Recently, I have been thinking about celebrity - or, more precisely, the phenomenon of celebrity. The American Heritage Dictionary defines celebrity as being synonymous with fame. I find Wikipedia's definition more satisfying - this definition distinguishes between the two saying that "while fame is generally considered to be the major prerequisite for celebrity status, it is not always sufficient." Celebrity means, according to this definition, commanding "a high degree of public and media attention."
This definition, it seems to me, does not go far enough. Celebrity, as it has evolved in our society, is fame turned into a commodity of economic value, or political power, or cultural relevance, or some combination thereof. As such, the phenomenon of celebrity has a large effect on how we operate as a society. Politicians act like movie stars; movie stars act like politicians; journalists and artists act like both.
The mechanics of celebrity are fascinating to watch - and important to watch. Here, in Massachusetts, those mechanics have been put to good use by Deval Patrick as he seeks the Governorship here. Eighteen months ago, Patrick was largely unknown to the voters in this state. Since then, his campaign has made use - successfully, so far - of techniques that have made Patrick well-known - and apparently well-connected to voters. These have included the "tried-and-true" paid and unpaid media visibility as well as as non-traditional avenues, such as reaching out to bloggers - including this one. The fact that his campaign has used these techniques - along with the fact that a large number of people find both the message and the messenger to be attractive - has resulted in Patrick's growing celebrity - something that has both resulted from and aided his quest for political office.
A different perspective can be gained by looking at movie and TV stars. One can see the management of their celebrity as in some ways a political process - with interviews and parties as well as other venues to promote visibility. One fascinating example to watch is the British actress Parminder Nagra, star of Bend It Like Beckham and ER. This very beautiful and talented actress is certainly a celebrity, but not yet on the "A-list." It is my guess that with luck and persistence, she will get there. My guess is that there are Emmys and Oscars in her future - if she wants them.
In the mean time, to maintain and enhance her position, Ms. Nagra does the things that other movie and TV actors do to maintain a celebrity profile - appear on talk shows (Craig Ferguson), attend company parties, and do various media appearances. These - it seems to me - are not very different in kind from what Deval Patrick has had to do to in order to further his political ambitions.
Deval Patrick will have votes on Election Day to measure his success. The measures of Parminder Nagra's success will be more varied. Obviously, the earnings from her television series and movies will be crucial here, as well as the professional recognition afforded by various awards and simple longevity and diversity of roles.
One measure that exists now - somewhat tongue-in-cheek - is something called Hollywood Stock Exchange. This site treats movies, directors, and actors as if they were stocks and bonds. The value of actors' stocks depends on both movie earnings and investor demand - very similar in concept to how real stocks work.
While this site is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it still seems to bear some relationship to reality. As of today, Parminder Nagra's "stock" is valued at $5.60 per share. As a comparison, George Clooney is at $50.50 per share, and Halle Berry is at $120.49 per share. The highest valued actor stock is currently Rupert Grint at $200.00 per share - he plays Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter movies. (Daniel Radcliffe - Harry Potter himself - is the next highest actor stock at $193.69 per share.)
It seems to me that Parminder Nagra is an undervalued growth stock, while Rupert Grint is the opposite. (I speculate that their respective stock prices will cross sometime in the next few years.) If Ms. Nagra's career continues to grow as it might, her "stock value" might at that point more resemble Halle Berry's current level. I plan to check back from time to time to see the ups and downs of these "stock" prices.
The Hollywood Stock Exchange is light-hearted, but what it measures is not. Celebrity is about money and power. These are things that need to be watched carefully at any time - but particularly now when the stakes are so high - and the boundaries between politics, economics, and culture are blurring.