The word “celebrity” has existed for many centuries before the 19th century when it was popularized for fame. It appears in the English language context drawing from the Latin word celebritās which means fame. It could also mean “the state of being busy or crowded”. The French related word for celebritās is célébrité. However, the definition of a celebrity can be drawn from the earliest observation of the word.
Conventional societies identify celebrity to mean an “observance of ritual or special formality on an important occasion” while others understand the word as “an act of celebrating something; a rite, a ceremony; a celebration.” These definitions are, however, outdated now. Although they survived till the 19th century. These definitions had profound religious sentiments attached to their perception which, today, are no longer recognized.
Those definitions of celebrity contributed immensely to today’s conception of the word although they are no longer used in the sacred context. It can be said that the religious connotations of the word have prompted its recognition in contemporary society.
The definition of a celebrity, in the 15th century, was regarded as “the state or fact of being well known, widely discussed, or publicly esteemed.” These words have been manifested into public interest and it has become of equivalent use with words like famous, popular, etc. David Marshall formulates that the word originally doesn’t mean a person but the condition of notoriety. Today, the definition has transcended that stage.
Ellis Cashmore presents that a celebrity isn’t a mere observer in whatever field – say culture, entertainment, or sport – but an active player in that field. The consumption of celebrity news and information on social media is, therefore, not for the purpose of being observed by the populace. It serves the purpose of being seen as a player, perhaps, a model, in such activities.
As the word stemmed from the Latin word to mean fame, it has become a word commonly used by people. However, there are different contexts the word is applied.
The definition of a celebrity, according to Daniel Boorstin, is a person who is popular “for his well-known,” “a human pseudo-event.” He also wrote that being famous is a function of accomplishment. However, recognizing the America of the 1960s, some famous people were regarded as celebrities yet possess few accomplishments. He, thus, expressed that greatness and being a celebrity are locked in a zero-sum game.
This means that the fame granted to a celebrity is artificial as it lacks greatness while the fame earned through individual greatness is more important. Thus, such a celebrity isn’t manufactured artificially.
Back in 1831, a celebrity is captured as someone who attracts the interest of the public and the mass media in either sports or entertainment. Although the term isn’t restricted to those two professions; it is mostly used for those two professions. Also, as Daniel Boorstin believed, a celebrity can be someone known for his well-known because anyone can gain access to the mass media (for publicity) without substantial value. That is, anyone can be promoted without having the virtues of greatness embedded in him.
Neal Gabler, in his Toward a New Definition of Celebrity, provides that fame doesn’t turn an individual into being a celebrity. He cites the example of Queen Elizabeth who is, of course, famous but may not be regarded as a celebrity as George Bush or Princess Di. This is because, according to him, what makes an individual a celebrity is “narrative”. People want to read about other people, see them on their television screens or attend their shows because they are fascinated and interested in their stories.
He believes that people are celebrities not because they engage in entertainment or sport but because, while they live, they provide entertainment for the public. In his book, How Entertainment Conquered Reality, he regards this as “human entertainment”. People whose lives appear on gossip papers and columns or are controversial are products of entertainment drawn from real narratives. These narratives, therefore, capture interest because they have entertainment values. Neal Gabler calls this a “life movie”.
This is why conventional stars have an advantage over other celebrities. People tend to conflate their roles in movies with reality. For example, a great romantic lover in movies is assumed to be a great romantic in real life too. Fans crowd around such a person; the narrative achieves this quality and social status. Further, a tough actor is identified as one in real life. This is because people believe those acts are not wholly performance as they bear traits of real life.
Also, conventional stars are in the limelight. The spot is on them and they are much more likely to be aired on different matters concerning their industries. Thus, the “celebrity depends on the idea of tangibility”, a factor that maintains the magic around name and personality.
The different types of celebrities will be briefly considered.
Central celebrities are identified as a small number of celebrities considered “global” because their fame has crossed linguistic and territorial boundaries. They are most times, politicians, sports stars, international actors, or musicians. Their rise to fame is due to the proliferation of mass media across different parts of the world.
Regional or cultural celebrities are established based on a regional independent celebrity system. There are hierarchies everywhere: in the music industry, Hollywood industry, sports, etc. The celebrities in this category are recognized only in their cultural groups. Sometimes, they transcend regional circles but remain within their cultural and linguistic confines.
Subnational entity celebrities: these celebrities are famous only in their cultural regions. Examples are regional radio or television personalities, local leaders, or congressmen; politicians who have established influence in their cultural group.
The definition of a celebrity is drawn from ritual and religious sentiments; the shift to entertainment and, hence, human entertainment. The flair that comes with an attachment to celebrities is aroused by the accord between the said famous person and his/her narrative. Society is often hungry for entertainment beyond the fictional, such that it enhances the excitement it incites when people’s lives are observed closely.