The New Age of Celebrity: How Fame Governs Us All

Mia Aleman, Editor

“The public sphere” refers primarily to a realm of our social life, accessible to all citizens, in which something approaching public opinion can be formed. [1] The emergence of the internet and online communication has caused a dramatic shift in the conception of the public sphere. Modernity has provided the basis for the democratization of knowledge; however, entertainment is privileged over information in a mediatized public sphere. While the public sphere has classically been the site where experts and intellectuals have reigned, the processes of populist ‘democratization’ and mediatization that have accompanied its growing commercialization have seen the authority of traditional experts become relatively weakened as more fashionable figures of authority like celebrities take center stage.

Traditionally, experts and celebrities exist in markedly different spheres of public life, linked to different sets of values and logic. Further, this principle extends to the political realm where government leaders embody the role of the expert. To name a few, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, and Indira Gandhi are representatives of educated and experienced politicians who embody the traditional role of the world leader. All three politicians occupied the public sphere as private individuals assembled to form a public body; however, there was significant distance between their position as political leaders and the standing of citizens. Politicians were once dependent on interaction with news media where journalists and networks distributed narratives. However, current transformations in the media industry towards digital production and distribution have challenged the centrality of such journalism in political discourse.[2] Politicians are no longer dependent on the traditional interaction with news media but can instead circumvent them and communicate through their social media accounts. Further, politicians’ self-image on social media platforms is part of a broader political celebritization where performed connectivity plays a substantial role.

Online spaces have been increasingly central for political performativity and identity-making, and politicians lean on similar celebrity management strategies as those found among entertainers in the global media industry. With regards to personalization and media adaption, the mediatization of politics has intensified. Moreover, the distinction between celebrity and other social or political elite status is increasingly unclear as celebrity media tactics overtake the expert. In this process, the celebrity and the expert relationship is no longer marked by hierarchies between experience versus rationality and popular/consumer culture versus the professional/governmental realm.[3] Instead, there is an increasing overlap between these figures as expertise today is caught up in the logic of celebrity.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the first PM to address the country through his radio show and actively use social media and various technologies, including a 3D hologram. Modi’s utilization of media, technology, and popular culture articulates a strategic construction and performance of celebritized politics. It interrogates processes such as personalizing his political image through social media and the use of traditional celebrities to cultivate effect and allure by association in constructing his brand. Widely popular and charismatic leaders are not unprecedented in India. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, was known for his good looks and strong voice alongside his elite education and political ideas, which lent him a unique charisma that enamored the Indian populace. However, there were no political PR or marketing institutions in place in the Nehru era. In contrast, Modi is a leader of a more modern time. The systemic integration of PR, marketing, and branding has enabled Modi’s celebritized political aura. Modi represents the celebritization of Indian politics and denotes a structural shift in political communication. It marks the adoption of western political models that selectively and strategically utilize media and entertainment industries to configure the political sphere into public subjectivity.[4]

In the United States, one of the most concrete examples of celebritized politics is the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) annual dinner. The annual dinner began in 1921 as WHCA’s primary fundraiser to support the journalists working to cover the president, produce programs to educate the public about the value of the First Amendment and a free press, and provide scholarships to help the next generation of journalists.[5] Since 1983, the dinner has included a comedian as the featured speaker, transforming the event into a comedic roast of the president and their administration. The dinner has even come to include a skit, live or videotaped, by the sitting U.S. president in which they show off their comedic prowess in a self-parodying monologue. The dinners have drawn increasing international public attention as the guest list is increasingly “Hollywood.” Widely regarded as one of the most successful presidential comedians, President Obama’s remarks alone have drawn tens of millions of viewers worldwide on YouTube. The attention given to the guests and entertainers increases the public’s positive perception of the president and their administration, often overshadowing the original purpose of the dinner. 

The incorporation of self-produced imagery into the daily communication strategies of politicians is strongly related to an ongoing popularization of the political discourse. The ability to produce and publish images opens new modes of contact between politicians and the public. Images in the media express a successful life, and central to these performances is the construction of networked ties between politicians, followers, and other prominent public actors who actively redistribute images to a larger audience. In a broad sense, celebritization is a strategy that creates symbolic ties between individual politicians and various spheres of society, from the micro- to the macro-political level of global politics.

[1] Habermas, Jürgen, Sara Lennox, and Frank Lennox. “The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia

Article (1964).” New German Critique, no. 3 (1974): 49–55.

https://doi.org/10.2307/487737.

[2] Ekman, Mattias, and Andreas Widholm. “Political Communication in an Age of Visual

Connectivity: Exploring Instagram Practices among Swedish Politicians.” Northern Lights: Film & Media Studies Yearbook 15, no. 1 (2017): 15–32. https://doi.org/10.1386/nl.15.1.15_1. 

[3] Lewis, Tania. “Branding, Celebritization and the Lifestyle Expert.” Cultural Studies 24, no. 4

(2010): 580–98. https://doi.org/10.1080/09502386.2010.488406. 

[4] Rai, Swapnil. “‘May the Force Be with You’: Narendra Modi and the Celebritization of

Indian Politics.” Communication, Culture and Critique 12, no. 3 (2019): 323–39.

https://doi.org/10.1093/ccc/tcz013.

[5] “WHCA Annual Dinner.” White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA). Accessed

November 11, 2021. https://whca.press/news/annual-dinner/.

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