Fame in the 21st Century

An African friend asked me recently “What did Kim Kardashian DO?”.

“Nothing” I said.

“Then why is she so famous?”.

How I cherish his innocence.

The exchange made me want to go back and watched Clive James’ masterful documentary Fame in the 20th Century, but I discovered alas it is not available on DVD and never will be. However, James himself has adapted the material on his own website, here is a sample of the sort of incisive, witty observations he makes:

When the century started, famous people were still required, as of old, to do something first and then get famous for it later. As the century progressed, people who became famous for what they did got more famous just for being famous. Elizabeth Taylor has been famous long enough to exemplify the transition from one state of fame to the other. When she started off, she was famous for being a screen star. In her first big role, in National Velvet, when she was still really a child, her heart-shaped face caught the breath of all who saw the movie – and the whole family saw it, usually twice. Her violet eyes looked as it they had been specifically invented to test the possibilities of colour film. When she grew up and appeared as the young bride of the title in Father of the Bride, she had the ideal figure to go with the face – perfectly judged, not too much, but the camera couldn’t get enough. Even then, some said she was more beautiful than talented. But even if she was just beautiful she could be described as doing something. Today she is famous for being Elizabeth Taylor. She gets married, usually to someone unsuitable. She gets married again, probably to someone more unsuitable. She champions a cause. She brings out a new fragrance. She is very busy – far too busy to make movies. The thing she got famous for is far in the past. Only the fame remains, but it is more attention-getting than ever. It has a life of its own.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

10 thoughts on “Fame in the 21st Century”

  1. Not a great example. Elizabeth Taylor was an accomplished actress, a profession often attended by flamboyant celebrity well before her time. A much better proto-Kim, going even a bit further back, would be Zsa Zsa Gabor.

      1. Clive James: “Even then, some said she was more beautiful than talented.” Ken D”s comments are clearly addressed to that suggestion.

  2. I see your point, but Kim Kardashian is famous because she’s the daughter of Robert Kardashian, OJ SImpson’s defense attorney, and the stepdaughter of olympic athlete Bruce Jenner. Elizabeth Taylor didn’t get to “busy” to make movies, she got too old and fat.

    1. Not really — most children of famous people are not famous. It took a marketing machine to make the Kardashian daughters household names. And in any event, being born to famous parents isn’t “doing something”, it’s luck, so I would still answer my friend’s question the same way.

      1. and I had never till right now heard of Robert Kardashian and knew nothing of Bruce Jenner’s post-Olympics activity, but I have heard of some of the Kardashian girls (though I could not name them all, nor want to be able to), so for me, and I suspect many others, they are indeed famous for being famous. Not the first, but a strong current example.

        There aren’t a lot of good roles for women over 50, or didn’t use to be when Elizabeth Taylor hit that age, so her keeping busy with other activities may have reflected that. I am not aware that she ever was ‘too fat’ for a role suitable for someone her age.

      2. Sure, it’s rare, but I’m not really sure that this a new development. Princess Margaret was famous. Liza Minelli is famous. Nancy Sinatra. Margaret Truman. Sure they’ve all “done things,” but their (mild) accomplishments mostly occurred as a result of fame, not the cause of it.

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