The Blurring of Fame and Talent: Female Celebrity and the Glossy Gossip Sector
Rebecca Feasey / Bath Spa University
Celebrity gossip magazines such as Closer, Now and heat are notorious for their irreverent attitude towards famous figures in general, and for their slightly mocking presentation of female celebrities in particular. These texts favour gossip over staged promotions and candid celebrity images over commercial collaboration with the stars. And although such publications are keen to reveal the troubled romances, tawdry secrets and trivial stories of the rich and famous, the fact that they rarely distinguish between an A-list Hollywood actress, a critically successful singer, a popular socialite or a reality television contestant tends to reduce female celebrity to a personality contest and relegate contemporary stardom to a debate over appearance and attractiveness. This is not to say that female celebrities are not proficient performers, talented vocalists or skilled models, it is just that for every leading lady we are offered a wealthy heiress and for every award-winning musician we are given a Big Brother evictee, and each incarnation of famous femininity is given equal and undifferentiated coverage in these magazines.
I would suggest that even though the female celebrities who dominate these magazines tend to be hard-working, disciplined and indeed talented individuals from the entertainment world, the way in which these celebrity texts speak of lifestyle and leisure activities over discourses of labour and performance blurs the boundaries between fame and talent. Publications such as heat negotiate hierarchies of female talent and professional achievement in favour of distinguishing between surface appearances, ranking sartorial styles, grading weight fluctuations and categorising the celebrity life in motion. heat appears to devalue female celebrity by reducing professional success to a discussion about body sculpting and shopping, however, it is necessary to reiterate the point that while the women who dominate the magazine are skilled, talented and accomplished, it is the reporting of such figures that reduces work and labour to a discourse of superficiality and surface appearances.
Much literature in the field of film stardom and celebrity culture can be seen to form a consensus as it comments on the undeserved character of modern fame, foregrounding the role of the mass media in producing unworthy personalities and highlighting the lack of skill, talent and achievement in the celebrity sphere.1 Magazines such as heat seem to support Joshua Gamson’s work on fame when he comments that ‘surface has overwhelmed substance, image has overtaken reality [and] the values of “lifestyle” and consumption have pushed aside those of work and production’, at least in relation to the contemporary female celebrity.2 My point here is that extant literature from the field says little about the character of modern celebrity and much about the gendering of the celebrity gossip sector. David Gritten makes this point when he states that ‘the media find it easier to write vacuous nonsense about famous women [because] their appearance, their fluctuating weight [and] their dress sense are considered legitimate subject matter’.3
Even though existing research suggests that we are living amongst ‘a new generation of celebrities whose fame owes nothing to achievement and everything to appearance’,4 I would suggest that even a cursory glance at the pages of heat magazine makes it clear that the women who dominate the front cover and the regular feature articles are those who have demonstrated professional skill and working talent. Indeed, a closer examination of the text in question provides evidence to suggest that the vast majority of the women who are presented in the magazine are famous first and foremost due to their accomplishments and achievements in their chosen field, be it performing, modelling or presenting.
heat depicts all female celebrities in relation to surface appearances, attractiveness and sartorial choices, without a single reference to their modus operandi or their particular reason for fame. This is not to say that these women are lacking talent in their chosen fields, but rather, that the commentary on them relates to weight gain, weight loss, fashion successes and relationship disasters. In this same way, there is very little acknowledgement of the work or labour involved in maintaining a successful career or even regarding the amount of effort and organisation that goes into preserving media interest. David Marshall may have said that ‘it takes effort to be famous’,5 but there is no acknowledgement of such work, labour or effort in the celebrity gossip magazine.
Indeed, as I have commented elsewhere, the publication is only keen to talk about star labour in relation to the superficial skin care practices, diet programmes, shopping excursions and exercise regimes of the female celebrity.6 And yet although the text might seem to delight in exposing and dismissing the hidden efforts necessary to maintain the celebrity body, any relationship between professional work and career success is overlooked and seemingly unwarranted.
What is of concern here of course is not merely the dismissal of talented performers, but what the devaluing of female celebrity means to girls and young women who read these texts. A wide range of popular news media has suggested that the growth of ostensibly talentless female celebrities are distorting the professional aspirations and career projections of an entire generation, with recent statistics telling us that 89 per cent of girls would rather be a recognisable celebrity than a talented, skilled yet unknown professional. Due to the representation of female celebrity in magazines such as heat, young women believe that being a celebrity is an unskilled job that demands little in the way of work, labour or commitment. Therefore, rather than look to a career that demands qualifications or an occupation that benefits from hard work, we are being told that fame and recognition appeals to the younger generations because the trappings of celebrity look like a career structure in themselves, devoid of any actual professional efforts or working achievements beyond appearance and attractiveness. However, I would once again state that it is not a lack of talent per se, but the reporting of celebrity that is devoid of a dialogue about skill, performance or accomplishment.
And yet, the fact that heat and its imitators outsell more reverential celebrity titles such as Hello! and OK! leave us to conclude that readers are more interested in reading about the superficial and candid representations of female celebrity than they are about the value of work that is highlighted in the glossy monthly publications.
1. A Typical heat Cover
2. Cheryl Cole vs. Zooey Deschanel
3. Diane Kruger vs. Liberty Ross
4. Janet Jackson’s Weight Gain: A Popular Tabloid Topic
Please feel free to comment.
- Turner, Graeme (2004). Understanding Celebrity, London: Sage; Wilson, Cintra (2001). A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease and Other Cultural Revelations, London: Penguin; Johansson, Sofia (2006). ‘Sometimes you Wanna Hate Celebrities: Tabloid Readers and Celebrity Coverage’, in Framing Celebrity, eds Su Holmes and Sean Redmond, London: Routledge, pp.343-358 and Hartley, John (1996). Popular Reality: Journalism, Modernity, Popular Culture, London: Edward Arnold. [↩]
- Gamson, Joshua (1994). Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America, London: University of California Press. [↩]
- Gritten, David (2002). Fame: Stripping Celebrity Bare, London: Penguin. [↩]
- Cashmore, Ellis (2006). Celebrity Culture, London: Routledge. [↩]
- Marshall, David (ed) (2006). The Celebrity Culture Reader, London: Routledge. [↩]
- Feasey, Rebecca (2006). ‘Fame Body: Star Styles and Celebrity Gossip in heat magazine’, in Framing Celebrity, eds Su Holmes and Sean Redmond, London: Routledge, pp.177-194. [↩]
This is a great piece that I will definitely be thinking about the next time I’m waiting in line by the magazine rack.
I find it disturbing that these magazines’ American counterparts (US, Life & Style, In Touch Weekly, etc.) even in interviews avoid talking about female professionals’ work and instead inquire about their romantic life or their style choices. The persistent shallowness makes for a quick read but leaves one feeling as though these celebrities are all self-absorbed, vapid, and talentless. While it may seem harmless (or even beneficial) to suggest that famous people are unworthy of our idolatry, Feasey here points out that this dismissal of (female) celebrities creates a climate in which female work is undervalued. If we think, for example, about the ongoing tabloid-maintained love triangle between Jennifer Aniston, Angelina Jolie, and Brad Pitt and the countless magazine covers it has produced, Brad is rarely (if ever) featured on those covers. Instead, these two professional, accomplished women are pitted against each other in a struggle for a man. While Pitt (for the most part) leaves the ring with his dignity (and respect for his career) intact, the magazine coverage negatively affects the public perception of Aniston and Jolie.
It is also important, I believe, to consider the effect that magazine coverage like this has on the careers of these professional women. It is not difficult to imagine that women who are frequently featured on the covers of various gossip magazines are less likely to be considered for serious, meaty roles. Challenging work for actresses, as an example, is already hard to come by. This tabloid culture merely adds another hurdle for professional women in the entertainment industry.
I agree with your argument that all too often depictions of female celebrities in magazines solely focus on their appearance and their bodies; these depictions neglect the celebrities’ professional skills and successes. Consequently, magazines communicate to young girls that their bodies are their business and their futures. These celebrities also are photographed wearing little clothing, further underscoring their suggestive femininity. The female celebrities become skinny scantily-clad icons; an image that no parent wants to share with their teenage girls. The female celebrities featured in these magazines are getting younger, too. With the popularity of shows like High School Musical and Glee, teenage girls are frequently featured in the magazines. They become pop icons for other girls their age, which promotes sexualized, body-conscious femininity even more.
This affinity for the projection of the female body is echoed throughout our heavily mediated world. We can find traces in reality TV programming, especially on the franchises of The Real Housewives and the Kardashians. Both franchises feature women and teenage girls, but it is alarming that the older women communicate their concerns for their body image to the young women on the shows. On the first episode of the second season of The Real Housewives of New Jersey, Danielle brags about her sculpted body and perfectly tanned skin in front of her teenage daughters. Also, on Keeping up with the Kardashians, Kim has self-conscious breakdowns about her derriere in front of her teenage sisters. In both cases, viewers question the implications of body-conscious content for teenage girls. By aligning with the girls from the shows, teenage viewers recognize the importance of their appearance; these interactions promote self-conscious body issues for young women.
Your post urged me to question the motives for representing women in such a body-conscious manner. Would these female celebrities become too threatening if magazines highlighted their professional talents? Rarely do we see curvy successful celebrities, like Adele, on the cover of these magazines. It seems that magazine consumers prefer the photographs of hot bodies to reading articles about Adele’s successes.
The ‘blurring of fame and talent’ you point to has without a doubt been going on for a long time. However, it seems in the last decade branding oneself as a ‘celebrity’ is crucial to monetary success. I wonder if there is a difference today between being a ‘star’ vs. being a ‘celebrity,’ and if this distinction matters? Historically the star has been important in film studies, in the examination of how meaning is generated in film text. Since film stands as a signifying system the star is a sign—an idea that through acting the star provides access into authentic individual. This later affected the framework of cultural studies as a whole questioning the role of audiences, particularly what audiences do with star images. Further, when one looks at the affects of cultural studies on TV studies the concept of stardom seems to be sustained by tensions–the performance of a star and what happens off screen (or on the screen as with reality TV).
Social norms have the capacity to be oppressive, and when they benefit some at the determent of others they are oppressive. When these magazines stand as social norms of constructed feminine identity (often marked by being skinny, white, and wealthy, and as Feasey notes labor is in, “relation to the superficial skin care practices, diet programmes, shopping excursions and exercise regimes” these have to be oppressive social norms. No? How do readers then deal with the negative psychological effects, especially minority and oppressed groups, as they deal with their own negotiation of identit(ies) with what they see in magazines and on the screens that surround them? Additionally, how do readers deal with notions of inferiority that are acquired through, and are a result of institutionalized systematic oppressive norms that are enacted on a daily basis?
A larger trend that emerges is the integral role then of blending celebrity and branding in the contemporary era of celebrity culture. First these people become stars (by means of music, Film, TV, reality TV, design, etc., so they are constructed as celebrities. Then they are branded as stars becoming a commodity for fans, publicists, and producers to sell and consume. Both performed identities (celebrity and star) in the context of these magazines (and elsewhere) are tightly conformed to gendered performed identities. The audiences/readers have a role in making meaning as they (we) extract meaning from the image of the Celebrity and the Star. So what do we do with these highly problematic performed gendered images and magazines? Additionally, others have noted the harms as these images and magazines become part of the socialization processes. The concern you Feasey) highlight with the devaluing of female celebrity and its relation to girls/women who read the texts then becomes highly significant. I wonder demographically who reads and doesn’t these texts (I know I do), and how/what the texts effect?
Rebecca, you make some really great points in this post about how celebrity gossip magazines downplay, or ignore altogether, the reasons behind female celebrities’ fame, focusing instead on physical appearance as the marker of identity. In addition to discussing how these representations may affect young women, I think it’s important consider why this model is particularly attractive to the companies that advertise their products on these magazines’ pages.
As you write in your post, the frameworks of these gossip rags make “the trappings of celebrity look like a career structure in themselves, devoid of any actual professional efforts or working achievements beyond appearance and attractiveness.” By equating actresses with reality stars, musicians with models, television hosts with socialites, and subjecting them all to the same type of glorification and degradation based upon their looks, the magazines suggest that physical appearance is of paramount importance to achieving and maintaining success in the celebrity “career structure.” Regardless of their specific avenue of stardom, each woman, it seems, earns a place on these magazines pages because their physical appearance. The shaming of celebrities who have “let themselves go” and the invitation for readers to engage in that process with before and after photographs or segments that compare them to other women, further stress the necessity of being vigilante in preserving one’s looks in order to maintain “good” celebrity status. Psychical attractiveness is proffered to young women not only as viable and legitimate means through which to attain upward mobility, but also as the foundation upon which all success it built and perpetuated.
At the same time, the advertisements that populate the magazines pages offer tools through which readers might improve upon their own looks, promoting clothing brands, cosmetics, and retail stores, alongside ads that promise solutions to alleged deficiencies, pushing diet pills, fitness regimes, and plastic surgery outlets. The magazines inculcate notions of self-regulation and self-improvement as necessary steps to achieving success and then sell a readership primed with those ideas to brands whose products reinforce them.
Rebecca, your post is really interesting. The trend of magazines focusing on stars’ appearances and lifestyles rather than their talent is pervasive and has a great impact on women and girls’ evaluation of the stars’ success, which are much based on their physical attractiveness instead of their professional skills. To contribute to your discussion about the consequences of such representations of stars, I think it’s necessary to consider how it affects viewers’ expectations when they watch stars on the screen, television and stage.
As you pointed out, magazines like Closer and Now always ignore stars’ labor and emphasize their bodies. By this, such magazines “teach” viewers what they should expect from stars, not only in off-screen but also on-screen. Instead of closely watching how stars develop their persona or skills through their craft, the viewers who are faithful readers of such gossip magazines pay attention to how stars look? Are they getting older? What clothes and accessory brands do the stars put on? These expectations make stars and the industry take care of stars’ appearance rather than the quality of their work, I think.
A typical example is the boom of South Korean soap drama shows in that country and other Asian nations like Vietnam. Vietnamese female viewers watch such predictable shows year after year since the stars’ wardrobes and make-up styles attract them. Despite the fact that famous actresses are not impressive in their acting craft, the viewers still tune in the television set to learn the fashion trends of these actresses. Many people, including Vietnamese celebrities, have been to South Korea, have beauty plastic surgery to create adorable faces like Korean actresses. To comment on such a “self-improvement” trend, I just want to highlight these consequences that local gossip magazines create through their emphasis on the stars’ appearances all the time.
While there are several parts of this article that I agree with, a lot of it I found room to argue. First, I understand your point that often women with actual talent and skill are lumped together in the term “celebrity” with such reality stars as the Real Housewives and Kardashians. Yes these women have not really done anything to make themselves famous, but we, as a culture, by supporting them and watching them have made them famous, popular, and important. I do think that having these women considered celebrities, is an issue. As you state, young girls today are growing up thinking that a normal and acceptable career path is to act horribly, be a star on a reality show, be beautiful and set for life. But I think sometimes that people are buying such magazines with these candid photos in them to learn more about their “work” for lack of a better word. I’m thinking most recently of the hated Courtney on the bachelor, who was out seen trying on wedding dresses. Photographers were out following her every move, yes because she was on tv, but people were obsessed with these images because of the potential spoiler for their show. Was she the one Ben chose? And in the end, she was. One of the reasons that these women are only judged on their appearance is because on reality shows they are never really seen working. There’s always been a big emphasis on the individual on reality shows- the idea that anyone can get ahead by working hard to accomplish their goals. And on shows like the biggest loser and survivor, that does come across. But for people like the Kardashians, their work is seen to be photo shoots, attending a workout, getting married. In reality, their livelihood, because of their chosen career path, is dependent on the way they look and how much they are liked or disliked by the public. I think maybe it is less the magazine’s issue, than the programming. For women who are talented and successful, I think these photos serve the purpose to show readers that the stars are “just like us”. They’re mothers, they go grocery shopping, and I’m sure that most readers find comfort in seeing someone they idolize doing the same mundane things they do in their lives.
This article also states that the magazines are not talking about the labor or effort that goes into having a successful career or preserving media interest in them, but I think that stars are usually orchestrating that themselves. A huge part of their job is to look fit, and often it comes along with a role. I’ve heard millions of interviews with Jennifer Lawrence this week about what it took for her to get in Hunger Games shape. She was just as svelte for Winter’s Bone, but now she’s talking about her body, eating, and work out habits, to support a movie. Conversely, Vanessa Hudgens was talking about her weight gain and transformation to get buzz started about her next project. I also think that men have the same type of scrutiny placed on them. When Gerard Butler gained all of his weight he was absolutely chastised for “letting himself go” and perhaps being “washed up”. Sure, it’s not as bad as the women who eat a big lunch immediately being questioned on their pregnancy status, but I think that this overwhelming scrutiny is something that all celebrities deal with.
Cristen’s mention of the advertising that occurs in these magazines touches upon a large point that I feel lis glossed over in this article. While it is true that women featured in celebrity gossip magazines are celebrated or derided for their looks with no mention of the professional achievements that have given them public notice, for the C and D list celebrities who are given equal weight with their movie star counterparts these magazines are their work. Jenna mentions that going to photo shoots, staying fit, etc. are what reality stars with no discernable talent do for a living, but another big part of their income is shilling the kinds of self-improvement products that are advertised in these tabloids. An ad for a weight loss product endorsed by Kim Kardashian can be indistinguishable from editorial content in a tabloid where Kim describes how that particular product helps her maintain her figure.
When advertisers approach reality personalities to endorse their products, they know that they’ll be getting that person’s face to use in Ads that will appeal to the kind of consumer who buys magazines like Heat or Hello!, but they also know that that celebrity will mention that product in tabloid interviews or be sure to hold it in such a way that the label or brand name is clearly visible in “candid” paparazzi shots. In the heyday of The Hills, Heidi and Spencer were famous for notifying the paparazzi about their plans for the day, guaranteeing that they’d be found and photographed. These photographs were clearly staged (Heidi has to be the only woman in her twenties who would Easter egg hunt in public in a bikini) but still ran in the magazines along side truly candid photos from stars who were not collaborating with the tabloid industry. Celebrities with no obvious talent are demonstrating their professional skills when they receive seemingly disproportionate coverage in these publications. They are incredibly talented self-promoters, who have found a way to monetize their images.
This piece brought to light and explanation to the ‘fameless’ celebrities that I can finally understand. I appreciate that attention was given to famous women in gossip magazines who do, in fact, owe their fame to pure talent and hard work. The idea that focusing on the more superficial aspects of these women diminishes their well-deserved status, however, I think is perfectly true. I could probably tell you enough about Jennifer Aniston’s relationship history, past fashion mishaps, preferred hairstyle, and workout routine to fill a book, but honestly, I would need a quick visit to IMDB to remind myself how and why she’s actually famous. Seeing as I (and probably many other young women my age) know this same amount of information about someone such as Kim Kardashian, who does not have the same IMDB credentials as Aniston, is just sad. It’s a true shame that the reporting done on women that reach both ends of the Aniston-Kardashian spectrum has morphed our perception of fame and success in general. Unfortunately, I feel that our obsession with the topic has almost turned into a reliance, and that it will be hard for modern media to shift its focus and remain successful.
Having read this I thought it was very informative.
I appreciate you taking the time and effort to put this article together.
I once again find myself spending way too much time both reading and commenting.
But so what, it was still worthwhile!