The “Reality” of Contemporary Stardom
Erin Meyers / Oakland University

The young women of Teen Mom

The young women of MTV’s reality franchise, Teen Mom

In his original conception of stardom, Richard Dyer1 argues the star image is built on the tension between the public performing self (say, as an actress) and the private or “real” self behind that image. Though one side may come to dominate the image, Dyer’s concept of stardom always recognized the relevance of both the public and private selves to the construction and consumption of stars. A wide range of extra-textual media, from red carpet events to publicity appearances on talk shows to tabloid magazines, have long offered audiences the behind-the-scenes access to stars and their private lives central to building and reinforcing stars’ economic and social power. These sources humanize the stars while simultaneously drawing audiences back to their glamorous public personas. Here, stars are extraordinary and worthy of our attention by virtue of their talent and glamor, yet are also, in their private lives, “just like us,” allowing audiences to relate to stars on a social level.

However, individuals who have little, if any, claim to talent on the public-side of the image are increasingly visible within contemporary celebrity culture. Graeme Turner2 suggests that in contemporary celebrity culture, the “precise moment a public figure becomes a celebrity” can be traced to the moment when reporting about the public role is eclipsed by a focus on the celebrity’s private life. Chris Rojek3 calls these “attributed celebrities” who are “famous for being famous,” riding the wave of concentrated media attention to his or her private life, rather than talent, to celebrity status. Reality stars, particularly those from docu-soap style programs, are perhaps the most obvious contemporary example of this attributed celebrity whose place in the public eye relies primarily on media attention to their private lives.

Reality television, with its emphasis on capturing the often ordinary and quotidian events of “real” life, is a media genre explicitly concerned with revealing the private individual for public consumption. For individuals emerging from this genre, then, the private self is the public self. They perform as themselves for the cameras, and this exposure of the private self becomes the basis for their entrance into the public eye. For example, the young women of MTV’s reality franchise, Teen Mom, enter the public eye by allowing cameras to follow their lives and struggles as young mothers. But it is not simply that public exposure of the private self that makes them famous. They become celebrities only when the interest in the “real” person on the show extends into the realm of the extra-textual media sources.

Thus, I suggest the reality participant’s entrance into celebrity culture relies on a reconfigured version of Dyer’s private and public selves. More specifically, though they are always already “themselves,” their existence within celebrity culture relies not only on the public performance of the self of the show, but also the intensification of this attention to the private through extra-textual discourses, particularly tabloid magazines. The reality program and the tabloids do not tell the exact same story of the private self, but their interests are aligned in terms of promoting access to the “real” star in order to draw audiences to both the magazines and the original reality program from which the star emerged. For example, tabloid coverage of Teen Mom stars often begins with issues that are central to the narrative of the show, like Maci’s battle for custody of her son or Farrah’s money problems. However, tabloids enhance this attention to the private by purporting to offer new information not revealed within the show’s narrative as a draw to audiences searching for the “real” individual.

tabloid coverage of Teen Mom

Tabloid coverage of Teen Mom

Indeed, such connections between the discourses of the tabloids and the programs are not innocent or unintentional. Joshua Gamson points out that the celebrity, as both a social symbol and a commodity, is an industrial product produced and distributed by a series of “[l]inked industries, in particular the communication-media and entertainment industries.”4 Tabloids and other gossip media help shore up interest in the star image by revealing the purported “unauthorized truth” about their private lives as a means to sell their magazines and to draw the audience back to the star’s performance products (e.g. films, television shows, albums, etc.). This seems particularly true in the case of the reality star, as the tabloid discourses deepen the narratives of the show and vice versa. It is no coincidence that these tabloid stories often appear around the same time the show is airing, reinforcing the role of the extra-textual discourses about a star’s private life as a mode of publicity that benefits both the star and the program from which she emerges as well as the tabloid itself. It is within this industrial discourse of celebrity culture that I position the rise of the reality star and the broader shift towards the private-side celebrity. That is, the rise of the reality star beginning in the late 1990s and early 2000s points to the industrial processes of celebrity that have always been part of the system, but are made more visible in the production and circulation of reality stardom.

By early 2000s, television had witnessed an explosion in the reality genre, beginning with the global success of Big Brother and Survivor.5 This lead to the development of multiple cable channels devoted primarily (Bravo, TLC, VH1 and MTV) or exclusively (Fox Reality, TruTV) to reality programming and broadcast channels, such as Fox and ABC devoting increasing amounts of airtime to the reality genre.6 Jennifer Pozner says by February 2003, 41 percent of Fox’s programming and 33 percent of ABC’s prime time programming were devoted to reality shows.7 By 2010, the reality genre accounted for 40 percent of television’s prime-time schedule (across cable and broadcast), with around 600 different series airing during that year.8 At the same time, the celebrity gossip magazine market also experienced substantial expansion, earning record profits during a time when many traditional print media were struggling. According to The New York Times, the average total sales of popular celebrity tabloids Star, People, Us Weekly and In Touch combined were up 11.6 percent at the end of 2004, with Star and In Touch sales each rising about 80 percent from the previous year.9 Surging subscription and single-issue sales across the genre led to the introduction of new titles, including Life & Style Weekly in 2004 and an American version of British celeb-weekly OK! in 2005. This expansion of titles and booming sales made the genre a dominant presence on newsstands and in popular culture, reinforcing the increasing relevance of the private-side discourses to the construction of celebrity images. Reality stars were a logical fit in this moment, aligning the commercial interests of television as an entertainment institution with the celebrity gossip industry in packaging and promoting a new kind of star.

The ongoing sagas of reality stars have become reliable and profitable cover stories for tabloids, particularly as their once booming market has been experiencing slumping sales and increasing threats from online sources of celebrity gossip since the late 2000s. A study by The Wall Street Journal found that in 2011, one of every six celebrity magazine covers featured at least one member of the Kardashian family (sisters Kim, Khloe, Kourtney and their mother, Kris who all star on Keeping Up with the Kardashians on E!) and covers featuring one or more of the Kardashian clan were “a top-five seller for four of the six major titles.”10 This, in turn, pulls viewers back to their reality show, which is the most popular franchise on the E! network, according to Forbes. In fact, in 2012, the family signed a new contract “rumored to be worth more than $40 million” that extends the show’s run through 2015.11

Kardashians on magazines

The ubiquitous Kardashian clan

The popularity and profitability of both reality television and tabloid coverage of reality stars further intensifies the reality stars’ place within contemporary celebrity culture. Though certainly the commercial relationship between entertainment institutions like television networks and celebrity media has long influenced celebrity culture, the rise of the reality star points to the discourses of the private as increasingly central to defining celebrity within contemporary celebrity culture. Talent is no longer a pre-requisite for entrance into the public eye (if it ever really was), but rather the willingness to “be yourself” at all points within the circuit of celebrity production.

Image Credits:

1. The young women of MTV’s reality franchise, Teen Mom
2. Tabloid coverage of Teen Mom
3. The ubiquitous Kardashian clan (top left, top right, bottom left, bottom right)

Please feel free to comment.

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  1. Dyer, R. (1986). Heavenly bodies: Film stars and society. Basingstoke: Macmillan. []
  2. Turner, G. (2004). Understanding celebrity. London; Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. []
  3. Rojek, C. (2001). Celebrity. London: Reaktion Books. []
  4. Gamson, J. (1994). Claims to fame: Celebrity in contemporary America. Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 62. []
  5. Hill, A. (2005). Reality TV: Audiences and popular factual television. New York: Routledge. []
  6. Levin, G. (2007, May 9). ‘Simple economics’: More reality TV. USAToday. Retrieved from http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/television/news/2007-05-07-reality-TV_N.htm?csp=34 []
  7. Pozner, J. (2010). Reality bites back: The troubling truth about guilty pleasure TV. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, p. 11. []
  8. Barnhart, A. (2010, Dec 6). How reality TV took over prime time. Kansas City Star. Retrieved
    from: http://www.kansascity.com/2010/12/04/2497484/how-reality-tv-took-over-prime.html []
  9. Story, L. (2005, June 13). Forget about milk and bread. Give me gossip! The New York Times, pp. C1. []
  10. Adams, R. (2012, Feb 8) Hot covers!: One prince, three sisters, lots of breakups. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052970204136404577209122444911332 []
  11. Casserly, M. (2012, April 24). Keeping Up With the Kardashians 2015: E! pays $40 million for three more years. Forbes. Retrieved from: http://www.forbes.com/sites/meghancasserly/2012/04/24/keeping-up-with-the-kardashians-2015-e-pays-40-million-for-three-more-years/ []

3 comments

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  • Marisa Winckowski

    Reality television is a genre predicated on the extremes of drama and heightened emotions, yet it is simultaneously on a desperate search for honesty and relatability. People are drawn to this idea of “the truth” and the “reveal” of the goings-on of someone’s private life, and I definitely agree that while it is meant to be an expose of raw human behavior, the art of acting as yourself is still performative. The ideal reality show can strike a balance between the inherent sadism of watching people humiliate themselves with some sense of solidarity and empathy for the people onscreen. Even more “wholesome” fare like America’s Got Talent and The X-Factor, I think, are less concerned with showcasing talent than they are with giving a platform for the everyman, an “ordinary celebrity” that the public could identify with or feel pity for. You bring up an interesting point about the importance of extra-textual discourse, working in tandem with the promotion of the show by teasing some exposé of the life of a public figure, sometimes not aligning perfectly with the narrative of the show in order to pique their curiosity. I think this intentional placement of the consumer as a ‘detective’ of private information gives them the illusion of both having a position of power over the celebrity and putting them on equal footing with them by highlighting said celebrity’s character flaws and embarrassments. Simultaneously glamorizing and humanizing.

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