Tag Archives: culture

MYTH-MAKING: Elizabeth Taylor, Liz Smith and the birth of celebrity culture

Ellis Cashmore discusses reactions to his new book with his commissioning editor at Bloomsbury, Katie Gallof.

Media of Elizabeth Taylor

Katie Gallof: Well your new book on Elizabeth Taylor is provoking some reaction, isn’t it? It seems you’ve captivated some reviewers, and infuriated others. Liz Smith, in particular, has moved from the first response to the second. What goes on here?

Ellis Cashmore: First let me introduce Liz Smith, @LizSmth, who, in all probability doesn’t need much of an introduction. She’s the most experienced and arguably most respected society journalist in the world and, even in her nineties, files an influential column called New York Social Diary in which she chronicles the lives of celebrities. To call her a gossip columnist – which I do in the book – is really like describing the Sistine Chapel as a church. She is the doyen of celebrity journalists.

KG: She was a friend of Elizabeth Taylor, right?

EC: Absolutely. A confidante too, I would surmise. Certainly, Liz Smith covered Elizabeth Taylor’s career in depth and for a period of time that qualifies her to comment authoritatively on virtually any aspect of her life.

KG: And your book is, of course, about Taylor’s life, but also the cultural changes she both lived through and, in her way, instigated.

EC: Yes, my argument is that Taylor ushered in what we now call celebrity culture: audiences were as fascinated by her private life as they were by her dramatic performances and she was adept at manipulating the media in a way that suited her own ends perfectly. In a genuine sense, she helped cultivate our appetite for scandal, particularly with her tempestuous romance with Richard Burton. We take this for granted now, of course. But La Liz, as Liz Smith calls her, was the first Hollywood star to capture fans in this way. Incidentally, Liz Smith wrote about Taylor and Burton: ““They trusted me and eventually I became the only journalist who could get to them.”

KG: So what did Liz Smith think about your book?

EC: In her column New York Social Diary, she offered her view that I “intelligently and dramatically” address the changing status of fame, specifically how Taylor benefited from scandals that would have ruined lesser stars, whether Taylor deliberately started those scandals, if she delighted in or squirmed from the global fame she acquired and how she turned her fame to her own purposes. In a lovely phrase, Liz Smith notes my analysis of “How she [Taylor] made mythology out of her travails and happiness.” You can imagine how thrilled I was when she concluded: “I found myself agreeing with most of his conclusions, perhaps because I myself had come to believe, and had written those same conclusions, over the many, many years I knew and had unprecedented access to the star of stars.”

KG: Praise indeed from someone who has been writing about the stars for at least four decades. I understand she launched her renowned New York Daily News column in 1976.

EC: Yes. In fact, she implicitly invited me to contact her for further information when she wrote that her input could have “made his good book better.” I don’t doubt this.

KG: So what’s changed?

EC: Three days later in another New York Social Diary column, Liz Smith wrote that the more she thought about my book’s references to her, the more “pissed-off” she became. Naturally, it wasn’t my intention to upset her and I don’t think there was any inaccuracy in my account. But I recorded how she was present at many pivotal events in Taylor’s career and was closer to her than any other journalist. This led some writers to assume she lost some objectivity and became too chummy. This wasn’t my criticism: in fact, it came from Ann Gerhart, who, in 1993, wrote critically after Liz Smith had emceed a press conference at which Taylor introduced her range of fragrances: “Now, the veteran gossip columnist is a celebrity in her own right, by virtue of her years of access and hefty salary, and many times she has hosted various functions to raise money for charity. But a journalist serving as a flack, helping an interview subject hustle a commercial venture, that’s something entirely different and smacked, to us, of ethics violations.”

KG: That was certainly a stinging censure.

EC: It was, though, in a sense, journalists can, indeed have to become familiar, if not friendly with their subjects. Remember Gerhart’s remarks were 23 years ago. Today, we consumers expect journalists to provide insider accounts of the most personal details of celebrities’ private lives. This is not sycophancy, but Liz Smith was ahead of her time in this respect.  I know she grumbles that many critics have given her “bitchy write-ups,” but I’m hoping she doesn’t include me. In writing the book, I’ve tried to be analytical and detached.

KG: I notice that, at the end of the book, you include her in the roll of influential individuals who, in their own way, shaped Taylor and, in turn, the world in which she lived.

EC: Indeed I do. The whole book is as much about times of Elizabeth Taylor, as well as her life. She was inseparable from her cultural context and, of course, Liz Smith was part of that context. I quote her poignant phrase after Taylor died: “She was only 79, but had lived a thousand years, had fired up and exhausted endless fantasies for herself and the millions who watched her.”


Katie Gallof is Bloomsbury’s Senior Commissioning Editor for Film and Media Studies. She’s based in New York. katie.gallof@bloomsbury.com  @BloomsburyMedia

Ellis Cashmore is author of Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption and Beyond Black: Race and Celebrity in Obama’s America. He is a visiting professor of sociology at Aston University  e.cashmore1@aston.ac.uk.  @elliscashmore


Q: Yo, Adrian! I see Sly has taken a job as a delivery man for Warburtons bread. I love the commercial (above), but I’m scratching my head: what on earth did the toughguy want to do this for?

A: I’ve give you a clue: five letters beginning with “m” and ending with “y.” Not that Sly is short of a few bucks. But the days have gone when A-listers thought twice about cheapening themselves by becoming pitchmen or pitchwomen for products they had probably never heard of until their agents called.

Q: I hear the total commercial, including production, cost in the region of £15 million, which includes Stallone’s fee, their ad agency’s commission and so on and so forth. Warburton’s are going to have to sell an almighty number of loaves to justify this. It hardly makes commercial sense, does it?

A: Not on the surface: customers are no suddenly going to rush out and buy Warburtons bread as a result of viewing the commercial. But advertising doesn’t worth in such a straightforward fashion. In his book Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion, Michael Schudson makes a good point: “Advertising is much less powerful than advertisers and critics of advertising claim,” but qualifies this with “advertising helps sell goods even if it never persuades a consumer of anything.” He argues that a self-fulfilling prophecy operates, with key personnel tending to believe advertising works. In other words, if retailers and sales staffs think advertising works, they tend to push one product rather than another. For an ad to work, it must be seen to work.

Q: Let me get this straight. If an advertiser can design some way of not just distinguishing a product, by distinguishing it in a way that enables both vendors to stock it and consumers to confer extra value on it, then they have something like the goose that laid the golden eggs.

A: Yes. And this is, of course, where celebrities come in. Advertisers are always on the lookout for a “face of … “ some product or another, that is, someone who personifies a product or a range or products or perhaps even an entire brand. That someone might be the right match or fit for one type of product rather than another. Elizabeth Hurley was the spokesperson for and hence the face of Estée Lauder for ten years up to 2005. Presumably Lauder — which owns, among other lines, Bobbi Brown and Clinique — felt she radiated the kind of values it wanted associated with the brand. That is, until she hit 40, when Lauder replaced her with Gwyneth Paltrow, seven years her junior. Cheryl Fernandez-Versini endorses L’Oreal products. Budweiser or thousands of other products would have found little use for Hurley, Paltrow or Cheryl. Unless Bud decided to re-position its beer in the marketplace and tried to target women. This is an unlikely scenario: Budweiser knows its demographics, which is why the company often uses male artists, like Jay-Z, who are easily identifiable and embody the kind of values typically associated with an uncomplicated beer. Check out this commercial:

Q: Of course, we don’t need it pointing out, but, whatever the pitch, the appeal or the spiel, the consumer appears to get only one thing — merchandise. A celebrity’s approval might convince some consumers that they are buying something authentic, substantial or even profound. The product might be promoted as desirable and “real.” And the consumer might walk away from the store feeling like they have acquired something of genuine value. They might even believe they have taken another step toward being the person they want to be. That doesn’t alter the fact that they are buying a commodity, plain if not simple.

A: Value doesn’t exist in any pure form: products are invested with value. Think of the countless items discarded by celebrities and endowed with great value when circulated on eBay or some other exchange system. An old toothbrush, a used tissue or a worn sock become exceptional items. Most shoppers are aware that endorsed products are, essentially, the same as the generic ones: the majority of products are functionally indistinguishable. Advertising agencies are as aware of this as consumers; which is why they get paid to make those indistinguishable products distinguishable. Selecting a celebrity to advertise a product is a science, like astrology or alchemy; in other words, a nebulous, imprecise and uncertain one. The metrics are equivocal. Media visibility (exposure in print, television, radio and online) is a key factor. Hence film and television actors, tv personalities, models, sportsmen and woman, authors, musicians, comics and, of course, reality television figures are obvious candidates. Their visibility is measurable in terms of appearances and namechecks. Beyond that, the science becomes, at best, art, and, at worst guesswork.

Q: But there are some celebs, like Taylor Swift, Beyoncé or George Clooney who offer instant recognition practically everywhere in the world. The cut across all demographics. This surely makes them worth it to advertisers, doesn’t it?

A: Yes, they and the likes of JLo and Angelina Jolie are among an elite of celebrities whose name or image adds value to a brand and, in turn, make products move off shelves. In this sense, they are in the same league as Michael Jordan once was. Jordan is still busy endorsing Nike products, of course, but in the 1990s he was without peers. Then along came David Beckham and showed that Jordan wasn’t a one-off: sports celebrities are sought-after endorsers nowadays. Such is the confidence of advertisers in the added value brought to a product by the imprimatur of a celebrity that Chanel No. 5, in 2004, bought the services of Nicole Kidman for just one television commercial.

Q: Advertising has moved away from the practical approach in which product information was at the forefront. But seriously: does anyone else in the world believe Kim Kardashian or any of the other celebrities are sincere when they advocate, recommend or vouch for a smartphone? Is anyone so absolutely, completely and utterly gullible that they are prepared to accept the word of a well-paid mercenary when they part with their hard-earned cash?

A: I’d probably like to say the answer to all these is an emphatic no! On inspection, though, we probably conclude that it’s no-ish. If a person who is endorsing a product is believable, what he or she says is likely to be convincing; but the fit between the two is crucial. Both the statement and its source must be believable. When advertisers scan for likely endorsers, credibility is uppermost in their minds. If consumers regard the celebrity as credible, they’re more likely to take notice of the message. Which brings up back to Sly. No one thinks he is a devoted fan of Warburtons bread (I doubt if they can get it in Californian supermarkets, anyway). But he is known by everyone, well-liked (as the boxoffice of his movies confirms) and is not known for advertising any product that pays him. I still think it’s risky advertising, but the commercial has received national publicity, which means the ad has been seen over and over again and the name Warburton’s has been on everybody’s lips. Hey, it’s even got the like of you and me talking about it. So maybe Sly is worth it, after all.



Q: I see the BBC has been in the news recently. Something about changing the way the licence fee is collected. What’s it all about?

A: BBC has been under pressure for as long as I can remember, particularly over the licence fee, which is currently £145.50, or just under 40p per day and is used to pay for the Beeb’s tv, radio and online output. The Corporation’s charter is good until 2017, but discussions have started to explore an alternative to the fee, partly because it doesn’t apply to tablets and smartphones. So theoretically you could watch tv without having a traditional set and be exempt. But the more pressing reason is simply that the licence fee is showing its age.

Q: Why do we pay at all? We don’t have to pay for ITV and, if we don’t want Sky and the other digitals, we can just choose to stick with Freeview.

A: BBC launched in 1922, but, of course, it was strictly radio back then. It started television broadcasts after the end of Word War II in 1945, but hardly anyone had tv sets. The first BBC studio in Shepherd’s Bush, London, starting making programmes in 1950. That was the start of the takeoff period for television. It’s important to remember that, when BBC tv started, it wasn’t intended to convey entertainment only: the other parts of its original remit were to educate and inform. In those days, it was by no means clear that television would grow into the dominant medium it became. Remember: cinema was in pole position and, a small screen showing black and white images in the corner of the room seemed to offer no challenge. BBC was in public ownership, of course. There was no pressure to operate as a profit-making company: it was, as we are still told today, a public service provider.

Q: So what changed?

A: Commercial television launched in 1955. ITV, as we know it today, was a network of regional broadcasters without public funding. So the organization took its cue from American television: in the US, the first tv companies were radio owners and were used to what we would call today a business model.  Radio was, after all, just another way of advertising products at a time in the early twentieth century when people were beginning to surround themselves with the kind of products we now take for granted. Advertising, in the 1920s, was quite primitive and radio offered a channel that was novel. The programmes were effectively just fillers for the ads. But important fillers: if nobody listened, the ads were reaching nobody. Television in the US was based on the same commercial approach and relied only on advertising revenue.

Q: So BBC found itself in a market in the 1950s?

A: Sort of. But not in the sense that they were a competitor of ITV. BBC was guaranteed funding through licence fees. ITV and, for that matter, all the channels that followed, depended on advertising for their money. BBC isn’t unique in this respect, but it is unusual in one respect: most other public service television channels are not dominant. Australia’s ABC is an exception. BBC has remained the UK’s powerhouse broadcaster for many years. So ITV and then Channel 4 (in 1982) and, later, in 1995, Channel 5, while important players have never managed to challenge BBC. Everything changed in 1989 when the first satellites started transmitting and subscription tv arrived.

Q: You mean television that we paid for?

A: Yes, Sky and others charged a monthly fee to receive its programmes. Sky was one of Rupert Murdoch’s companies and looked as if it would fold quickly: it haemorrhaged money before Sky secured the rights to screen then then fledgling Premier League. Then it went from strength to strength until it had over 10 million subscribers.

Q: I begin to see BBC’s predicament: all the other tv companies — and there are hundreds now — rely on advertising money or subscription fees, but BBC occupies a privileged position because it gets the licence fee money no matter what. So what’s the problem?

A: This: with so many other broadcasters, consumers are asking why, if there is a television market, they’re not given the choice not to pay their licence fee. OK, it’s relatively expensive and presents pretty good value compared, for example, to Sky …

Q: … but not compared to ITV or the others on Freeview.

A: True. But think of all the BBC radio channels too.

Q: I take your point, but the solution to the whole problem is obvious, surely: let BBC show commercials.

A: This is an extremely sensitive subject because, the second the BBC allowed ads, it would lose the independence it’s held so sacred: it surrenders itself to market forces and, as such, would be bound to popularize its content.

Q: And the problem with that is … ?

A: BBC would become just like any other tv channel and lose the unique quality that has made it arguably the most admired broadcaster in the world. It could mean an end to adventurous programming and a reliance on proven commodities. Challenging dramas such as last year’s The Missing ( and the recent Wolf Hall (trailer below) and  might never have been made. I’m not saying ITV, Sky and the others don’t make quality programmes. Both broadcasters are successful. ITV, after a rocky period, can boast the best watched programme Coronation Street, and Britain’s most popular programme internationally Downton Abbey. And Sky has its Fortitude (trailer above). So I don’t think we can complain about quality.

Q: You missed The X Factor and Broadchurch. Both ITV.

A: Yes. ITV has proved it can survive and prosper in a congested market where it has to compete against, not just the BBC, but hundreds of other channels in the digital age. If you’ve noticed, it allows not just outright advertising, but product placement. This means that its programmes sometimes feature branded products that are in full view. It alerts viewers to this by showing a capital “P” on the screen at the outset.

Q: So why don’t BBC do something similar? After all, advertisers would clamour to get on BBC shows. It could also invite sponsors. You know. “A certain product presents EastEnders” or “So-and-so brings you Strictly Come Dancing.”

A: I imagine BBC have been contemplating this for years. It’s resisted any form of advertising, no matter how, subtle or unobtrusive and my guess it will propose some sort of tax, or levy, as an alternative to the licence, before it allows ads. But you’re right: this possibility is sure to be aired. After all, we are surrounding by ads whenever we go online, or to the movies or even just walking about — count how many people you see who have brands emblazoned across their shirts, or bags, or trainers (see the picture at the start of this blog). We’ve become walking advertisement without seeming to mind. So I suspect BBC will be asked to consider some sort of advertising. I don’t especially welcome the development, but I think it will be hotly debated before 2017.

Should the new Culture Secretary know about … er, culture?

Sajid Javid: the man who thinks big

So we have a new Culture Secretary. I wonder how he rates Daenerys Targaryenthe’s chances of snagging the most coveted seat of all, the Iron Throne. And whether he thinks Darren Aronofsky has succeeded in making an old religious story fresh, germane yet fantastical. Or if he’s wonderstruck by Liz Taylor’s 23.44 carat emerald pendant hanging from a circle of 16 step-cut octagonal Colombian emeralds, currently on display at the V&A. Or if Sajid Javid (pictured) knows about any of these. Or even if he should. That’s the thing about Culture Secretaries: they’re not very cultural. Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, to give the title its full nomenclature, is a cabinet position whose incumbent has responsibility for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.It was created back in 1992 by the Conservative government of the day and its first occupant David Mellor, a diastemic non-practising barrister, immediately dispossessed the position of any gravitas when he succumbed to weaknesses of the flesh and became known as the Minister of Fun. His scandalous behaviour – mild as it is by today’s standards (toe-sucking while wearing a Chelsea football shirt) – inclined him to resign. The office has never truly recovered: it’s still not regarded as a serious political position and, of course, the recent Maria Miller debacle that led directly to Javid’s promotion has hardly lent the office dignity.

At first glance, Javid does not look to the manor born: son of a Pakistani migrant who bootstrapped his way from a penniless bus driver to a small business owner, Javid studied economics and headed for a career in finance until his political epiphany. He apparently sacrificed a £3 million per year income when he hitched his wagon to David Cameron’s star.His professional life so far is garlanded with achievements, like being the youngest ever VP of Chase Manhattan Bank in New York and a director of Deutsche Bank. But nowhere do we find evidence of an interest in the arts, or any aspect of culture, contemporary or historical, for that matter. Perhaps I’m being priggish. This is after all a government position and, as such, requires an unimpaired pragmatic mind, sound decision-making capacities and a sneering disregard for the taxpaying electorate when filing expense claims. I can hardly contain my indifference over Mr Javid’s appointment. Does being a commendably over-achieving workaholic qualify someone for this job? I am simple-minded enough to expect someone who occupies the position of Culture Secretary to have more links with culture than sharing the same hairdo as Vin Diesel. Having said this, I prefer Mr Javid to the outgoing Mrs Miller, even if she did have some experience in advertising, which is, after all, a creative industry and very much part of today’s cultural landscape. Much as I abhor her slyness, I’m not naïve enough to think she is in her own little universe in this respect. So, when I say prefer Mr Javid to Mrs Miller, I mean in the same way that I favour a sodium thiopental injection to being broken on the wheel. I doubt if Mr Javid will bring more than a Stakhanovite work ethic and a self-serving determination to climb the greasy pole to a job that teems with promise but rarely delivers. How many great Culture Secretaries can you recall? Mr Javid’s department is not exactly a political tinderbox: it makes policies for, among other things, arts and culture, of course; but also for gambling, museums, tourism, sport … Oh yes, and media ownership and mergers.

This last area might provide Mr Javid with a lively test. Richard Desmond, who owns Channel 5, has recently put his free-to-air TV channel on the market. The home of Australian soaps Neighbours and Home and Away in the UK as well as Big Brother is already attracting interest from American and Australian media behemoths. At about £700m, the terrestrial, free-to-air channel could be enticing, considering the potential viewing audiences in the UK (it’s 2013 Celebrity Big Brother drew more than 3 million viewers.) Discovery is favourite. But what happens should Discovery get together with BSkyB to launch a joint bid? The British satellite broadcaster’s majority owner Rupert Murdoch has close connections with Discovery’s boss John Malone and BSkyB has a long relationship with Discovery, carrying several of its channels on its pay-TV platform. It also supplies content to Channel 5’s news.So far, Murdoch’s attempts to set foot on terrestrial broadcasting have been frustrated and, of course, the Leveson Inquiry seemed to have slammed the door shut in 2012.Mr Javid’s pulse will quicken if he’s pressed into service on this deal; he’ll surely recall the Business Secretary Vince Cable’s maladroit declaration of “war” on Mr Murdoch in 2010 – a declaration that effectively put paid to his grand political aspirations. And he’ll remember how another ex-Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt had to fight for his political career after the emergence of a cache of emails between his office and Mr Murdoch’s multinational empire News Corporation over the company’s bid for the remaining part of BSkyB it does not already own.  Maybe an appetite for a down-and-dirty struggle with corporate string-pullers and egotistical politicos is a more relevant qualification than a familiarity with Game of Thrones, Noah or a Glamour of Italian Fashion: 1945-2014 exhibition ­-­though his documented enthusiasm for Star Trek may equip him handily. I hope he knows the 1998 episode “The Killing Game,” in which the USS Voyager is captured and turned into a holographic battleground where a struggle for world domination takes place.

via Telegraph