I agreed to write a contribution to a symposium on CELEBRITY. MY dumb thought was: How hard could that be? Pretty hard. Here are my first random observations in search of a point:

Celebrity, in the most obvious sense, is the lowest form of fame. Being a celebrity is a sort of gift of public opinion, something given by no one in particular. Celebrities aren’t usually infamous, although they’re often adulterers and spent time in rehab (or, like Tiger Woods, adulterers who spend time in rehab for “sex addition”—sex addition is having lots of sex with a wide variety of people but not enjoying it). Sometimes they’ve even been convicted of crimes. But it’s almost impossible for a murderer or child molester or tax evader to become a celebrity simply by committing a spectacular crime. It’s pushing it to call the Unabomber a celebrity, although he turned out to be a pretty thoughtful guy. The same with the abortion clinic bomber Eric Rudolph, although he turned out to be a very resourceful guy. Bonnie and Clyde might have been celebrity murderers, but without any opportunity to cash in on their fame. Today, we have more trouble than ever in connecting celebrity with hiding out or being on the run. It’s certainly pushing it to regard J.D. Salinger as having been a celebrity, although we can certainly say that he (inexplicably) passed up the opportunity to be a celebrity.

One definition of celebrity, of course, is being able to cash in on one’s fame. Celebrities don’t go on celebrity cruises or endorse products or make public appearances for free. The often somewhat mysterious ability to make so much for doing so little is the main reason sensible people envy celebrities. Our Founding philosopher, John Locke, didn’t actually say work was a good or noble thing, and so we can’t help but look up to people who have either worked or lucked their way out of it.

Besides, celebrities so clearly are better at using their money for real fun than uptight CEOs. And fun is more fun when it’s noticed; the rank celebrity provides cries out to be displayed through its privileges. Celebrities say they value their privacy, and many of them surely have too little of it. But in an increasingly impersonal and disconnected world, most of us have too much of it. Privacy or anonymity or insignificance may be the thing Americans work most hard to avoid. Studies show that the Americans most obsessed with the lives of celebrities are particularly unlikely to participate in civic life, but that may be because they’re the Americans who are particularly unlikely to have easy access to significant forms of political participation.

Being a celebrity isn’t necessarily connected to an extraordinary display of virtue or excellence in accomplishment. Well, that’s not quite true—Paris Hilton and Sharon Osborne are obviously quite savvy in manipulating the media to secure their celebrity status. Reality shows have connected celebrity to quite mundane accomplishments—like have lots of kids or losing lots of weight. Now being “the biggest loser” is surely something about which to be proud, but it’s hardly a great enough accomplishment to really gain the deep admiration of millions of Americans. All the biggest loser does, finally, is ascend (or, better, shrink) to normalcy from being a genuinely huge loser—a person who’s self-indulgently become too fat to function or even to go on living. The biggest loser remains the biggest loser in the sense that he or she needed outlandish incentives and mass encouragement to weigh about what most people weigh. And so he or she doesn’t really escape the excessive judgmentalism people have these days about the alleged vice of obesity. Similar observations could be made, of course, about those minor celebrities who succeed on the show Celebrity Rehab. Most Americans don’t need expensive rehab to perform the ordinary responsibilities of life.

That’s not to say that reality shows of a kind don’t create some of our more admirable celebrities. American Idol, the most successful of these shows, is an authentic singing competition. The finalists raked from obscurity really do have fine voices and work very hard and very intelligently to improve quickly as performing artists. The judging is an appropriately American mixture of wisdom and consent. The judges themselves become celebrities, but there’s no pretense that any of them, except Simon Cowell, knows what he or she is talking about. Simon is the expert. The final judges, the millions and millions of Americans who vote, do in large measure take their cue from Simon, but not always. Without the popular check, Simon would become a tyrant. Without his wisdom, Americans would voting blindly for what they happen to like. It goes without saying that the process doesn’t work perfectly in picking the best artist time and again. But it, much like the American system of government, works pretty well in reliably producing a competent, meritocratic result.

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Articles by Peter Lawler

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