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Out of the slipstream: The creation of celebrities

By Catharine Lumby - posted Monday, 13 September 2004

We waited in the cold all morning. It was a Saturday in early June, only a few days before my fourteenth birthday. An early present - a full-length denim coat to match my denim flares and denim clutch bag - kept out the wind.

Roadies lugged equipment in through the stage door, jeans slung unfashionably low under beer bellies. We tried flirting with them but they had real groupies to contend with - mature women of 16 - who’d come all the way from Sydney. We were nice girls and none of us had ever kissed a boy. The groupies hung out with us long enough to flash albums full of actual photos of The Band. Then the roadies spirited them inside for “The Sound Check”.

Late in the afternoon a coach pulled up and our heroes emerged flanked by security guards. We barely got a glimpse. By then, the alleyway was thronged with screaming fans. Nine hours for the privilege of breathing the same air. But we were used to waiting. Waiting was how you showed you were a true fan. We didn’t just queue for tickets. We slept outside the box office to get front-row seats. We counted down the days before a new album was due in the stores. We paced each other’s lounge rooms waiting for Countdown to begin. We sat patiently by the radio ignoring real boys at parties, in the hope the DJ would play our favourite song. We had no VCRs and our tape recorders were crap. So we worked as a team to commit everything our idols did to memory - every performance, every word, every gesture, every facial expression. This waiting, this worship, was what we understood by fame.


It’s not as if female rock stars were unheard of in 1975. There were precedents. Suzi Quatro enjoyed a brief sojourn on my wall next to David Cassidy the year I started high school. But I certainly never dreamed of donning a leather jumpsuit, picking up a bass guitar and watching a sea of teenagers pass out at my feet. The idea that ordinary teenage girls - girls who weren’t particularly beautiful or talented - should take their own shot at fame was unthinkable. Boys formed garage bands. Girls hung out in the driveway hoping to catch a lead guitarist in the making.

Back in ’70s Newcastle, when fame knocked for the average teenage girl it was usually a bloke offering a backstage pass in exchange for some backseat head. Not necessarily a bad deal for a chance to party with rock stars and taste what passed for bohemia in a country town.

Reality TV, we are constantly told by the pundits of middle class and brow is dumbing down our culture and distracting people from higher political and aesthetic pursuits. It’s a commonplace that crosses the ideological spectrum.

Here, for instance, is Germaine Greer on the first Big Brother series screened in the United Kingdom, “People who like watching torture will tune in to see a table dancer, an air steward, a hairdresser, a medical rep and a website designer struggling with the contradictions inherent in having simultaneously to bond with and betray perfect strangers”. In a similar vein, conservative Sydney Morning Herald opinion columnist Miranda Devine commented of the contestants in the local Big Brother series that they, “Are not embarrassed about anything - not the mess in their dormitory bedrooms, the banality of their conversation, their late-night drunken ramblings, their indiscriminate bed-hopping, their liberal use of the f-word. They are the fully evolved embodiment of their vulgar era: people utterly without shame.”

One of the best-known and highest-rating reality shows screened in Australia (and syndicated by Endemol Entertainment across the world) is Big Brother. It’s a show with a strong appeal to teenage girls. Towards the end of its first Australian season, in 2001, I accompanied Channel 9 reporter Charles Wooley to the Dreamworld theme park on the Gold Coast to shoot a 60 Minutes segment on the Big Brother phenomenon. The most popular housemate was a flirty, bubbly and infamously chubby young woman named Sara-Marie Fedele. She was particularly loved by teenage girls and the studio audience was full of fans wearing her trademark bunny ears and flannelette pyjamas.

Despite years of living with the incessant public attention a television profile brings, Wooley was clearly stunned by the fascination generated by such an “ordinary” person. He couldn’t understand why anyone would care about people whose only claim to fame was that they’d agreed to live in the Big Brother house and have their lives recorded daily and broadcast nightly to television viewers. “Why are they famous?” Wooley asked me. “What have any of them done?” The stir his own presence had created among the studio audience lent more than a touch of irony to his remarks. A stream of young women flocked to him wherever he moved, asking for autographs and craning their necks in the hope of getting their faces on camera.


The frequently cited notion that reality television contestants haven’t “earned” their fame assumes there is a rational foundation to modern celebrity in the first place. But while there’s no question that more people than ever before are famous today, the means of its production vary widely. Some fame is fleeting, arising out of an accidental starring role in a media event focused on a natural disaster, a violent crime or a sex scandal. Other celebrity is the by-product of years of hard work and real talent. Most of it is medium-dependent.

The evolution of celebrity in the 20th century is intimately related to the evolution of technologies for making individuals public. The advent of records, film, photography, videos, advanced printing and satellite technologies has provided a vast apparatus for manufacturing stars. Technological advances have not only allowed actors and singers to reproduce their performances on tape or film, they’ve helped individualise them. The invention of the close-up in cinema, for instance, focused the audience on the actor’s face and gave them an unprecedented opportunity to study their favourite performer at close range. Paradoxically, the demise of live performance and the boom in recorded images and sounds paved the way for stars to establish a new kind of intimacy with their public. Charles Wooley may be a hardworking and charismatic journalist but it’s unlikely he’d be stopped on the street if he had made a career in print journalism.

The production of fame, as Graeme Turner, David Marshall and Frances Bonner document in their book Fame Games (Cambridge University Press, 2000), is now an enormous industry stoked and maintained by an army of publicists, stylists, agents, managers and media producers. Celebrity is one of the central commodities produced by late global capitalism. But it doesn’t follow that there is a consistency to its production or lifespan. Fame has no necessary relationship to wealth, natural ability, looks, intelligence, family, character or social charisma, although all those characteristics can be useful in acquiring it. Fame is both radically democratic and brutally random. Anybody can become famous, but there are no sure-fire ways of gaining admission to a club that now offers its members privileges (and obligations) once only bestowed on royalty.

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First published in the Griffith Review September 3, 2004

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About the Author

Catharine Lumby is an associate professor of media studies at the University of Sydney and the author of Bad Girls and Gotcha: Life in a Tabloid World. She writes regularly for The Age.

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