Fame vs Celebrity: Movies, Music, Sports and Politics


Questions about fame and celebrity

What does it mean to be famous? Does being famous go all the way back to hunter-gatherers or does it have an origin later in history? What does it mean to be a celebrity? Is it common in all societies or do celebrities emerge at a certain point in history? What is the relationship between being famous and being a celebrity? Are these terms interchangeable or are they distinct phenomenon? What fame and celebrity have in common is that they involve relations that are not:

  • Everyday
  • Kin-based
  • Occupy local places

According to Leo Braudy in his great book The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History there are four parts to being famous: a) a person; b) an accomplishment; c) there is  immediate publicity; and d) how posterity has held them ever since. I shall define celebrity later.

My claim in this article is that fame and celebrity, while having the common characteristics above, are fundamentally different and emerge at different points in history.

My sources

In order to make these comparisons I have relied on three books. For the history of fame, Leo Braudy’s great book, The Frenzy of Renown is about the best book I know. While there are many books on celebrity, Chris Rojek’s book Celebrity has the advantage of comparing six other theories of celebrity besides his own. Most theories of celebrity focus in on the fields of entertainment. The first focus is on movies, then secondarily on sports and music. But like it or not, politicians have become celebrities and politics is not supposed to be about entertainment. How do we understand the relationship between fame and celebrity when it’s inpolitics? A book that does a great job on this question does not set out to contrast fame to celebrity. Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s book Eloquence in the Electronic Age simply compares politics in 19th century Yankeedom before the rise of radio and television to politics in the 20th century. As it turns out, this historical contrast in politics corresponds to the evolution from fame to celebrity. Fame is linked with 19thcentury politicians while celebrity corresponds with 20th century electronic age politicians. The image that this article leads with is a sculpture of fame in mythology.

My direction in this article

In the first part of this article, I compare fame to celebrity in terms of when each starts historically; how each evaluates authority; how its status was acquired; who is the targeted audience and what media are used to bridge the relationship between these notorious individuals and their public and mass audiences. I also ask questions about what the power bases involved are; how long fame or celebrity lasts and I also ask what the notorious person gives and receives from his audience. As it turns out, unlike fame, the celebrity-mass audience relationship produces psychological pathologies on both sides. In first half of the article, I only talk about celebrity as resulting from entertainment.  

In the second half of the article, I contrast the difference between fame and celebrity only in relationship to politics. We will find that famous politicians have a great deal in common with famous military men or artists. However, we discover that political celebrities are very different from celebrities in the fields of entertainment such as movies, sports and music.

What is “Primary Fame” Prior to the 18th Century?

Fame in social evolution

To be famous is to be regarded with special attention by people with whom the average person has no contact – that is, strangers. There was no fame in either hunter-gatherers or simple horticulture societies because everyone knows everyone else by direct or extended kin groups. I suspect the first forms of fame came in complex horticulture societies, in chiefdoms. It is not the chief within one’s own society people consider famous, but a chief from another society with whom a commoner has no personal relationship but the chief has a reputation of being a great fighter, arbitrator or healer. The first time an individual could be famous within a society is in an agricultural civilization with tens of thousands of people and most having no kinship relations with others. The famous person may be of high standing as a religious authority, a divine king or a military hero. In the Italian Renaissance artists and musicians were famous.

Fame is rare, connected to deeds done that are notorious

How easy is it to be famous? Being famous for most of human history was rare. There wasn’t an infinite opportunity for people to be famous. This isn’t because there was some kind of quotient. It’s just because in the caste societies of agricultural states most people lived and died in their social caste and had no ambition to be famous. As you can probably imagine, being famous has little to do with being virtuous or not. It is more a case of people taking notice. You do have to do something to be famous. That is, having achieved status is more than you can inherit by being famous such as being the son of a great military hero. For the most part, being famous is connected to notorious deeds that have been performed. These deeds can be witnessed by the same generation or they can be remembered as having a reputation and then saved for posterity.

Means of cultural transmission

How do people find out about famous people in agricultural civilizations? Because the was no printing press, people found out through theatre, mystery plays and storytelling. The population also found out through mimes and minstrels. In the case of famous people who died their fame was carried on through folk tales. After the invention of the printing press stories of famous people reached middle class readers. The scope of fame reached to the end of empires but was limited mostly to the upper classes. Merchants in agricultural civilizations were unique in learning about famous people since they regularly traded with other societies.

Power bases

The leading power base for fame is competency. Competency means a famous person can get people to follow them because of demonstrated skill. Famous people can also move people because they occupy a social office that people respect, but this legitimacy by itself cannot generate fame. The same is true for charisma and sex appeal. By themselves, neither of these can make people famous, but they help.

How long does fame last?

The answer to this depends on the methods of transmission. The reputation of a famous chiefly warrior will only last as long as the storytellers who transmit the story. In the case of agricultural states famous people’s memory can be preserved through pictures or painting, writing and monuments. Here fame can last over generations.

What do famous people and their publics give to each other?

There is great social distance between famous people and their populations. There are few personal facts about them and their private lives are sequestered from the general population. What do famous people give to their population? Usually, they will bestow political or spiritual blessings. They might claim to heal their populations but they are too distant to give people any psychological satisfaction. There is no reciprocity in their relationship with the public. For famous people, members of the population are interchangeable. They do not depend on the audience for anything. With rare exceptions prior to the 20thcentury, most famous people were men. Before the 20th century capitalism had not reached its consumer stage, and for this reason famous people could not be commodified and sold to the public as we shall see is true about celebrities.

What is Celebrity?

Celebrity as a form of notoriety did not occur until the end of the 19th century with the rise of mass communication. This included the first newspapers in the seventeenth century, then photography in the 19thcentury and finally cinema, radio and television in the 20th century. By the end of the 19th century, religious and political authorities were in decline. Military generals alone maintained their fame throughout the two world wars. New heroes and heroines came from three domains –  movies, music and sports. While prior to the 20th century ascribed fame was a rarity, no celebrity inherited their status. They were discovered and gained their reputation through the work they did to achieve what they had. It was very difficult to be a celebrity, but the chances were better that it was with primary fame. This is because class mobility made it possible for middle-class and even working-class people to become a celebrity.

Theories of Celebrities

In his book Celebrity, Chris Rojek identifies seven theories of celebrity. The first is the subjectivistic theory of Max Weber. Weber claims that the basis of celebrity is that the person has charisma. Charisma is an inspiring way a person has about them, that sweeps people away and makes the audience want to be like them. Politically this would go with the “Great Men” of history theory. The second theory is that of Orrin Klapp. In his book Heroes, Villains and Fools: The Changing American Character,  he argues that all social groups develop character types that function as role models for leadership. Such roles include good Joe, a villain, tough guy, snob, prude and love queen. Celebrities are personifications of these types.

The rest of the celebrity theories are all social and/or historical. In his book The Stars and The Cinema, Edgar Morin argues for the opposite of Weber’s charisma. He says that celebrity is not due primarily to the subjective power of the celebrity but is a projection of the pent-up needs of the audience. Celebrities are transformers, accumulating and enlarging the dehumanized desires of the audience. Likewise, Richard Dyer also focuses on audiences. His post-structural theories, in his books Stars and Heavenly Bodies, he claimsthe key to understanding celebrities is how audiences construct and consume a particular star’s persona. Discourse theory emphasizes the mass media as productive agents in governing the population and specific audiences. This functions as a kind of crowd control. The books that make this argument include Celebrities and Power and Claims to Fame written by D Marshall and J Gamson. The most one-sided sociological theory is the Frankfurt School. Like discourse theory, they argue that all organized entertainment is in the service of crowd control. Involvement of the masses with their celebrities has no redeeming value. They are all forms of false consciousness. This is argued for in Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man and Aesthetic Dimension. Lastly, there is the work of Chris Rojek who emphasizes how much the point of history matters as to when celebrities emerge. He articulates this in his book Leisure and Culture.

 Celebrities have fans

Movies, radio and tv carried with them a host of mediators between celebrities and those who followed them. These mediators – the press, press agents, fan clubs – barge  their way into the lives of celebrities so that those who were interested – fans – could find out all about them. Through movies, radio interviews and television appearances the notoriety  of celebrities reached more social classes than primary fame. Through fads and fashions, it spread across nations and even became international. The power bases of celebrities were more narrow than primary fame. While many celebrities certainly got into the movies by skill, much of celebrity life was due to  charisma and sex appeal. Economic propaganda was at work when film companies promoted their actors and actresses. At its worst, celebrities were more appearance and less skill.

Rapid rise and fall

While famous people built their reputation slowly and their fade-out might take generations, with celebrities it was the opposite. They could rise up instantaneously and fade just as quickly. A good musical example of this is doo-wop groups of the 50s. Many of these groups had one hit and then disappeared from the radio stations forever.

Fans and their celebrities

People who had fame prior to the 20th century had no fans. Fandom was the result of the work of cultural mediators who get the lowdown on celebrities. Because musicians, sports figures and especially actors and actresses partly made their living from box office turnout, they could not ignore their fans. For those fans these “intimate strangers” become increasingly important. It is not only movie magazines where celebrities “tell all”.  They appear on television interviews on late night shows or, if they are on the way out, they appear on television game shows.

Celebrity fans expect much more than the crowds that followed primary famous people prior to the 20thcentury. Fans are psychologically involved with actors and actresses and receive the vicarious satisfaction of living through stars. They are titillated and awe-struck. Fan clubs are set up and fans expect responses to their letters, becoming upset and even violent when a star fails to respond. This can lead to the stalking of celebrities or even fans killing themselves when celebrities die. Fans collect relics and autographs and their homes become shrines to celebrities. At the same time, fans are fickle and change loyalties quite easily.

There is minor reciprocity through fan attendance at concerts, films and sporting events. Fans cheer and boo depending on how a star responds. A good example of this is when a musician plays at a concert. The fans call out for the old songs, a trip down memory lane, while the artist wants to play new work. A most extreme case is Van Morrison and his fans. Watch the first thirty seconds of this video.

This impact of the demands of fans has a great psychological impact on celebrities as they are driven from normal public life and in many cases leads to psychological disorders. Some of these disorders include paranoia and mania narcissism and what Reisman used to call “other directedness” . Celebrities become commodities, bought and sold just like other commodities. This leads to what is called achievement fatigue and achievement mirage. Rojek identifies “achievement fatigue” as when celebrities view their status as a burden and a sequence of diminishing returns. Achievement mirage is the recognition that their status is shallow and false.

Secondary Fame

It is too simplistic to polarize fame and celebrity. While it is safe to say there was once fame without celebrity, it would be naïve to argue that celebrity is the absence of fame. For example just because the emphasis of fame is on actions and skill that doesn’t mean that celebrities whose identity is largely based on appearance, charisma and sex appeal are not also skilled. We can easily agree that Robert Duvall, Prince, and Aaron Judge all have skill. Secondly, fame is simply a mixture of fame and celebrity. Celebrities’ fame is all mixed up with their fan base, their psychological needs in a way that primary fame is not.

Table 1 is a summary of the differences between fame and celebrity.

    Fame vs Celebrity

FameCategory of ComparisonCelebrity  
5,000 years ago Agricultural civilizations to the end of the 19th centuryTime periodEnd of 19th century to present
Religious (Catholics, Protestants) and political authority (Kings)
military heroes, artists
Evaluation of authorityLow
Decline of religious and political authorities
Heroes and heroines in movies, music and sports
Ascribed or achieved
Achieved – Renaissance artists in open competition
How their status was achievedAchieved (being discovered)
RareHow easy to accomplish?Very difficult but more frequent (class mobility opens up some possibilities)
Public strangers (crowds)Targeted audienceMass strangers (fans)
Literature, theatre
Oral – storytelling, mimes, minstrels. Folk tales, mystery plays
Mediums of transmissionMass communication
Newspapers, photography, cinema, radio, television    
Beyond locales, to regions spread to empires through reputationScope – how far it expandsBeyond locales to regions nations and in some cases international
Legitimacy, charisma, competencyPower basesCharisma, Sexual power
Survives over generationsHow long does it last?Ephemeral
Instant recognition
Reputation, skills actions (military, artists)
Inheritance (kings, aristocrats)
What are its characteristics?How a person appears physically, skills and actions in some cases
Most distantDegree of exposureLess distance because of fan magazines, television appearances
Blessings, healings
What the audience receivesVicarious satisfaction of living life through stars
Titillation, awe
No reciprocity (does not need audience)Nature of person of Notoriety and audienceMinor reciprocity through fan attendance at concerts, films, sporting events—cheering, booing (needs audience)
Little impact CharacterStar pathologiesSignificant impact – lack of privacy, psychological disorders
Narcissism mania, schizophrenia, paranoia
Not attached
Audience pathologiesFan pathologies—stalking,
killing themselves when celebrities die
Larger than life
Not commodities
How are notorious people held?Larger than life Celebrities become commodities
  Relics of the dead – Signed autographs Homes are shrines
Long term loyalty        Loyalty        Fickle – rarely exclusive or lifelong
Fads, fashions
Simmel—fashion makes people radioactive
Men – with rare exceptionsGender representationMen and women (technological amplification makes it easier for women)

 Fame vs Celebrity in the History of Politics

The impact of the electronic age on politics

Up until now we have limited our discussion of celebrity to movies, and to a lesser extent music and sports. What about politics? In her wonderful book Eloquence in an Electric Age: The Politics of Political Speechmaking, Kathleen Hall Jamieson contrasts politicians and the public before the end of the 19thcentury to politics in the 20th century. For us, contrasting politics before and during the electronic age overlaps exactly with the time period we are contrasting fame and celebrity. In other words, we can use her work to understand the evolution of fame to celebrity to politics. As we shall see, politicians before the electronic age were famous, whereas after the electronic age they were celebrities.

Means of communication, accessibility private life and the length of speeches

The setting for political fame was communicating directly in public or through newspapers. At the end of the 19th century, first indirectly through the movies and then later through radio first and then television, politicians more and more became celebrities. Before the end of the 19th century the private life of politicians was protected. However, especially after television, the private life of politicians became public. A political public speaker (like Webster, Sumner or Clay) was an orator who could go on speaking for hours to audiences who were interested in politics and came from miles around and stood in agricultural fields. The contents of what the speaker had to say was usually fiery, full of imagery of swords and conquest. But especially after World War II, when politicians now had to compete with movie stars, sports figures and musicians, audiences with shorter attention spans expected politicians to speak briefly, be more entertaining and willing to take the needs of the audience into account.

Politicians as preachers of news vs politicians as reactors to news

Before the electronic age, famous politicians expected people to remember their words. But by the mid-20th century, what mattered more was not only how the politician came across on tv, but what was presented on tv in news (the Vietnam war). Whereas famous politicians were ahead of their audiences because they could simply report on what was going on politically while their audience had no way of knowing about that. But once television began reporting the political news, there was a period where the celebrity politicians had to answer questions about the news that the audience had already seen on television. This contributed to the growing skepticism and disrespect for celebrity politicians.

On the hot seat: celebrity presidents and instantaneous communication

Famous politicians used to only have to deal with a local audience. If a famous politician made a mistake at a local stump stop only the locals would have noticed it. It might be written up in the newspaper but the visual impact on the audience is blunted. Celebrity politicians are dealing with thousands of people all over the country whom the politicians cannot see. But for a celebrity president to make a mistake is a huge deal and thousands of people watching have all seen the same thing at the same time in their own private living rooms.

From rhetoric and newspapers to broadcast media

Famous politicians had to deal with critics who would challenge their oratory style. Their speeches were printed in newspapers. Celebrity politicians were not expected to be skilled in rhetoric because their speaking time was much shorter, at most it was 30 minutes. Newspapers no longer printed the speeches of politicians because people either listened on the radio, saw the speech on television or didn’t bother to watch or listen at all. Because the pace of life had quickened audiences had neither the time nor the interest to read these speeches. Furthermore, advertisers who controlled newspapers would never tolerate that much space taken up with a political speech. Broadcast media of radio and television displaced newspapers.

From argumentation with many sides to playing tag with two sides

Orators of the 19th century spent a fair amount of time defining their terms to the public and then laying out all the alternative prospects just as a lawyer or a rhetorician lays out their case. They presented all the available evidence. In addition, fame politicians used words to create imagines in their audiences. Celebrity presidents didn’t bother with definitions as audiences were not expected to hold definitions in their heads. Perhaps for fear of losing people, celebrity politicians flattened out the alternatives of the debate to two sides. Furthermore, celebrity presidents act like they are playing tag. They hit and they run. Those with the fastest quip win. Whereas public speaking requires a certain degree of an ability to think on the spot and field spontaneous questions from a relatively informed audience, celebrity “town hall” meetings are choreographed with the questions from the audience preselected as are the audiences themselves. Celebrity politicians don’t use words to help the audience create images. They use images from television to begin with and their words followed the images (captions).

From speechwriting to teleprompters

Famous politicians in the 19th century wrote their own speeches. This means they had to distinguish the logos of a speech from the ethos and the pathos and they had to be sensitive to timing – kairos. Celebrity politicians do not have to know anything about rhetoric as they don’t write their own speeches. The speeches are given to them. Because their speeches are televised they don’t have to be ready for audiences’ immediate reactions whether they are verbal or non-verbal. For celebrity politicians, they simply speak their lines. No thinking by them has gone into crafting their speech. In some cases their responses are guided through a teleprompter.

From respect to disrespect of the past

Famous politicians of the 19th century were expected to remember not only their previous arguments, but the political literature of the past. Also quoting poetry demonstrated that a politician was well-rounded. While their public audiences might not be able to quote literature from the past themselves, they respected politicians who could. By the mid 20th century, the audience respect for the past dwindled and they are more likely to be bored by a politician referring to their past arguments or political literature of the past. They might easily say “who cares”?

From hellraiser to moderate

Famous politicians of the 19th century were expected to be powerful, but predictable. There was nothing wrong with riling their audiences up. Famous politicians emphasized the points of disagreement with other politicians and they ignored the points of agreement. Famous politicians expect people to think and vote accordingly.

In reaction to the terror of instantaneous communication and in order to compensate for possible mistakes, celebrity politicians attempt to make up for losing points by seeming to be a “regular guy”. By mid-20thcentury, psychology has had an impact on the public and politicians begin use personal examples to become “intimate strangers” to their audiences. Celebrity politicians are expected to be more folksy and inflaming the audience might seem demagoguery at best, or pathological at worst. Please remember that celebrity politicians in the 50s were anti-communists and they were expected to be moderates, not extremists like the communists or the fascists. Celebrity politicians want to appear not too extreme. They want to emphasize the unity of the nation so that the audience will identify with them. Celebrities want to cross a line to gain emotional rapport. They are not far from a hope for mass collective therapy. Engagements were choreographed to resemble conversations more than speeches.

How the electronic age helped women politicians

Public speaking without loudspeakers, let alone radio and television mediations, was a man’s game, because men’s voices usually carried further than women’s. Even if a woman was a good speaker her power would be muffled if not everyone could hear her or her voice was straining. Radio and television definitely assisted female politicians in being taken more seriously. Furthermore, 19th century politicians in Yankeedom was a men’s club. Their wives and children were nowhere to be found. But for celebrity politicians their wives and children were never far out of view. In the 19th century it was possible for single male politicians to be elected. By the middle of the 20th century it became next to impossible to run if you were not married. This is as true for men as it was for women.

From party to personality

What is the relationship between the political candidate and his party? In the 19th century, the party had predictable stances that didn’t change much over decades. The personality of the candidate running was not essential to his winning or losing. However, beginning with the introduction of television, this began to change (certainly in the case of J.F. Kennedy). By the middle of the 1980s political candidates were treated as commodities and party politics began to lose its identity. All you have to do is trace the trajectory of the Democratic Party from the time of JFK to today to understand how the party of FDR has morphed into a neoliberal right-wing party. The personalities of the politician mattered far more than their parties. This can be seen in Part IV of Adam Curtis’s documentary, The Century of the Self.

19th CenturyCategory of Comparison20th Century
Public communication



SettingMass communication


Movies, radio, Television

Private living rooms

Private lives protectedPoliticians Private/ public livesPrivate lives known
Public interested


Would walk for miles to spend two hours standing in a field listening to a speech about national affairs

How involved is the audience?Audiences restless


Short attention span


OratorType of engagementSpeaker
Fire and sword



Type of speechIntimate discloser based on conciliation
Lincoln Webster, Sumner, ClayExamples of politiciansJoh F Kennedy, Nixon, Clinton
90 minutes to two hoursLength of speechShorter, less than 30 minutes
Newspapers reprinted textHow do newspapers treat speeches?Advertising takes over newspapers – can’t waste advertising space on politics
 Steps in Argumentation



Spent time defining their termsDefining termsDon’t bother – Don’t have time
Explored the range of available evidence


Routinely laid out the

range of policy alternative for examination – like rhetoricians or lawyers building a case

How expansive is the argument?No scrutinization of alternatives in depth



Argue by hitting and running

Four or five sidesHow many sides of an argument?Flattened to two sides
Study of rhetoric and poetryStudy of rhetoric and poetryStudy of rhetoric In decline


Interest in mass persuasion

Tested the ability to recall previous arguments and the literature of the pastImportance of MemoryAmericans can’t refer to previous literature


Little in contemporary education cultivates memory



Marconi – wireless telegraph

Mass mediaBroadcast media of radio and tv increased information – displacing the newspaper
Yes – speaking and thinking go togetherDoes the speaker write the speech?No – speechwriters


Speaking and thinking separated

Heard only by those in the local field Newspapers printed the speech for people in far regions to hear



Scope of speechInstantaneous


Heard in 90% of homes in US and in 27 other countries all at the same time.

Preacher of newsDo politicians control the news?Reactor to news
WordsWhat moves audiencesImages on television are much more powerful than words


No place for personal

Impersonal, personalPersonalized self-disclosure and autobiographical
Powerful, but not predictable—fear and potential destructionUse of pathosTo inflame the audience was a sign of demagoguery
Areas of disagreement



Agreement ignored

Passion or moderationEmphasize reconciliation


Burke – identification



Painted pictures with images and  wordsRelation between words and imagesImages presented first Words worked as caption pictures
Lack of voice projection limited women’s political speakingGender dynamicsTechnology of radio and tv amplification opens speech up to women



Lone speaker


Family absent

Is the family includedWives, children, pets are close by



Stable party platform comes 1st


Personality secondary

Party vs personalityUnstable party platform Personality as a commodity is primary


About Bruce Lerro

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his five books: "From Earth-Spirits to Sky-Gods: the Socio-ecological Origins of Monotheism, Individualism and Hyper-Abstract Reasoning", "Power in Eden: The Emergence of Gender Hierarchies in the Ancient World" (co-authored with Christopher Chase-Dunn), "Social Change: Globalization from the Stone Age to the Present", "Lucifer's Labyrinth: Individualism, Hyper-Abstract Thinking and the Process of Becoming Civilized", and "The Magickal Enchantment of Materialism: Why Marxists Need Neopaganism". He is also a representational artist specializing in pen-and-ink drawings. Bruce is a libertarian communist and lives in Olympia, WA.

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