Public Figures and Celebrities: A Key Distinction

A friend dropped me a note on Saturday to say, somewhat tongue in cheek, that I was becoming a celebrity by virtue of my anti-celebrity writing.   I do not wish to prolong my anti-celebrity rants any more, having said all I really want to say on the subject; but at his suggestion I will make one final important distinction, that between being known as a public figure and being a celebrity.

Being known as a public figure - whether by a very small group or by countless millions - is not the same as being a celebrity.  Anyone who performs any public action such as writing, preaching, or making a speech, becomes known by some section of the public at some level.   The more well-known such a public figure is, the more we think in terms of fame and being famous.  This is unfortunate as these words somewhat blur the distinction between being a public figure and being a celebrity.  After all, unless one allows a distinction between being well-known and being a celebrity, then one really denies that it is possible to criticize celebrity culture in the public sphere: such criticism, as a public act, would mean that the critics were immediately co-opted into that which they were critiquing.  Such incoherence would thereby render the exercise self-defeating and hypocritical, allowing for it to be dismissed on logical and moral grounds.

I would argue that being a celebrity, though, involves more than performing public actions, more than being widely known and more than simply being popular.   It also carries with it connotations of branding and marketing: just as J-Lo will have her line of perfumes, so certain writers and speakers come to carry the sense of being a brand: hence, study Bibles named after church leaders; popular devotional commentary series at least notionally authored by a specific name so that they can therefore be sold; ghost writers who produce the goods that are then sold under a famous name; ministries and conferences focused on personalities etc.  This is not to say that any of these things are necessarily bad (though some may be more questionable than others).   As with shoes, ties, computers and washing machines, it is genuinely helpful to the consumer to know that some brands are worthy of trust.   It is merely to point out that there is a difference between someone who writes and speaks, even one who is very popular, and someone who has actually achieved a level of popularity combined with particular market appeal and particular marketing mechanisms.

Further, celebrity is often accompanied by a strange familiarity whereby the celebrities are referred to in quite intimate terms by people who have never met them or have only the most passing of connections with them.  I do not mean the irritating habit some have, of addressing people by their first names in emails when they have never before had contact of any form with them.  That is more a function of the casual erosion of formality, politeness and intimacy which email access has brought in its wake (I'm generally with Lawrence of Arabia on that front: `My name is for my friends').  I mean conversations whereby people really seem to think they know somebody they have never met.  For example, after the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales and Michael Jackson, the television carried many interviews with random members of the public who talked emotionally about what lovely people they had been, even though Di and Jacko would certainly not have had the foggiest idea who these people were.   Being the object of such pseudo-familiarity is often a sign of the possession of celebrity status.

Connected to this last point, celebrity also brings with it a certain fetish quality whereby peculiar power is ascribed to the person, a power which they do not instrinsically possess.  The most obvious examples of this in the church world are where the citation of a particular name closes an argument.  Such forms of argument may not always be a bad thing: the church typically takes into account the testimony of Christians throughout the ages in its formulation of theology.  But it is a bad thing when the person acting this way really invests the authority and power of the argument in the celebrity status of the person being cited, not in its intrinsic merit.  Of course, fetishisation of this kind is not necessarily the fault of the person being fetishised.  Any writer or speaker is vulnerable to being cited by someone else in this way.

Finally, celebrity often today brings with it a certain aesthetic influence.   When those who look to certain public figures move beyond being intellectually influenced by what they say to dressing like them, shaving (or not) like them, and even speaking like them, then the process of fetishisation is obvious.

Anyone who writes or speaks in public is vulnerable to being `celebrified' by somebody else.  Nobody can be criticized simply because of the excess of others who aspire to be their followers (cf. those who `follow Paul' in 1 Corinthian 1); but church leaders in particular have a duty to be very wary about becoming brands, to watch how they market themselves and are marketed by others, and to be careful that, if false familiarity or `festishisation' goes on, they take active steps to make sure that they hold no responsibility for these things and indeed strive as far as possible to discourage them.  That does not mean they should not write or speak in public or become well-known or show up on the platform at big conferences; nor does it mean we should not be grateful to God for those who do gain public reputations for writing or  preaching well; but it does mean that such people have to be careful about how they allow themselves to be presented by others and, indeed, how they present themselves in the public forum.  It can be a very fine and sometimes very blurred line between fame and celebrity.

Still, as my friend assured me, he knows of nobody who would ever want to dress like me.  That is most reassuring, for a number of reasons.