Hypertrophic Celebrity

How to Cite

Mole, T. (2004). Hypertrophic Celebrity. M/C Journal, 7(5). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2424
Vol. 7 No. 5 (2004): 'fame'
Published 2004-11-01

Critics are always trying to catch up with the phenomena they analyse, and critics of celebrity culture are no different. For most of its history, the celebrity apparatus has had a vested interest in staying invisible. So long as it remained illegible to cultural analysis, it could claim to be simply a transparent medium for exhibiting star quality. The celebrity’s public profile could appear to be the well-earned result of talent and determination, or the seemingly magical crystallization of his or her personality. But recently, some of the mechanics of celebrity culture have gained their own prominence. This hypertrophic state produces new cultural mutations and opens new possibilities for critique.

Celebrity culture has a long history of structuring the production, distribution and reception of texts around the mystique of a particularly fascinating individual (Braudy). While apparently revealing the deep selfhood of a famous person to a mass audience, the cultural apparatus of celebrity concealed the industrial conditions in which its texts were produced. The hagiographic writings of journalists and biographers, meanwhile, focussed on the unique qualities of celebrated individuals and thus functioned as an adjunct to the apparatus. Recently, an academic critique of celebrity has emerged, which strategically brackets the experience of the individual in order to focus on the phenomenon’s cultural scaffolding. P. David Marshall theorised celebrity’s place in the circulation of power, Joshua Gamson used audience interviews to broaden our understanding of how it is consumed, and Tyler Cowen analysed its effect on the economy. Richard Dyer, Joe Moran and Charles L. Ponce de Leon considered celebrity’s place in film, literature and journalism respectively. And critics such as Carl Freedman, David Shumway and Sharon O’Dair observed its incursions into politics and the academy.

These studies made it possible to think critically about the mechanisms that celebrity culture had traditionally kept hidden. But I contend that celebrity culture has changed the way it operates, reflexively revealing some of its mechanisms. The structure of the apparatus is becoming as much an object of fascination as the individuals it promotes. An organic structure becomes hypertrophic when it grows in such an exaggerated way that its function in the organism or ecosystem is affected. Hypertrophic celebrity now requires cultural critics to develop new kinds of insight and sophistication.

Hypertrophic celebrity culture has seen the rise of several formats for interactive cross-platform content; they include Pop Idol, Pop Stars, Fame Academy and Big Brother. Generically related to “reality TV” – whose affinities with surveillance and social control have been remarked by Andrejevic, Grindstaff and Johnson, among others – these formats also have wider significance for celebrity culture. Whilst they remain primarily broadcast television programmes, their makers are keen to maximise the possibility of interacting with them via digital TV, the Internet, email, WAP, PDAs, SMS and the telephone. Moreover, they thrive on the free publicity provided by talk shows, magazines and so on. This platform-hopping exploits an important characteristic of celebrity culture that has not previously been so apparent. Although it appears to be centred on an individual, celebrity culture is in fact radically rhizomatic. It operates as an intertextual network in which texts from several media (film, TV, photography, print) collectively create a public profile that is not, finally, under anyone’s control.

The first symptom of this hypertrophy is a shift in how celebrity culture holds our attention. Each new celebrity product has to be dynamically different from what the celebrity has done before, yet also reassuringly familiar. The new work must offer new satisfactions, without detaching itself completely from a winning formula. The “classic” response to this dilemma was to structure a celebrity career around a developmental narrative of subjective growth. This marketing strategy underwrote a key element of bourgeois subjectivity. At the limit, it could lead to the multiple reinventions practised by, for example, Madonna or David Bowie, where the celebrity’s different incarnations appear to be linked by nothing but their own will to self-creation. With nothing else to lend continuity to their protean careers, we fall back on the assumption that it must be the hidden depths of their subjectivity that fascinate us so much. But the new celebrities, like other consumables, come with built-in obsolescence. Rather than developing, they are discarded. Take David Sneddon, winner of the first UK Fame Academy. His first single went straight to the top of the charts in January 2003, but by 2004 he’d quit singing to write songs instead. Or take One True Voice, the boy band constructed by Pop Stars: The Rivals. They split after releasing only two singles.

As these examples suggest, what endures now is not the celebrity but the format. Just as postmodern architecture displays the ducts and pipes that make a building function, so hypertrophic celebrity foregrounds the mechanisms that manufacture celebrities. The Idols format, developed in the UK by Fremantle Media, has now reached 100 million viewers around the world. Its marketing rhetoric reveals its inherent contradictions. On one hand, it presents itself as “the televised search for a new national solo pop idol”. On the other it “continues to create major recording artists in all territories in which it airs”. Are these people discovered or created? The producers try to pander to our supposed preference for “organic” artists (The Beatles) over “manufactured” ones (The Monkees), by maintaining that they are seeking out star quality, and exposing performers to a public that can recognise talent when it sees it. But they remain fascinated by the structures that support a celebrity profile, and the Frankenstein-like possibility of creating a celebrity from scratch.

Fame Academy, developed by Initial (part of Endemol UK), is even more conflicted about the status of its contestants. On one hand it presents them as hard-working young hopefuls who undertake a “gruelling” schedule in an “Academy” which appears as a parody of an English boarding school. (The press release specifies that they have to sew name-tags into their underwear and go to bed at 11pm.) They compete for a record deal with Polydor, “the UK’s leading record company”. On the other hand the producers recognise that they are not nurturing talent but constructing celebrities. The prize also includes “a show business lifestyle for a year”. The producers are clearly aware that to nurture another modestly successful recording artist is not their aim. Musical success is only one element of a package that comprises a flat, a car, a holiday, a personal stylist and tickets to “VIP events”.

Since these undertakings are more concerned with the mechanics of celebrity culture than with any particular individual, it seems fitting that the formats have been far more successful than any of the contestants. The Idols format has been broadcast in 22 territories, from the USA to Kazakhstan; 6.9 million votes were cast in the first season of Fame Academy; and a third season of Pop Stars is planned. Most successful of all, however, has been Big Brother, the format developed by Endemol in the Netherlands, and exported to twenty other countries. While the other formats discussed here remain caught between paradigms of discovery and construction, Big Brother makes no pretence of searching for exceptional or talented individuals. Instead, it explores the idea that anyone can be turned into a celebrity.

Exhibit A: Jade Goody. A 21-year-old dental nurse, Jade was a contestant (not the winner) on Big Brother 2 in the UK. During the series, she appeared on the front page of tabloid newspapers eighty-seven times. She went on to appear on the cover of the highest-selling issue of Heat magazine (547,000 copies), to feature in her own documentary (What Jade Did Next), to release two diet and exercise videos and to return to reality TV in Celebrity Wife Swap. Since Jade’s selling point is her entertaining ignorance, the publicists had some difficulty describing her, relying on the vague tautology “irrepressible and unstoppable”. Daniel Boorstin’s classic definition of the celebrity as someone who is “famous for being famous” does not begin to describe Jade. She is famous for having been made famous. She is the product of our new fascination with the mechanisms that make celebrity function.

But while some of the mechanisms that drive that apparatus now appear on the surface, they conceal a further layer of manipulation. Behind the pseudo-democracy of American Idol lies the watertight contract that the contestants were required to sign with 19 Group, founded by Simon Fuller. It owns the rights to the names, voices, likenesses and biographies of the contestants, everywhere and forever. It also has an option on the recording, merchandising and management of the ten finalists. Behind the disembodied voice of Big Brother lies the work of a production team driven to improve audience share, advertiser revenue and viewing figures. And behind them lie the four men who form the Executive Board of Endemol, whose companies turned over 914 million Euros last year. The hypertrophy of celebrity culture leaves us once again trying to catch up. No sooner had academic critics begun to theorise the apparatus of celebrity than it started to spawn new and self-conscious mutations in which the apparatus no longer relied on its own invisibility to do its work. We will need to be light on our feet to keep up with its ongoing metastases.

Author Biography

Tom Mole