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Celebrity Conquers America

June 2024
12min read

King George lost us; Princess Di won us back. Certain changes made this possible.

If celebrity death tells us about celebrity life, then one great celebrity death of 1997 was a mother lode of information. The untimeliness contributed to the universal sense of shock, as did the violence, while the unsolved mysteries of the case added a macabre police-blotter spell. But a quick, rough, unexplained end alone did not account for the emotions that were unleashed—from Elton John’s distress at the funeral to the many flowers left at the death site of Gianni Versace.


If celebrity death tells us about celebrity life, then one great celebrity death of 1997 was a mother lode of information. The untimeliness contributed to the universal sense of shock, as did the violence, while the unsolved mysteries of the case added a macabre police-blotter spell. But a quick, rough, unexplained end alone did not account for the emotions that were unleashed—from Elton John’s distress at the funeral to the many flowers left at the death site of Gianni Versace.

Who? Right, the last celebrity dead person of 1997 before Princess Diana. Before ,him were Marshall Applewhite and the members of the Heaven’s Gate cult. After her, on the last day of the year, was Michael Kennedy. They followed one another like jumbo jets lined up to land at O’Hare Airport. They did not exercise equivalent power over us: Heaven’s Gate has already become a trivia question; Gianni Versace will be relegated to subcultures—crime and fashion buffs and gays. Princess Di and Michael Kennedy belong to ongoing sagas. But more deaths will come—Sonny Bono’s already has—each at the moment of impact sharing the same plane of celebrity.

Celebrity deaths punctuate a continuous flow of celebrity life, which, because it involves celebrities, is larger than life. Some of the actors on this stage have been performing there for a lifetime (Elizabeth Taylor). Some have been performing for longer (Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, JFK, Hitler). Some enjoy only moments. Memo to the Spice Girls: Where is Cyndi Lauper now? Hint: Mike Tyson is finding out.

A few celebrities are traditional figures of authority—royalty, politicians, military men (remember Colin PowelPs book tour). Many belong to another category of long standing, what Thomas Jefferson called the “aristocracy of talent” —though these days the aristocrats include basketball players and popular entertainers, which might have surprised Jefferson. Many people who make the grade, however, belong to neither category, and even those celebrities who are powerful or skilled often maintain their places in the pantheon for reasons that have little to do with their skill or power. Rudolph Giuliani is a minor celebrity. He is mayor of the nation’s largest city and a noted crime fighter. But his celebrity depends equally (maybe primarily) on his Letterman appearances, his maladroit drag acts, and a personality like a nutmeg grater.


There have always been celebrities in America, but have they always been like this? How did we get here? Is it a good place to be?

A celebrity is a famous person to whom one feels attached. Our attachment to him makes him “celebrated.” Mikhail Gorbachev was an American celebrity ten years ago. He is still famous—his doings get written up in Time and Newsweek —but he is no longer a celebrity. To be a celebrity, it is not enough to be known; one must also be vivid.

Another way of defining celebrities is to say that they are the people we think about even though we do not directly know them. Most of the time we think about our families, our neighborhoods, and our jobs. But unless we are Windsors, or work in Hollywood, the men and women we encounter in the daily walks of life are not celebrities. Celebrities are virtual acquaintances, not just for us but for masses of people.

Two hundred and fifty years ago celebrities in the Thirteen Colonies earned their status by the age-old means of rank and accomplishment. The powerful (most of whom had been born to power) sought to ensure celebrityhood by keeping their names and faces before the public. The King of England was on every coin, and prayers for him and his family were offered every Sunday in every Anglican church. In the colonies there were few circulating coins, and not everyone was an Anglican, but the king was universally known, and royal celebrity status was open to every monarch. To grasp it, the monarch had to add some extraordinary quality or deed. Commoners, who started from farther back, could achieve celebrity by even more extraordinary deeds.

The first three celebrities in American history—the first people who had, during their lifetimes, a powerful hold on virtually everyone—all were named George: George III, George Whitefield, and George Washington.

George III, who came to the throne in 1760, had other things going for him besides his title. He was the first British monarch in forty-six years to speak English fluently; his predecessors George I and George II had been German princes called to Britain to maintain the Protestant succession. George Ill’s tutor had raised him to be a patriot king who played an active role in his people’s fortunes, rebuking greedy and squabbling politicians. In the colonies it was hoped that the new King George would countermand specific policies that beleaguered the Americans. A gilded equestrian statue of the royal hero-to-be was erected at Bowling Green, in Manhattan. When these expectations, always unrealistic, were frustrated, the Revolution ensued, and the statue was pulled down and melted into bullets.

George Whitefield’s celebrity had a stronger basis. Whitefield was an English evangelist, a co-leader, with John Wesley, of a decades-long mid-century revival. When Whitefield’s doctrines and emotional style of preaching proved too hot for the established churches, he took I himself into the open air, where he sometimes addressed crowds of twenty thousand. Audiences of miners washed the coal dust from their faces wirh the tears thev shed. Whitefield preached throughout England and Scotland, and between 1739 to 1770 he made seven extensive tours of the colonies, from New Hampshire to Georgia, dying in Newburyport, Massachusetts. In the early days of the Revolution, when an American army passed through Newburyport to invade Canada, its soldiers would not leave until they had opened Whitefield’s grave and made relics of his burial garments.

Barnum was the archetypal impresario of the career of others. His first great attraction, Joice Heth, was a fraud.

The widest celebrity of all was enjoyed by the hero of the Revolution, George Washington. He annexed the adulation that had been directed at his royal namesake, and he refused to become a king himself, which made the adulation all the stronger. Washington Irving gave a comic description of this passing of the celebrity torch in his story “Rip Van Winkle.” When Rip, who has gone to sleep before the Revolution, returns to his hometown, he finds his favorite snug tavern replaced by a bustling hotel. Only the “ruby face” of the figure on the signboard remains the same—and its scepter has been painted out and replaced by a sword. Washington Irving was one of hundreds of American children named for the hero. In 1811 a Russian diplomat noted that “every American considers it a sacred duty to have a likeness of Washington in his house, just as we have images of God’s saints.”

One notable fact about early American celebrity was how much effort it took. George III enjoyed all the panoply of monarchy, augmented by the fevered political speculations of an intensely political age. Whitefield was an indefatigable orator. In his prime he preached forty to sixty hours each week; in the last years of his life, when he was slowed down by exhaustion and asthma, he cut his schedule to one sermon every weekday and three on Sundays. George Washington was on permanent and peripatetic display for almost a quarter of a century. As Commander in Chief he was seen by thousands of soldiers; as President he visited every state and held weekly open houses; in his years of “retirement” at Mount Vernon, he was besieged by guests, invited and uninvited. One laconic entry in his journal in the late 1790s notes that for the first time in twenty years, he and Martha dined alone.

Celebrities had to work so hard because communication and transportation were primitive, and when this is the case, ubiquity is almost impossible. The one medium of modern mass communication that existed in the eighteenth century was the printing press, which worked overtime, churning out handbills, books, and newspapers. But printed illustrations were generally fanciful, and skilled painters could reach only a portion of the population. Getting around in the flesh was equally difficult. A trip as short as New York to Albany took three days by coach or three days up the Hudson River, if the winds were favorable.

Another noteworthy aspect of eighteenth-century celebrity is that the feelings it evoked were simultaneously intense and limited. Washington led men in battle; Whitefield led them to salvation. These men held life, or afterlife, in their hands. But beyond these salient facts, relatively little was known of them. Mason Locke (a.k.a. Parson) Weems tried to fill in the gaps in Washington’s private life by telling such stories as that of the cherry tree. But Weems managed this only by making up many of his stories and publishing them after Washington’s death, when they could not be contradicted. There were also many matters that Weems neither bothered nor dared to address. Americans did not care what Washington ate or drank. They did not learn that he had had a youthful crush on his neighbor’s wife until late in the nineteenth century, when a few stray letters were discovered (Washington’s old flame had burned the rest). Americans knew fewer details about the father of their country than they know about the average network news anchor today.

Washington died in 1799. In the next century the drags on American celebrity began to be removed. The telegraph and the rotary press increased the immediacy and the reach of print. Whereas in 1776 the Declaration of Independence took five days to reach New York from Philadelphia, in 1863 Americans learned about Gettysburg and Vicksburg the day after they happened. The twentieth century added images and voices to the media mix as well as quantum leaps in speed and extent, so that certain celebrity events —such as heavyweight prizefights—must now be artificially embargoed or else anyone with a television could follow every uppercut as it happened. In the next century we’ll be able to follow them on laptops, phone screens, twoway wrist monitors, or whatever else we have by then.

Improved transportation brought celebrities to more people. Atlantic crossings became so much easier that celebrity Englishmen made the trip not because they were impelled to preach God’s word, like Whitefield, but simply to read their own words, like Charles Dickens. At the time of Dickens’s first American tour, in 1842, the world had grown so small that he felt entitled to complain about American copyright laws. The American reaction so displeased him that he wrote the American chapters of Martin Chuzzlewit. By the time of his second trip, in 1867-68, the copyright situation had been smoothed out, and so had his temper. Now the world is small even for celebrities as minor and specialized as the globe-trotting academics of David Lodge’s novels.

We all intuit that these companions are never really with us, and so we prefer them wasted, addicted, or dead.

The explosion of media and the contraction of the world 1 improved conditions for celebrity. Two other factors, internal to celebrity itself, also changed, one having to do with process, the other with content. Celebrities were discovered by marketers. Whitefield and Washington had not pursued their careers for the money, and famous entertainers, such as the great actors from the days of the Globe Theater on, had made money only for themselves and their companies. What was new in the nineteenth century was the impresario of the career of others, the figure whose profession was promoting celebrity. The American archetype was Phineas Taylor Barnum. After several unsuccessful careers (a stint in journalism was cut short by a libel suit), Barnum took up showmanship. His first great attraction was a fraud: Joice Heth, a black woman whom he billed as more than 160 years old and as George Washington’s nurse. When Heth died in 1836, it was discovered that she had been no older than 70. Barnum kept moving. Some of his stars were the genuine article. Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” had a truly lovely soprano voice; Chopin described it as “surrounded not only by an ordinary halo, but by a kind of northern lights.” Barnum made her undoubted talents the focus of a sensational two-year American tour (1850-52), during which he guaranteed her one thousand dollars per performance, plus expenses. Lind and Barnum made out handsomely; the fact that he was paying her so much was part of her appeal.

By Barnum’s time there had already been a shift in what was thought proper to know about celebrities. In America this shift occurred first in politics. (The British wanted to know about the life of Lord Byron; America had produced great statesmen but no great poets.) The first elements of the lives of politicians revealed under the new rules of celebrity were the skeletons in their closets, and the first victim was President Thomas Jefferson. In 1802 the Richmond Recorder ran a precedent-setting story by one James T. Callendar: “It is well known that the man whom it delighteth the people to honor , keeps and for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his slaves. Her name is SALLY [Sally Hemings, of course]. The name of her eldest son is Tom. His features are said to bear a striking though sable resemblance to those of the president himself.” All the elements of American celebrity gossip are here: the air of certainty ("it is well known that"); the reality of rumor ("his features are said to bear"); good old sex. Only the italicized Bible quotation seems old hat. Interestingly, Callendar’s first big scoop, five years earlier, had been a story accusing Alexander Hamilton of a corrupt connection with a pair of crooks while he had been Treasury Secretary. Hamilton replied, in self-defense, that his connection with the lowlives had been based merely on blackmail and adultery. At the end of the eighteenth century, public money was more important, to accusers and accused alike, than private lust. But the Sally Hemings story put the zipper alongside the pocket in American public life.

Innocuous quotidian details of private life also became a part of political discourse. Jefferson and his Democratic-party successors began the process, emphasizing their simple tastes. Andrew Jackson let his frontier friends trample the White House furniture in celebrating his inauguration in 1829. In 1840 the Whigs, smarting under repeated defeats, brought the process to perfection in their campaign for William Henry Harrison. Harrison’s campaign manager, Nicholas Biddle, laid down the ground rule: “Let him say not one single word about his principles, or his creed—let him say nothing—promise nothing. . . . Let the use of pen and ink be wholly forbidden as if he were a mad poet in Bedlam.” What replaced principles were Whig paeans to their man’s humble origins and way of life, so that Harrison became the “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” candidate. Never mind that these details were false (Harrison was the son of Benjamin Harrison V, a wealthy Virginia planter). Homespun mundanities, real and imagined, became a staple of political biography from then on. Parson Weems, multiplied, became the norm.

One thing more had to happen before the emergence of modern American celebrity. That was the collapse of authority. Authority is the recognition of someone’s right to rule and hence is always a problematic concept in a democracy, which is founded on vox populi, doubly so when the democracy has a market economy, which is also founded on that principle. Yet great men have managed to exercise authority over the country as a whole, or over its mediating institutions, through appeal to principles and creed and the manifest force of their character.

But when people choose their celebrities spontaneously, what do they look for? Beauty and the ability to entertain, obviously. Look at the covers on any magazine rack; check out Jay Leno’s guests. But these are only distant second- and third-place finishers. The winner, by a mile, will be companionship. People want celebrities they can feel close to, that they can take to bed and hug. (Hug, more than make love to; closeness is stronger and more primal than desire.) They want voices they can play in their inner ear. The Russian diplomat compared Washington’s pictures to icons; our celebrity icons, like those of the Orthodox Church, are meant to be kissed. Probably the craving for companionship is related to the loss of authority. If people don’t know what they are doing on earth, they at least want to know the people they see in the celebrity sky above them.


As it happened, companionship is the very thing that the ubiquitous media can most easily provide. Beauties come and go; entertainment is hit-or-miss. But companionship—nothing simpler. A system that is up and running, twenty-four hours a day, in word, image, and sound, can make you know anyone or anything better than you know your underwear. After all, you look at that less often.

Consider the real star of 1997, Princess Diana. What made her America’s, as well as England’s, rose? Was she beautiful? As beautiful as a tall, horsy millionairess who hinged on clothes could be. Entertaining? Somewhat. The line in the TV interview about her marriage being crowded was well delivered (undoubtedly it had been written for her). Were there traditional reasons for her stature? No achievements, apart from some fashionable charities. She was a royal.

Princess Diana had one true talent—she ate the lens—and one relevant habit—promiscuous self-revelation. So the world knew her and mourned her passing.

Are our means and our desires then the perfect fit, the psychic perpetual-motion machine? Not quite, for the companionship celebrities offer is a lie and a cheat. How could it be otherwise? We’ve never met. Since, unlike Washington or Whitefield, they have never saved our lives or our souls, they have never affected us. All we know about them is that we know them—and it turns out we don’t.

Celebrities are imaginary companions, like Calvin’s talking tiger, Hobbes. But unlike Calvin, we did not make up our celebrity companions, and we were told they were real. It mattered less that William Henry Harrison had never set foot in a log cabin except by accident; Presidents only last four years. (Poor Harrison, it turned out, only lasted thirty days.) Celebrities promise to be with us always, as a collective cast of companions, if not individually. But we all intuit, at some level, that they are never with us and that we have been diddled. The result is resentment.

That is why we like our celebrities wasted, addicted, or dead. Elizabeth Taylor is on the covers of supermarket tabloids because she has weight and alcohol problems, not in spite of them. Elvis impersonators overwhelmingly mimic the white-fringed bloated druggie. Marilyn Monroe moved to another level when she killed herself. Each of these celebrities had some genuine talent or quality—Taylor was beautiful, Elvis could sing, Marilyn could walk — but they entered celebrity heaven because of their woes, which simultaneously gratify us and relieve us of the burden of revenge.

No one wanted Princess Diana to die the way she did —it was too brutal—but had she instead slipped into a descending spiral of playboy husbands, increasingly erratic interviews, and embarrassing involuntary photo ops, it would have been a celebrity feast. Her in-laws, adulteries, and bulimia were the foretaste.

This year brings its own crop of celebrities, as will every year. Barring some unimaginable catastrophe or shift, the system can’t not run. It wants us, and we want it. But that doesn’t mean we entirely like it. The engine runs, but there is friction. Rattles. A slight, sour smoke.

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