Where there’s fame there’s money

Where there’s fame there’s money

In our mass media age, gossip about celebrities’ lives is everywhere - but, as Tom Campbell explains, it’s nothing new

Tom Campbell, writer

Tom Campbell


It is often said that we are living in the ‘celebrity age’ – a time when our media, culture and daily conversations are dominated by the antics of inexplicably famous men and women. Yet one of the fascinating things about studying history is that one soon appreciates how so many things that we regard as uniquely distinctive of our age are simply variations and echoes of what has gone before.

Fame is no exception and a cursory examination of its history tells us that Queen Victoria was repeatedly bothered by the Boy Jones, one of the country’s earliest ‘celebrity stalkers’, that ‘celebrity chef’ is not simply a 21st century phenomenon, but would have been all too familiar in Ancient Rome, and that historians like to highlight the many similarities between the theatrical posturings of sports stars and rock musicians of today and the chivalrous knights of medieval Europe.

Self portrait 1794-99 by Joshua Reynolds
Self portrait 1794-99 by Joshua Reynolds

But while celebrities have been with us for centuries, the nature of fame has changed markedly. What constitutes fame, what people become famous for, and which kinds of people get to enjoy, or endure, the celebrity lifestyle is very much a product of evolving socio-economic trends. In particular, it is closely connected to that of economics, communications and technology, and so it should be no surprise that the concept of fame really emerged and developed only over the last three centuries. If your ancestors were famous – or notorious – what sort of people might they have been?

While medieval and early modern Europe had its well-known rulers, aristocratic lords and religious and military leaders, they operated as part of the political structure and were not celebrities in the sense that we would recognise today. It is notable that, much to the frustration of scholars ever since, Shakespeare and the other great 17th century playwrights attracted relatively little in the way of public fame during their lifetimes, and the actors they wrote for even less.

It is not until almost 200 years later, towards the close of the 18th century that historians have identified the emergence of what we would recognise today as celebrities – a word which didn’t appear in print until the 1840s. Although the printing press was a medieval invention, technological innovations in the early years of the industrial revolution, particularly lithographic printing and the use of steam power, transformed the process and made publishing for mass audiences possible. This enabled the first national newspapers to emerge, and from this time onwards a nascent media industry began to demand content – the news, stories, gossip and scandals that would fill pages and appeal to a public hungry for information and entertainment.

With the advent of the telegraph and rapid relaying of news stories, and printed photography in the latter half of the 19th century, so a celebrity culture developed, and many of the tabloid newspapers still in existence today, such as the Daily Mail and the Mirror, were launched at around this time. This was compounded by the great education reforms of the 1870s and the country’s increased levels of literacy, as well as the beginnings of mass marketing and advertising techniques. As newspapers and media became important in shaping opinions, so the ‘fame industry’ arose as a means of building and protecting the reputations of individuals and corporations, with the term ‘public relations’ first coined in the 1890s.

But while today’s celebrities tend to be sports stars, actors or pop singers, two hundred years ago they were more likely to be adventurers, explorers and soldiers. Again, this is a reflection of the significant changes that Britain’s economy has undergone with commerce and celebrity maintaining a close relationship. In an era when the British Empire and military campaigns were so central to Britain’s economy and identity, it is not surprising that their leading figures should become household names. David Livingstone, Lord Nelson, General Gordon and the Duke of Wellington were all national heroes, revered by painters and poets, and it was common for households to have engravings on their walls in the much the same way that we have posters of stars today.

Whatever we may think of the merits of today’s stars from the sports and entertainment industries, celebrity has undoubtedly been democratised over the last two centuries. The household names of the Georgian and Victorian eras were invariably drawn from the upper classes, and were almost exclusively male. When women did come to any kind of prominence, it was almost always for their notoriety. From Nell Gwyn, the admired restoration actress much better known for bearing Charles II two illegitimate children through to Lady Emma Hamilton, it was love affairs and scandals that made women famous. The great female Victorian writers felt obliged to write under male pseudonyms and it would not be until the 20th century that women would begin to be celebrated for their own talents and achievements.

For those who find the ceaseless babble of celebrity culture tiresome, there is some solace: for whatever the form or historical period, fame is almost always fleeting. If you wish for reputation and fame in the world, take every opportunity of advertising yourself, advised Oscar Wilde, himself a pioneer of the celebrity career, but ‘advertising yourself’ has been no guarantee of a lasting legacy. There are exceptions of course, including Wilde himself, but many of the artists, writers, scientists, educationists and thinkers revered today were by no means celebrities in their lifetimes, while the majority of those who once enjoyed widespread popularity have long been forgotten.

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Many of the Victorian statues that populate Britain’s towns and cities were erected by public demand at the time, but are treated with bemusement and ignorance now. If the history of fame can teach us anything at all, it is perhaps the sobering thought that popularity, whether measured by column inches in newspapers or Google hits, ultimately counts for little, and that very often those who are revered the most are those who have worried about their popularity the least.

Timeline: Fame

Daniel Defoe, often regarded as the world’s first journalist, begins publication of the Review, a periodical covering European affairs
David Garrick takes over the Drury Lane theatre, transforming commercial theatre in Britain for producers and audiences alike
Founding of The Daily Universal Register, later to become The Times national newspaper
The invention of lithography by Alois Senefelder in Bavaria enables the low-cost printing of text and artwork
“Don Juan” is published – Lord Byron’s epic poem of sexual adventure established his public persona and the cult of the celebrity figure
Marie Tussaud opens her waxwork museum in Baker Street, London with death masks and models of famous figures
The first electric telegraph comes into commercial operation, transforming journalism and the supply and demand of news
Cigarette cards with pictures of actors and baseball players appear in the USA, followed shortly in Britain with pictures of footballers and cricketers
The Publicity Bureau of Boston, regarded as the world’s first public relations firm, is founded in the USA
Launch of the Daily Mirror, Britain’s first tabloid newspaper, which introduced the concept of the exclusive interview

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