Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, October 7, 2019
“He’s a big shot.”
I am interested in just what that means, and more to the point, why in America has being a celebrity become such a big business. It seems we are consumed, intrigued, fascinated, envious and generally can’t get enough of famous people.
To puzzle on this further, I turned to Sharon Marcus, author of a new book “The Drama of Celebrity.” One example in her book is Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese soccer star who has 183 million followers on Instagram. Do the math — the entire population of Portugal is less than 10 million people. This guy has some major reach. While getting there is hard enough, Marcus points out that staying there is even harder.
As a child, Marcus was mesmerized by the old Hollywood celebrities, and how they controlled their image. She was particularly interested in how they manipulated the press, creating a hunger for their stories. Why are we so fascinated with celebrities — in particular “defiant celebrities?” Marcus profiles Oscar Wilde, put in jail for being gay around 1895. Do you have to be outrageous to be anointed a celebrity?
Recently, I read that former presidential press secretary Sean Spicer is being paid $125,000 to appear on “Dancing with the Stars.” This is a guy whose major musical skill was tap-dancing around the truth. This celebrity thing is a heady brew that can also be potentially toxic; the deadly drug overdose list of the famous is lengthy. So let’s ask — does the entrepreneur that we often write about want to be famous or successful?
Not everything is hype. Marcus also properly calls out real talent in all fields. But the nexus of true talent and economic celebrity are not always synchronous. And so we need to confront the new hydra serpent — social media. She points out the lengths that celebrities need to go to maintain the eyeballs, to stay in the news, to be sought after. It is a full-time job (sometimes outsourced). The question is, could that time and effort be better used to do something ostensibly more productive? I know that comment is suspect and judgmental, mea culpa.
Marcus profiles many from the Hollywood factory. That system “creates stars.” But so does Tech Crunch. Does venture capital value the names over the companies? Consider Adam Neumann, founder of WeWork. He has been called a “millennial prophet,” and the last valuation of his company was at $47 billion, but they lose $2 billion per year. Do I hear a Pied Piper calling? (He was recently removed as CEO).
I occasionally read Modern Luxury, a monthly high-gloss magazine devoted to photos of famous people and fancy restaurants and clothing that costs more than my 16-year-old Lexus. It gets sent to me for free. I suppose they make money, but for sure, my eyeballs are not the ones they want.
And of course, no discussion of celebrity would be complete without a dissertation on YouTube. It allows anyone to crowdsource fame. There are no longer any gatekeepers, you don’t need a publicist to get you onto Page Six at the New York Post. All you need is a cheap video camera and some way to draw attention to yourself — for any reason. ( Your “likes” or followers are not necessarily correlated to “earning or deserving it.”)
Being a celebrity is really about having control over the economics of distribution of your creation. (Study the stock voting rights at Facebook or Google). The dream of fame is more alive than ever. Celebrity has been democratized — all you have to do is go viral. Children’s summer camps now teach how to use social media instead of canoeing. But if everyone is famous in the new paradigm, who will be left to market to?
And finally, does financing come more easily to the outrageous, celebrity CEO, is there a more willing suspension of disbelief, and where is the nexus between the original passion of your startup and the subtle desire to become a big shot?
Senturia, a serial entrepreneur who invests in early-stage technology companies, writes weekly about entrepreneurship in San Diego. [email protected]
Rule No. 630
“I coulda been a contender.”
— Terry Malloy, in the 1954 film
“On The Waterfront”