Beauty and the ‘Cult of Celebrity’

by Kasey West

Fame is not a new phenomenon. Characters of renown were admired in Ancient Greek and early Christian cultures (1). Military, political and romantic heroes were worshipped similarly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Tales of their achievements formed the basis of the pedestal on which they were raised. However, the ‘Graphic Revolution’ (2) of the twentieth century heralded profound changes in the nature of stardom. Developments in photographic and cinematic technologies allowed images to be mechanically reproduced for mass dispersal in the media. The celebrity now became ‘someone who is well-known for his well-knownness’ (3), a name renowned more for charismatic beauty than for heroic achievement. In this ‘Cult of Celebrity’, superficial images began to replace ideals of virtue in a growing passion for celebrity itself.

It is unsurprising therefore to find the ‘Cult of Celebrity’ implicated in aspects of beauty in contemporary culture. Since the glamour of Hollywood celebrities in the 1920s and 30s, images of the female body in the media have become increasingly distanced from the bodies of real women. However, these representations of hyper-reality are compelling ideas of perfection. They convey the promise that such beauty is not only attainable for the minority but possible for the majority ‘if only we knew how they did it’. Interest in celebrity lifestyles therefore extends to the make-up and clothes they wear, the hair products they use and the perfumes they favour. Consequently, the development of such celebrity styles can be related to the marketing and consumption of star-endorsed beauty products (4). The ‘Cult of Celebrity’ encourages the female body to be viewed as a commodity in the construction of beauty, power and desire.

Why do these images of celebrities hold such power over us? As the feminist philosopher Susan Bordo writes, ‘we all know that Cher and virtually every other female star over the age of twenty-five is the plastic product of numerous cosmetic surgeries on face and body.’ (5) Daniel Boorstin, a social critic writing in 1961, similarly identified false appearances in contemporary culture. He argued that celebrities are counterfeit people whose identities are staged and scripted to create an illusion of reality (6). And yet, studies show that the sale of diet foods in America rose by 10 per cent per annum between 1960 and 1980 (7) and that 37 million women worldwide attend classes run by Weightwatchers (8). In other words, we aspire to resemble images of celebrities despite awareness of their unreality.

The sociologist Jean Baudrillard suggests that the ‘Cult of Celebrity’ is part of a larger trend towards living in the ‘ecstasy of communication’ (9). We are bombarded by a succession of surface images in the media that do not connect with reality. As a result, the distinction between what is real and what is imaginary disintegrates. In effect, the beauty portrayed in images of celebrities becomes ‘more real than real’ in our consumer culture. This is echoed by the cultural critic John Fiske when he writes that ‘fantasy can be as ‘real’ an experience as any other.’ (10) For example, the surprisingly numerous amateur entries to a ‘Make My Video’ competition run in 1987 by MTV and Madonna for her song ‘True Blue’ pictured girl fans dressed and made up like Madonna, ‘singing’ her song in the relatively mundane, suburban setting of their own homes. These videos show how the public unreality of Madonna’s images had been incorporated into the private, everyday lives of many teenage girls.

In an ethnographic study of women’s experiences in Britain during World War II, Jackie Stacey questions why women wanted to relate to feminine images produced for the male gaze in the cinema (11). She concludes that female spectators imitated the latest styles in celebrity culture in order to become as desirable by the men in their lives as they perceived the female stars to be. In effect, Hollywood standards became the measure against which women in British society rated their beauty and power. The social critic Rene Girard (12) also argues that we are trying to become more like the people we admire when we use them as models to imitate. In other words, unrealistic images of beauty in celebrities are compelling precisely because they highlight our own flaws and inadequacies. We identify with celebrities because they seem to possess qualities that are lacking in ourselves. If we wear the same clothes and use the same make-up as they do, we too will possess these qualities. Advertising within the ‘Cult of Celebrity’ is therefore a potent means of increasing consumer demand for beauty products. For example, following the launch of the first celebrity lifestyle magazine in 1994, the managing director explained that ‘InStyle’ used celebrities to cover fashion because ‘readers were weary of looking at models with whom they could not identify.’ (13) When readers sought to buy a jumper that Winona Ryder was said to prefer wearing, they inevitably asked fashion designer Beth Bowley for the ‘Winona sweater’.

It appears therefore that ideals of beauty are perpetuated through the ‘Cult of Celebrity’. It is not enough to realize the unreality of such portrayals of celebrity beauty. Images of glamorous, attractive female stars contrast sharply with our everyday experiences and so encourage escapism, identification and consumption. The effects of stardom on contemporary culture are perhaps most vividly expressed by the actress Angela Basset: ‘I’m sure you’re all wondering what my forecast is for what people will be in the next millennium. I really hope to see more people wearing integrity, strength and respect for each other. The classics never go out of fashion.’ (14)

(1) Braudy, L. (1986) The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and its history, New York, Oxford University Press.

(2) Boorstin, D. (1962) The Image: A guide to Pseudo Events in America, New York, Vintage.

(3) Boorstin, D. Ibid.

(4) Barbas, S. (2001) Movie Crazy: Fans, Stars and the Cult of Celebrity, New York and London, Palgrave.

(5) Bordo, S. (1993) Unbearable Weight: feminism, western culture and the body, Berkeley, CA, University of California Press.

(6) Boorstin, D. Ibid.

(7) Schwartz, H. (1986) Never Satisfied: a cultural history of diets, fantasies and fat, London, Collier Macmillan.

(8) Wolf, N. (1990) The Beauty Myth, London, Chatto and Windus.

(9) Baudrillard, J. (1985) The Ecstasy of Communication in H. Foster (ed.), Postmodern Culture, London, Pluto Press.

(10) Fiske, J. (1989) Understanding Popular Culture, London, Routledge.

(11) Stacey, J. (1994) Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship, New York, Routledge.

(12) see Beauty and Imitation: the theory of Rene Girard.

(13) Martha Nelson quoted in the Autumn 1998 issue of Min Magazine.

(14) Speech to ‘The Fashion Group Internationals Night of Star’, 2000.

Kasey West studied psychology at university and is now a housewife and mother.


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