Anthony J. Ferri, a professor of journalism, invokes a term used by Walter Lippman in a 1922, to link the imagined celebrities to the actual characters we read and gossip about. There is, he reckons, “a distinction between their real environment or the objectified world, and the ‘pseudoenvironment’ made up of the images in our heads of the world outside.” None of these helps us understand why we have become so drawn to celebrities in recent years, though Ferri offers the view: “Celebrities, whether they are acting out a role in a particular medium or behaving badly in everyday life, help us purge our frustrations.” I’ll return to this, but for now merely want to record the thoughts of three writers, all from different intellectual backgrounds, but all agreed that, when we talk or think about celebrities, we are not referring to actual people, but rather to ideas, thoughts, concepts or mental impressions of those people. What Daniel Harris calls mirages: “Our contact with celebrities is so limited that we view them as mirages.”
“Celebrities exist because people have the capacity to fantasize,” writes Andrew Houston. He goes on: “Fantasy is usually conceived as a scenario wherein a person’s desire is realized.” Houston, a drama scholar, believes celebrity culture functions as a kind of drama we stage in our own minds. Our dramatis personae are the actors we see in the popular media and we write our own scripts, according to our own wishes. As Houston concludes: “Our attraction to celebrities is a lesson in how to desire.” Celebrity culture, in this conception, becomes a theatre of the senses. I was reminded of this by the breathtakingly passionate response to the death of Peaches Geldof (pictured). Whether people actually knew her or not is irrelevant: she touched people in so many ways without even realizing it. Not always through her columns or even her media appearances, nor even by her presence. But by her imagined presence: what we thought her to be. Neal Gabler, a cultural historian, and film critic, has written: “Celebrity really isn’t a person. Celebrity is more like a vast, multicharacter show.” He suggests: “Celebrity is narrative, even though we understandably conflate the protagonist of the narrative with the narrative itself and use the terms interchangeably.” While he doesn’t define exactly what he means by narrative, I presume he refers to an unbroken account, consisting of incidents and people that connect to form an overall story. The story may be a chronicle, or a history to record of events and it may incorporate elements of a fable in the sense that it conveys a moral or lesson. Peaches herself was and perhaps still is a narrative. Her death presents us with an occasion to reflect on why we find some celebrities endlessly fascinating. Below I extract a few paragraphs from the Introduction of the new edition of my book Celebrity Culture.