28 Jun 2023

How America evolved into a culture of fans and followers

From Afternoons, 3:06 pm on 28 June 2023

Celebrity has become a "weapon of mass distraction" that takes away from real heroism, says Landon Jones, former managing editor of People magazine.

He explores how Americans became so fame-obsessed in the new book Celebrity Nation.

A collage of celebrity faces

Photo: GlitzyStrapz

Landon Jones

Landon Jones Photo: supplied

How did we come to care about celebrities?

The origins of celebrity worship, Landon tells Jesse Mulligan, go back to Ancient Greece and the world's "first truly famous mortal" – Alexander the Great.

"This urge that people had to be reverential, that came from Greek gods, then it got transferred to Alexander the Great."

It was technology that made the young king famous, when his face was stamped into coins, and every succeeding technology - most recently social media - has lent itself to more and more focus on famous people.

A marble bust of Alexander the Great in the British Museum, London

A marble bust of Alexander the Great in the British Museum, London Photo: © Tony Baggett / Fotolia

The problem with this, Landon says, is that when celebrities take up so much space in our culture, they eclipse people with meaningful accomplishments.

"You see some famous people with accomplishments but what I worry about are other celebrities with no accomplishments who are also occupying a lot of bandwidth in our culture. That's because people get rich doing that. Marketers pay the media to cover them, the media covers them because it helps them. So there's sort of a vicious cycle that helps celebrities. People who are famous for being famous get ahead at the cost of heroes."

The actual life of a celebrity isn't all its cracked up to be, Landon says – their life expectancy is shorter than the average human being and many struggle with substance abuse, overspending, low self-esteem and narcissism – yet this doesn't seem to diminish their appeal.

Studies show today's children aspire to be famous over anything else – or at least in close proximity to fame as a celebrity assistant.

"The proximity to celebrity is enough for many young children, who are not aspiring to the values of heroism - I want to help the community I want to do good - but saying I want to be famous or I want to know a famous person closely."

Kim Kardashian poses with Marilyn Monroe's iconic beige dress with crystals at the 2022 Met Gala.

Kim Kardashian – former personal assistant to Paris Hilton – at the Met Gala 2022 Photo: AFP

Working at People magazine, Landon learned that readers wanted to see famous people being "just like them" so to humanise them, photoshoots would include the celebrity hanging out in their kitchen and with their dogs.

Celebrity memoirs - which make up about half of the bestseller lists - are produced partly with this aim, too.

"These stars feel obligated to write a memoir in which they confess their sins. They say they had a terrible childhood or whatever. They say they've overcome these difficulties and they've been redeemed. And that redemption narrative is a big part of the celebrity memoirs and why they sell so well because they relate to people. People want to think 'well, that they're just like me."

Looking at the history of celebrity, Landon also discovered that an air of defiance gets people noticed and talked about – as demonstrated by the English writer Oscar Wilde and the American frontierswoman Calamity Jane.

"The more they defy the people's expectations for what is normal, the more attention they're getting."

Former US president Donald Trump is a good example of a controversial figure who has leveraged his celebrity status to change the narrative around not only himself but other politicians like former senator and Navy officer John McCain.

In the US, anybody who's a celebrity can run for public office, Landon says, and it doesn't seem to matter whether they have any relevant experience.

Celebrity politicians can become a "weapon of mass distraction" that breaks down community bonds.

"The community itself suffers when we have celebrities running for public office with no particular accomplishment and who really only can do damage."

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 04: Former U.S. President Donald Trump sits at the defense table with his defense team in a Manhattan court during his arraignment on April 4, 2023, in New York City. Trump was arraigned during his first court appearance today following an indictment by a grand jury that heard evidence about money paid to adult film star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 presidential election. With the indictment, Trump becomes the first former U.S. president in history to be charged with a criminal offense.   Seth Wenig-Pool/Getty Images/AFP (Photo by POOL / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

 Former US president Donald Trump appears at the Manhattan Criminal Court in April 2023. Photo: POOL