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A phenomenon in which exceptional attributes—such as glamour, sustained fame, beauty, talent—are recognized and associated with an individual, whose cultural profile is then often reproduced not necessarily in terms of the attributes but on the basis of the celebrity status itself. Increasingly, in a media age characterized by Daniel Boorstin's epigram that such individuals are becoming well known for being well known (The Image, 1961), celebrity feeds off itself. In the USA, sociologist Leo Lowenthal (1944), in a content analysis of biographies of US figures, identified the ‘heroes’ of the first three decades of the 20th century as ‘idols of production’, from the worlds of business, industry, and the natural sciences, without ‘a single hero from the world of sports’ (‘The Triumph of Mass Idols’, reprinted in Literature, Popular Culture, and Society, 1961). The first biographies of sportspeople were accounts of the technical side of the sport or the sports feat, written for a knowledgeable audience, not yet seen as ‘a special phenomenon which demands almost undivided attention’. By the early 1940s magazine heroes of biographies are ‘idols of consumption’, from the world of entertainment, sport, and communications, whose life stories stress ‘hardships and breaks’. Lowenthal identified, in the popular readership of print magazines, the emergence of the self-referencing celebrity phenomenon.

Chris Rojek, in a broad historical sweep (Celebrity, 2001), sees celebrity as a result of the democratization of society and the decline of organized religion, bound up with the commodification of everyday life. Celebrity status also ‘always implies a split between a private self and a public self’, Rojek asserts, though this is frequently threatened by the intrusion of those media determined to blur or shatter the distinction, or by individual celebrities eager to both control access to their image management and secure the best financial return on their celebrity. English footballer David Beckham is a revealing case of celebrity in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. His career with English soccer club Manchester United and Spanish club Real Madrid and then, in 2007, his move to play for LA Galaxy in the USA's Major League Soccer (MLS) reflected a changing balance between sporting achievement and celebrity profile. His marriage to a successful pop star, ‘Posh Spice’ Victoria Adams, launched him into the most marketable sphere of national and international celebrities. In the English press ‘Posh and Becks’ became known as a kind of popular royal couple. Their marriage in 1999 was represented in the British media as more splendid, more regal than the royal wedding of Prince Edward and his bride Sophie Rhys-Jones the previous month: ‘QUEEN POSH TAKE THEE KING BECKS’ ranted the Daily Mail on 5 July. The Beckhams sold media rights for their wedding to OK! magazine. Garry Whannel shows how the celebrity phenomenon pervades the media: politicians commented on, presenters alluded to, and comedians joked about the Beckhams, all drawn towards the Beckham story and the Beckhams drawn into all aspects of the media ‘as if by a vortex’ (‘The Case of David Beckham’, in D. Andrews and S. Jackson, eds, Sport Stars: The Cultural Politics of Sporting Celebrity, 2001). David Beckham continued to play and compete at the highest level over the ensuing years, but was as prominent in fashion and gossip pages, and male fragrance and underwear advertisements, as on the football field. The commercial opportunities for top sportsmen and -women, endorsing multiple products or developing their own business lines as did the US tennis sisters Venus and Serena Williams, have increased the celebrity profile of such figures, and burgeoning media outlets have exacerbated and exploited their celebrity potential. See also role model; vortextuality.


Subjects: Sport and Leisure.

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