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Book review: 'A Short History of Celebrity' by Fred Inglis

August 12, 2010|By Martin Rubin | Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Singer Britney Spears
Singer Britney Spears (Bryan Bedder / Getty Images )

The purpose of "A Short History of Celebrity," Fred Inglis' brief, energetic, stimulating screed, is to tell us that, although we think we live in the age of celebrity, it's been quite a while in coming. When we think of enthralled fans and groupies, media accounts of scandalous behavior and all manner of transgression, we inevitably think of rock stars and tabloids, but the model for all this was set nearly 200 years ago with the defining figure of George Gordon, Lord Byron.

When his lifestyle and his poetry combined, feeding off one another till he "awoke one morning and found myself famous," Lord Byron was indeed "a popular idol" — as were actors David Garrick and Edmund Kean before him and, earlier still, the much more sedate icon Samuel Johnson. Or take a more modern example: Long before the pugilist author Norman Mailer, there was Ernest Hemingway and before him Byron — boxing and other athletic exploits all contributing to the appeal of these writers.

Inglis has the erudition to trace how all this came about while keeping his finger on the still-accelerating beat of celebrity. In Tudor times, he points out, you had to be a monarch to be a real celebrity: Henry VIII and his daughter Queen Elizabeth I were the prime exemplars. Back then, of course, there were bona fide heroes like Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh. They, however, were famous for what they did: Henry and Elizabeth merely for what they were and that's, in the final analysis, what stars are made of.

Inglis says it wasn't only democratization that fostered the cult of the individual; technological improvements, such as better illumination on the stage, helped highlight figures, and cultural innovations, such as newspapers, photography and movies, created environments in which celebrity flourished — oxygenated and energized and with ever longer legs until it really was global.

But as the lighting grew ever brighter and the ways of keeping track multiplied, so did the burden of maintaining the image that encapsulated celebrity. If we think we live in a spa culture, fixated on looks and dieting, consider this from two centuries back:

"Byron was going bald, was ill more frequently as he paid the price for pretending eternal youth, put on fat and dieted it ferociously away, went riding hell for leather in torrential rain, kept up hellfire drinking to match, and paid the price in doctors' bills."

Only plastic surgery is missing! But what hasn't changed is that what seemed so glamorous from afar was, up close, seedy and disillusioning: full of the necessity to (in Yeats' words) "labour to be beautiful."

It is hard, in reading that description of the aging Byron, not to think of how perfectly it applies to Elvis Presley, and it's surprising that Inglis' capacity for reaching across time has deserted him here. Presley does not reign over this account of celebrity despite the fact that there is no figure in history who rode the tiger of fame so flamboyantly or was so publicly and heartbreakingly consumed by it. For Inglis, rock music seems to begin in 1963, as sex famously did for Philip Larkin. But when it comes to a real Tiger — Woods — this book is well up to date: Woods, Inglis writes, "has been readily fitted into the celebrity cliché accommodation, comprising singular talent, beautiful wife (and two children), stupendous wealth, multiple homes … and flavorsome scandal."

As celebrity has rolled on, gathering speed and intensity with every technological advance and innovation, you have its democratic apotheosis. Where once the silver screen beckoned irresistibly, its lure making "every young mechanic" think he "could be a panic," now everyone can be a star in his own production, his two minutes of fame assured. But if celebrity has flourished for so long, will the sword not eventually outwear its sheath? Won't it burn out? Perhaps, but for the foreseeable future anyway, it seems more likely that scandal, which has played such a crucial role in invigorating our appetites for celebrity, will produce ever "madder music and stronger wine" to keep people coming back for ever larger servings.

Rubin is a critic and the author of "Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life."

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