I have written previously on the phenomenon of celebrity. At that time, I examined it as
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
As the previous piece on Ronald Reagan demonstrates, this phenomenon is nothing new. As an actor and a politician, Reagan represented a nexus between celebrity, entertainment, money, and power. While Reagan clearly had assets beyond his celebrity as an actor, that celebrity was clearly a factor in his early political successes – as a spokesman for the Republican Party and then as a successful candidate for Governor of California.
However, even in the past 40 years, the use of celebrity has changed in American society. I would argue that celebrity is more valuable in itself across more areas of society now than it was back then. In the 1960s, while Ronald Reagan’s celebrity was in many ways helpful to his political ambitions, he also needed to overcome the perception that he was an “airhead” Hollywood actor (in Lou Cannon’s words). To do this, Reagan and his staff made efforts to demonstrate Reagan’s familiarity with substantive policy issues – particularly to members of the press – during the 1966 gubernatorial campaign. It is not clear that such an effort would be required in the current environment – an environment in which image dominates substance to a greater extent than in the past.
What has driven this change – this increased dominance of image over substance? Clearly, television has consolidated its position of importance in American society – and particularly American politics – since the 1960s. Other political changes include the decline of party structures and changes in campaign finance. These changes have generally produced an environment in which political figures need to be individual entrepreneurs more than before.
The combination of the importance of image with the need for politicians to be entrepreneurial has produced a couple of results. More politicians now emerge who already have either money or celebrity – and those who have money but not celebrity need to use their resources to build celebrity images. As substantive as he will be as Governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick needed to build an image – essentially from the bottom up as he was unknown to most Massachusetts voters at the beginning – during his 18 month campaign for the Governorship. The Governor-elect also came in from the outside of the Democratic party structure. Attorney General Tom Reilly had been the favorite of party insiders going into this election. Clearly, Deval Patrick’s efforts at image building – connecting with voters – trumped Reilly’s place in the Democratic party hierarchy.
Changes have also happened in the entertainment world. It seems that power and resources are much more decentralized in Hollywood than they were 40 and 50 years ago – there are no dominant Mayers or Goldwyns as there were 50 years ago. It seems to this outside observer that film and television is also more entrepreneurial than before. It is this entrepreneurialism that is a strong common link between producers, actors, politicians, artists, journalists and others in an increasingly important way in this society.
The emergence of the Internet is likely to make this entrepreneurialism even more important in the coming years and decades.
We have already seen in American politics the example of the Howard Dean campaign for President. The former Vermont Governor was able to use the Internet to tap what has been termed the netroots – political activists linked by the Internet. He was able to use this tool to raise money, to organize, and to raise his profile to the point that he became a very serious candidate for the Democratic nomination for President by early 2004. While Dean’s presidential candidacy was done in by a number of factors – including his infamous scream – his use of the netroots was a key factor in Dean winning the Chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee in early 2005. Dean’s example has proved influential beyond this. Deval Patrick’s campaign for Governor of Massachusetts, among others, has been clearly influenced by the Dean campaign’s use of the Internet.
Dean’s Internet presence from his presidential candidacy has in fact never gone away. It morphed from Dean for America into Democracy for America, which was active in promoting left-leaning candidates and issues in the 2006 mid-term elections – and looks to remain active in the 2008 presidential election.
We see something akin Democracy for America and similar sites in the entertainment world. Celebrity fansites promote different actors and projects – sometimes officially and sometimes unofficially. An example of such a site is Parminder Nagra Online (PNO), which is an unofficial site dedicated to the British actress who starred in Bend It Like Beckham and is now part of the ER ensemble. The site has been operated by two British musicians – Phil J and Kam – since June of this year. The site is not affiliated with the actress, her family, or any of her productions. The purpose of the site is to provide a space for information on and appreciation of the actress. A less explicitly stated purpose is to help promote her career.
The site does not maintain contact with the actress or with her manager or agent, according to Phil J, but there is occasional contact with other key people, including the British director Gary Sinyor, who directed the upcoming film In Your Dreams, in which Ms. Nagra stars.
The question about a fansite like PNO is whether it could do for Parminder Nagra what Dean for America did for Howard Dean - or more. Ms. Nagra is already a significant celebrity, although not where I believe she might be if she gets the right TV and film roles. (Three minutes a week on ER will not get her there.) In order to get those roles, she will need to convince producers and directors that she is increasingly “bankable.” A site like PNO could play a role in this by mobilizing fans, generating buzz, and engaging in a little lobbying in advance of her film and TV releases. The lobbying might take the form of coordinating e-mail and letter-writing campaigns to major movie theater chains, such as AMC, Cinemark, and Regal Entertainment Group, to ask for the widest possible United States release of In Your Dreams. By engaging in such activities, a site like PNO would be applying the “netroots” concept to entertainment.
The Internet is still in its early stages – perhaps where television was in 1960. We have only begun to see the potential applications of the Internet across our society. However the ground rules change, it is likely that celebrity will continue to be a major political, economic, and cultural commodity as our new century wears on.