4.1 — Fame: A New Breed of Celebrity

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The allure of celebrity has always been a facet of human nature. Whether it’s deified early leaders emblazoning their faces onto coins, to young girls fainting over The Beatles, we can’t help but be drawn to the drama of public personalities.

Today’s technology provides the platforms and algorithmic opportunity for virtually anyone to cultivate an audience and fan base.

From the silver screen to reality television to digital influencers, Trailblazers is taking a deeper look into fame and the changing blueprint of what it takes to get there.

What you’ll hear in this episode:

  • The birth of YouTube
    (0.00)
  • The first publicity stunt
    (2:38)
  • Black and white and read all over
    (6:26)
  • Lights out in Hollywood
    (7:49)
  • Strategy of stardom
    (10:15)
  • Gossip is big business
    (14:30)
  • Pop culture gets real
    (17:38)
  • Under the influence
    (22:24)
  • Algorithm made the video star
    (25:43)

Guest List

  • Leo Braudy is the author of ten books, including The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History, and most recently, Haunted.
  • Taylor Lorenz is a journalist who has written about internet culture for The Atlantic and The Daily Beast.
  • Samantha Barbas is a historian, law professor, and author specializing in the history of free speech, journalism, and celebrity culture.
  • Matthew Patrick, aka MatPat operates the YouTube channels Game Theory, Film Theory and livestreaming channel, GT Live.
  • Eric Nies was one of the stars of the first season of the MTV reality television show, The Real World.

Walter Isaacson: As videos go, it’s not much to look at. It’s only 18 seconds long and it features a 25 year old man named Jawed Karim standing in front of the elephant enclosure at the San Diego zoo. Speaking directly to the camera, Karim comments on how elephants tend to have long trunks and then wraps it up with, “That’s pretty much all there is to say.”

Walter Isaacson: The video is called, appropriately enough, “Me at the Zoo.” What makes “Me at the Zoo” special isn’t the shaky cinematography or Karim somewhat obvious commentary on the elephant’s anatomy. It’s the fact that uploaded in April, 2005 it was the first video ever posted to a brand new video sharing site known as YouTube.

Walter Isaacson: Karim just happened to be the site’s co-founder, a regular person, not a celebrity by any means, in a regular location, not a set, talking straight into the camera about something mundane. That short, shaky, very first video contains the seeds of what would become a revolution with the potential to change the very nature of fame as we know it.

Walter Isaacson: Andy Warhol was once famously quoted as saying, “In the future, everybody will be famous for 15 minutes,” and with platforms like YouTube and Instagram it turns out he might not have been far off.

Walter Isaacson: I’m Walter Isaacson and this is Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.

Speaker 1: Popularity. What is it made of? These people are working for your entertainment. What makes people like one person and not another? Making it possible for you to say, “Let’s go to the Moon.”

Walter Isaacson: In ancient times, in what is now Turkey, a curious puzzle lay in the heart of the now vanished city of Gordium. It didn’t look like much, an old wagon tied to a post with a complicated knot of tree bark. But this humble looking wagon was the subject of a prophecy, whoever could untie the knot would go on to rule all of Asia. For hundreds of years the wagon sat in the city center until one day, in the fourth century BCE, when a Macedonian upstart by the name of Alexander came to town. Alexander had a flair for, well, the dramatic. And when he encountered this puzzle, this Gordian knot, he knew just what to do. It was a technique that had served him well in his conquest.

Leo Braudy: He’d come into a town, he’d come into an area and he’d say, “Tell me the stories. What gods and goddesses, who’s been here before me?”

Walter Isaacson: Leo Braudy is the author of “The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History.”

Leo Braudy: Somebody would say, “Okay, well you know, you see that big hill over there? Only Hercules could climb that hill,” so immediately Alexander would climb that hill.

Walter Isaacson: Alexander approached the Gordian knot and in the great example of lateral thinking, didn’t try and unpick it with his hands. He unsheathed his sword and cut right through it. Alexander wanted to fulfill the prophecy, but he also had another goal in mind. The cutting of the Gordian knot is an early example of what we’d call today, a publicity stunt. But according to Leo Braudy, it stunts like these that won him fame as the first celebrity.

Leo Braudy: Alexander was the first famous person because he not only wanted to conquer Asia, he wanted everybody in, Athens particularly, in Greece to be aware of his accomplishments. When he went out with his army, he also went along with painters, with writers, with gem carvers, with people who could in fact parlay his great accomplishments into news that would be spread around the world there. He minted his own money, he was the first person we know of who actually put his own face on a coin, up to that point it was mainly the faces of gods and goddesses, but he put his own face on those coins and that coin became the main money of the Mediterranean for hundreds of years after that.

Walter Isaacson: Alexander the Great understood that fame rarely comes naturally. It had to be cultivated and bred. Centuries later, the emperors of Rome still regarded Alexander as both a legendary military leader and a master of public relations. It became common practice to emblazon their profiles on coins that would circulate throughout the empire in an attempt to deify themselves. Before Alexander, fame only really belonged to the gods, the Greek Pantheon whose influence could be felt in every aspect of daily life.

Leo Braudy: He had a keen eye for the resonance of these kinds of stunts and somehow he had an instinct for knowing exactly what to do that would make people stand back and say, “Wow, that’s really a terrific thing to do. He must be amazing, he must be almost a God himself.”

Walter Isaacson: Alexander the Great may have single handedly changed fame, but the idea of celebrity as we know it took a couple thousand more years to evolve. It was linked tightly with the rise of technology that brought words and images into people’s homes.

Walter Isaacson: In the mid 1400s, inventor Johannes Gutenberg introduced the concept of mechanical movable type printing to Europe. Books and other printed materials can now be mass produced on a scale previously thought impossible.

Leo Braudy: When we look at the 17th and 18th century, we are looking really at the beginnings of the use, particularly of printing and imagery to promulgate fame. Now, of course, the printing press is invented a couple of centuries before this, but it’s not really until the late 16th or 17th and 18th century that printing becomes so important. And also, obviously, another thing that’s going on at this time, arising literacy rate, so people can read about famous people as well as see their images.

Walter Isaacson: With that growth of literacy and printing came new personalities and even new nations able to capture the imagination of readers around the world

Walter Isaacson: And it’s in a relatively young country of America that fame would take on an entirely new and incandescent form. It’s a night of September 16th, 1932 and Peg Entwistle is stumbling through the forested Hollywood Hills, it’s a long way from her birthplace of Port Talbot, Wales. An up-and-coming actor, she’s received fine reviews for her work on the American stage. A few years earlier a teenaged, Bette Davis, after seeing her performance in Henrik Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck”, would famously tell her mother, “I want to be exactly like and Peg Entwistle.” And just months before that September night Entwistle filmed her first and only screen appearance in the film “13 Women,” but then Entwistle won’t live to see the films released nor appreciate the strange kind of fame that would eventually be thrust upon her. Making her way through the woods, she comes across what is then still local curiosity, a large sign lit up with electric lights spelling the name of a local real estate development. Nobody knows exactly why, but Peg Entwistle climbs to the top of the sign and leaps to her death.

Walter Isaacson: The story of Entwistle’s suicide becomes famous the world over. It’s irresistibly symbolic. The sign she leaped from would very soon be inextricably identified with the industry that she traveled across the world to become a part of. The real estate ad becomes a tourist attraction over the years, millions have flocked to it and photographed it countless times over. It’s a sign that reads “Hollywood Land.”

Walter Isaacson: The movies weren’t originally an American art form, let alone one based in Los Angeles. Not only were their prolific studios in New York, but also in France and Germany, but the first World War would disrupt the European film industry and soon it was a wide open spaces as well as the beautiful warm weather of California that would attract filmmakers to its shores. Hollywood began to take form, but it was still missing one element that would eventually define it. The movie star.

Walter Isaacson: In fact, originally, film actors were totally unknown, the studios just didn’t consider them very important.

Samantha Barbas: In the very earliest days of the movies, right around 1900, the film companies were just promoting their films. They didn’t publicize the actors, they didn’t even identify them.

Walter Isaacson: Samantha Barbas is the author of “Movie Crazy: Stars, Fans, and the Cult of Celebrity.”

Samantha Barbas: The fans, the audiences, started to really get curious, who are these people in the movies? And of course, movies project faces on the screen larger than life and so these actors seem really intimate to viewers, so fans started to write to the studios saying, “Who are these people? Can you tell us about them?” The studios started releasing information… the actors names, their backgrounds, whether they’re married and so on…

Walter Isaacson: Studios soon realized that motion picture technology had the ability to create an unprecedented intimacy between the faces on the screen and the general public. Not even the printed word can compete with the connection film goers had with their favorite performers. Driven by the demands of movie lovers, a whole new type of fame came into being… and it was very, very profitable.

Samantha Barbas: Suddenly stars were created. Studios realized that they could make a lot of money by selling stars, in addition to selling films. Publicity was generated, press releases issued, and over time the studios found that audiences could develop a very powerful, emotional relationship to stars on the basis of this personal information… which humanized actors, which made them relatable and real to audiences. And so really from 1914, we get, you know, the continued growth and fantastic escalation of the star system.

Walter Isaacson: Movies were considered to be an utterly disposable form of entertainment in the silent era. The library of Congress estimates that 75% of films from the silent days have been lost forever… and many early stars, like Florence Lawrence and Francis X. Bushman, are as obscure as their missing movies.

Walter Isaacson: But the star system itself proved to be highly durable. In an era when the big movie studios ruled with an iron fist, the public images of movie stars were micromanaged to a degree unthinkable in today’s era of constant tweeting and Instagramming.

Samantha Barbas: The information that was released about the stars was incredibly managed and controlled and very tame by our standards. They would perhaps mention if they were married and maybe some facts about their childhood or upbringing, but everything that was potentially, you know, unsavory, less than glamorous, was erased. The image of the stars was kind of groomed to perfection.

Walter Isaacson: Movie stars were tightly managed because film studios were anxious about their own image. Stories like Peg Entwistle’s leap from the Hollywood Sign or the murder of popular silent comic Fatty Arbuckle, gave the shiny veneer of the movie industry a grimy coding.

Samantha Barbas: Movies were absolutely seen as unsavory in the early years and the movie producers were always concerned that the theaters were going to be shut down by the authorities, that the movies were going to be censored because there were censor boards in all of the states at that time… so they were, you know, very concerned with kind of uplifting the image of the movies, and stars actually played a role in that. If they could present actresses as being really wholesome and upright and, you know, faithful, then that would just make the movies look all that much better.

Walter Isaacson: Gossip columnists like Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, who are celebrities in their own right, were kept on a tight leash and reporters who dared break salacious stories were threatened and intimidated by the studio’s in house enforcers. But eventually, the studios began to lose a great deal of their power. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court broke up the studio’s monopolies in U.S. Versus Paramount Pictures, and antitrust case that targeted the studios ownership of movie chains. Now that they didn’t own the entire pipeline, studios no longer had the unshakeable control of their stars and the film media… and that provided an opening for a whole new type of publication.

Samantha Barbas: This tabloid comes on the scene, Confidential Magazine, that’s started by a guy who used to publish many of other kinds of unsavory pulps, and he comes up with the idea that maybe there would be a real audience for salacious gossip about the stars… I mean, really the stuff that Louella and the fan magazines won’t print. What he does is he sets up, kind of, a gossip network in Hollywood. He hires maids, butlers, chauffeurs, hairdressers, and basically pays them off to get tips about the scandalous behavior of the stars and he publishes it in this tabloid, Confidential, and the whole kind of star illusion is really disrupted. I mean, it’s a major challenge to Hollywood’s image and I think it totally transformed not only celebrity journalism, but the way that everyday people viewed stars.

Walter Isaacson: Confidential closed in the late 1950s after a lengthy court battle that ended with the magazine promising to publish only positive stories. It didn’t last long after that, but the end of its era dovetailed with a whole new one…the rise of pop culture aimed at the young, especially rock and roll. Soon, certain types of fandom, like Beatlemania, could be confused with mass hysteria. And over the next several decades, television, which the studios were terrified would eclipse the movie biz, only served to bring movie stars closer to that public… whether through talk show appearances meant to reveal their more human side or eventually, celebrity based reality TV. But shows like Dancing With The Stars may never have come into being, if not for another trailblazing program that introduced the world to a whole new kind of pastime by turning the private lives of seemingly ordinary people into public entertainment.

Walter Isaacson: MTV’s The Real World was arguably the world’s first reality TV show and inarguably the first reality show the world really paid attention to. It began in 1992 and would go on to become the longest running reality television series in history. It was revolutionary in its storytelling. The first season of the real world took place in New York and featured the private lives of seven young, attractive and essentric strangers thrown together in a house and recorded around the clock… and of course, drama ensued. It transformed ordinary people into celebrities, made famous for their private lives… Eric Nies was one of them.

Eric Nies: Really the special thing about The Real World is it was authentic… you know, nothing was scripted. It was very transparent at the time, it wasn’t really manipulated at all. So I think it was the first time that society got to see seven people in real time just projecting their life’s experiences out into the world. And I think that it was really refreshing for people to see such raw emotion.

Walter Isaacson: Before his appearance on The Real World, Eric was just a guy from New Jersey who had been modeling in New York… but that all changed once he was cast on the show.

Eric Nies: It wasn’t until about… I would say, when we started to do the press for our show… the realization of the magnitude of how big this was going to be because we were being interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and then publications like that, and all of the big talk shows. So it kind of hit me at that moment that I thought that this was much bigger than I anticipated it to be, which it obviously turned out to be.

Walter Isaacson: It would turn out to be a wild ride for Eric and the six other housemates. Their transformation from anonymous citizens to world famous TV stars seemed to happen in the blink of an eye.

Eric Nies: My time being famous was absolutely incredible. I’ve traveled all over the world, I got to bring my friends wherever I wanted to go, I was 21 years old, I got tons of free clothes, I got into every restaurant, every bar, every club for free, all my friends got to come with me… there were all these incredible perks, you know, you fly first class, you know… it’s like you feel like you have the world in the palm of your hand.

Walter Isaacson: The fame produced by reality TV was anything but traditional. Dirty laundry was not only made public, but would ultimately become the reality TV’s bread and butter. Nothing was shielded from the audience. And to Eric, this was a much needed dose of authenticity.

Eric Nies: People are tired of being lied to. So what’s unique about this type of fame is that we’re not acting or pretending to be something that we’re not. So we’re actually creating the story, and that’s the authentic… I think it’s really beautiful, it’s so special. It’s as relatable as you’re going to get.

Walter Isaacson: Reality TV would launch a different type of celebrity, and would lay the groundwork for a new type of fame. For better or worse, the appetite for real celebrities only seemed to increase, and when matched with the rise of video sharing and social media, it would seem unstoppable. Jawed Karim’s “Me At The Zoo” video might only have been 18 seconds long, but it was the first drop in a vast ever-growing ocean. Today, over 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, and 1 billion hours of videos are watched every single day. It’s created its own ecosystem of fame, dedicated to every imaginable topic or interest.

Walter Isaacson: The incredible popularity of YouTube and the tools the site provides for its users to monetize their videos has created an entirely new class of celebrity. Influencer culture has become a multibillion dollar industry. The output of influencers range from polished essay videos to comedy skits, to talk shows, to personal vlogs or video blogs, but what they all have in common is a deep connection they have to their platforms.

Taylor Lorenz: Basically, there’s this group of people that leverages these platforms to build a audience.

Walter Isaacson: Taylor Lorenz is a journalist who has written about an internet culture for The Atlantic and The Daily Beast.

Taylor Lorenz: Sometimes that audience can be millions of fans or subscribers, sometimes it can just be a few thousand, but they then leverage that audience to make a living. That can be through pre-roll ads on YouTube, which are the ads that come up before you watch a video, or it can be through sponsorships, through branded content. There’s tons of different ways that all these people monetize, but essentially what they’re doing is using platforms like YouTube, TikTok, which is a new sort of short form video app, Instagram, to generate a fan base for themselves.

Walter Isaacson: And these influencer stars aren’t merely the polished Hollywood actors and models that once dominated show business, although they’re included too.

Taylor Lorenz: These people are coming from all over. I mean, literally anyone. It can be a 42-year-old mom in Minnesota. It can be a 16-year-old model in L.A. There’s literally anyone. I mean, there was just an article in Bloomberg recently about farmers generating huge audience on YouTube, and in some cases some farmer YouTubers make more money doing their YouTube channel than they do even tending to their own crops.

Walter Isaacson: The wide reach of the internet has meant that stardom is no longer a monoculture. Stars don’t have to be all things to all people if they’re able to reach a critical mass of fans interested in the same things they are, like farming.

Taylor Lorenz: You might only have a few thousand people interested in this farming world, or some other niche community, but something like YouTube allows them to all come together online and consume content, or follow one specific person or group of people that are producing content related to that topic. Even though it might be a smaller audience worldwide, that audience can still be very valuable because they can all come together online.

Walter Isaacson: And what makes an influencer successful is their ability to deeply understand and work with the technology underlying these platforms. The YouTube recommendation algorithm has received a great deal of scrutiny lately for how it’s said to drive viewers towards extremist content, but creators see it as one of the greatest tools in building and maintaining an audience.

Matt Patrick: What’s underlying all of these platforms is algorithms, are engineers trying to create formulas to decide what makes good content from bad content. How do you translate Citizen Kane into a couple of metrics to decide how many views it gets or how visible it is across your platform?

Walter Isaacson: Matt Patrick, known to his fans as MatPat, is the creator of the YouTube series Game Theory, a show that analyzes video games from a sometimes tongue-in-cheek scientific point of view. Often, with the neuroscience angle. His channel has about 12 million subscribers and receives about 3 million views on each video he posts. Although you may never have heard of him, for comparison, that’s about the same number of people who watched the season one finale of Game of Thrones.

Matt Patrick: It’s very much about what are the priorities of the platforms that I’m working on, what are the algorithms looking to promote, or more accurately the neural networks at this point looking to promote, looking to help grow on the platforms, and then how does that align with my creative sensibilities and what I’m looking to put out there just from my own passions or my own interests.

Matt Patrick: Most digital influencers at this point have teams of at minimum three to five to help maintain the flow of content that’s going on. So to then go and look into their analytics on a regular basis and then translate that data into actionable steps that they can make on their own content to improve it, make it better, make it more exciting for audiences and also more beneficial or work better with the algorithms.

Walter Isaacson: At the crux of the influence of fan relationship is a sense of intimacy. Much like early movie fans demanded details of their favorite stars’ lives. Many influencers have succeeded by making their viewers feel more like friends than financial supporters. Taylor Lorenz.

Taylor Lorenz: Often these influencers open up about very personal things on the internet, and they have this intensely tight bond with an influencer, which is great for the influencer in some ways because it allows them to more effectively sell things to an audience because the audience is so dedicated to them in their lifestyle, but it’s also very hard. If you don’t get a response for an influencer sometimes it can feel like a friend scorned you, and that’s not the case. This person was never your friend, but you feel this really intimate connection with them. So it can feel like they’re your friend, your best friend.

Walter Isaacson: While these virtual friendships can sometimes go sour, the upside is a feeling of mutual friendship that transcends the old days, when the most you could expect from your favorite star would be an autograph in the mail. Matt Patrick.

Matt Patrick: A digital influencer is your best friend. It’s your brother, it’s your big sister. It’s someone that you feel an intimate connection with. It’s someone who you come to understand their life story, their likes and their interests and their dislikes. People who’ve been following our channels for years know that I love Diet Coke, right? So any event that I go to, I am inundated with people just offering me up cans of Diet Coke, because they love it. They know that we just had a baby this year, and so one of the most moving examples was they knew all the international vacations that we had been on and so they got us a children’s book from each of the different countries that we had visited in our international travel so that we could share that experience with our baby. That is the level of love and trust and admiration that a lot of these fans have with their favorite online creators, and it’s a beautiful thing.

Walter Isaacson: The influencer industry is a new breed of celebrity, with its own set of rules, many of which are being figured out on the fly, but it doesn’t appear to be going away and it may one day eclipse the Hollywood star system that has dominated popular culture for the last hundred years. Taylor Lorenz.

Taylor Lorenz: I mean, the influencer marketing industry alone is projected to reach, I think it’s somewhere between 10 to $20 billion next year. This is a total shift in society and fame and how people connect with each other online.

Walter Isaacson: Ever since stories of the exploits of the young conqueror Alexander of Macedon began to filter back to Athens, we’ve been elevating larger than life characters to godlike status. The internet has accelerated that process, giving anyone with a smartphone the ability to access their 15 minutes of fame. Once the province of larger than life figures or impossibly glamorous movies stars, fame is now available to anyone who can figure out how to tap into the right niche. We used to worship stars from afar. Now we’re all just a couple of taps away from becoming them.

Walter Isaacson: I’m Walter Isaacson and you’ve been listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. For more information about any of the guests on today’s show, you can head to our website at delltechnologies.com/trailblazers. Thanks for listening.