I did more research was a point Tina Brown makes in her biography of Princess Diana, which was that one of the reasons that she was able to become so famous so fast — and even bring herself in some ways to Prince Charles’ attention and maneuver him into marriage — was that she really knew how to work the press. Why? She wasn’t a great mastermind. She read the tabloid press. She had absorbed the tabloid press and soap operas all her life, so she understood how to make herself into a good story.

The other thing that the example of Princess Di brings up is that not all celebrities can cope with and manage their celebrity. Someone like Sarah Bernhardt was a celebrity from the 1860s until her death in the 1920s — six decades. For an actress to be that well-known and beloved, even when she’s in her 60s or 70s, that’s really something. But she was someone who had a strong support system and a very strong will and seemed able to handle both her success and the conflicts and scandals and trolling that come with it. Princess Diana — more fragile. Kurt Cobain — more fragile. Amy Winehouse — more fragile. Not everybody can handle it.

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