Celebutantes, Cewebrities and the Celebrity Cult

By 1stFive Archives
Cover image for  article: Celebutantes, Cewebrities and the Celebrity Cult

Chapter 13 of Jack Myers' book Hooked Up: A New Generation's Surprising Take on Sex, Politics and Saving the World focuses on the new brand of celebrities known more for outlandish behavior than traditional talent, and their impact on the Hooked Up Generation – the first generation to grow up with the Internet -- born 1991-95 and emerging as the most important generation of this century. Hooked Up was published in 2012 and is winner of the International Book Award for Youth Issues and finalist for the USA Book Award for Pop Culture.

The Internet has introduced a new brand of celebrity-the celebutante-known more for outlandish behavior than traditional talent. The Hooked Up Generation are the first generation to grow up with these celebutantes, elevating and then demoting them. The Pioneers also relate to more traditional celebrities with a perspective radically different from older generations.

Britney Spears, perhaps the first of the celebutantes, began her career before the development of the Internet. At that time, recording and television studios were very demanding, but Britney was a precocious child with genuine musical talent. She combined her talent with an edgy stage presence to develop a persona that captivated a worldwide fan base. Public interest was sustained by behavior that grew more outrageous: multiple public breakdowns, short-lived affairs and marriages, drug abuse and viral distribution of shocking photos. Her fame peaked between 2005 and 2008, when Yahoo reported people searched "Britney Spears" more than any other person on the Internet. Ultimately her disintegration generated more interest than her success as a precocious singer and dancer.

Celebrity in the 20th century was controlled by media distribution. Film companies, record labels, radio stations and television networks provided the most reliable routes to fame. The Internet has slowly eroded that monopoly on star-making. The Internet's democratic distribution is logistically and economically available to anyone with a web connection, empowering anyone who wants to display a talent (or lack thereof) to do so.

Success for those self-promoted ideas and personalities is far from guaranteed, but it no longer depends on a third party.

The Internet's lower barrier for entry has changed the nature of whocan become a celebrity and how a star is born. It may also be changing the relationship between consumers and the celebrities themselves. The Hooked Up Generation have grown up with an unprecedented amount of their "mental real estate" devoted to celebrities. Modern celebrities have more––and closer––access to today's young adults. The celebrity news business uses sources across all media to provide young adults with information about their favorite celebrities. As a result, The Hooked Up Generation are less likely to take statements at face value. Only a small fraction of Hooked Up Generation consider celebrity endorsements when considering donations to a charity cause. They are more motivated by friends' recommendations, social networks and information they gather through Internet research.

Even as the Internet was developing, television was undergoing its own metamorphosis. Cable television spawned hundreds of channels desperate for cheap content. From this need came a new type of entertainment––the reality show––that advanced and institutionalized the role of the celebutante. These shows made stars of 'Snooki' Polizzi of MTV's Jersey Shore and Kim Kardashian, whose E! reality series Keeping Up With the Kardashians gained enormous popularity as fans flocked to watch a family whose only talent appeared to be spending large amounts of cash. Ozzy Osbourne, with the support of his family, developed a new fan base with his MTV series The Osbournes. Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson sustained popularity with MTV's Newlyweds; Nick & Jessica.

Perhaps the best known celebutante is Paris Hilton, an attractive heiress whose fame was marginal and talent undefined until the viral Internet release of an explicit sex video, A Night in Paris. Her Internet-based fame led to a reality show, The Simple Life, which was short-lived but had a cult-like following.

Paris, now in her thirties, may have more staying power than many of her more talented contemporaries. More than ever, stardom depends on image marketing and Hilton is no empty-headed bimbo. She is a granddaughter of hotel executive Conrad Hilton, and she has demonstrated her canny business sense and ability to turn celebutante notoriety into economic opportunity. Her release from a short prison term assured her extensive coverage across multiple TV channels in the United States and around the world. Paris has produced a variety of reality shows for several cable channels and has branched out with successful beauty and clothing lines. Paris may prove to be the first of many Internet-dependent celebrities who are able to sustain lifelong popularity through personal marketing.

Despite the prison and sex scandals, Hilton describes herself as a role model for children and young adults, claiming to teach them self-esteem. Some consumers disagree, criticizing her children's clothing line as "party clothes for young sluts." The Hooked Up Gen are more ambivalent, perhaps remembering how they emulated the Spears and Hilton look by wearing similar revealing clothes in their early teens.

However, today's Hooked Up Generation are also less likely to reward self-absorbed instant celebutantes who depend more on sensation and controversy than talent.

Brittany Saale, a 21-year-old college psychology major, explains: "This type of celebrity worship doesn't influence me. I may copy a hairstyle I like, but that's about all."

The Hooked Up Generation have outgrown their early teen-age interest in celebutante behavior. Today they're judging and emulating their favorite celebrities based on positive social values, and this will continue in the future. Saale reflects this trend. "I like Pink because she's for women's rights and represents a strong female generation…the message is what's important." Saale (who dresses in jeans and T-shirts) dismisses the appearance of her scantily-clad, multiple-pierced idol.

The Dawn of Cewebrities

A "cewebrity" (ceWEBrity) is an individual who achieves fame among the Internet Generation solely through a presence on the Internet. The Urban Dictionary describes a cewebrity as an "online celebrity, rarely ever actually famous, but often wildly popular on sites like YouTube or Twitter."

Jessica Lee Rose used YouTube to become the first Internet cewebrity, making and posting videos under the user name LonelyGirl15. The videos showed a young, home-schooled teen as she sat on her bed, pouring out her private thoughts and fears. Fans 'connected' with LonelyGirl15 and her experiences. Viewer numbers rose to astronomical heights. LonelyGirl15 responded by slowly revealing more intimate details of her life.

The sensation ended when LonelyGirl15 was outed as an actor, 19-year-old Jessica Lee Rose. Rose was under contract to EQAL, a small entrepreneurial Hollywood studio. When the LonelyGirl15 saga ended, the studio went on to make branded entertainment videos for Philadelphia Cream Cheese. Its original goal of producing viral online video brands and then attracting sponsors didn't work out, and EQAL is now creating content for established studios and marketers. Jessica Lee has built on her YouTube popularity to gain more acting roles.

14-year-old Rebecca Black became a cewebrity by showcasing a reasonable amount of talent on a less adequate song and video. Results were mixed: Rebecca became the number one most downloaded YouTube artist in 2011 with her low-budget Friday video, but she also had the dubious honor of winning the most "I dislike this" votes.

User-Generated One-Hit Wonders

Viral videos are the Internet's version of the "one-hit wonder." An Internet piece goes viral when the first people to find it share it with their friends, who share it with their friends, who share it with theirs. The result is an exponential growth in the popularity of a specific piece––sometimes resulting in millions of views per day.

Rebecca Black and many other "webstars" (Freddie W, NicePeter, RayWilliamJohnson, Toby Turner, Wil Wheaton, Pop17, gaming guru Monte Cook, the Annoying Orange and TheHill88) represent a new kind of role model. They demonstrate that anyone can achieve some fame––and even income––with limited talent and without traditional industry support. Those who are handy with a video camera can generate huge YouTube audiences with "warm fuzzy" videos such as twin babies talking to each other or somebody tickling a kitten. Such videos often get more than 50 million page views on YouTube.

Disconnect Between Celebrities and Cewebrities

Forbes publishes a popular list of their Top 25 Internet Celebrities. Unfortunately, the list demonstrates a lack of understanding of the true zeitgeist of the Internet.

The Forbes list focuses on talented individuals who have used the Internet and corporate support to launch careers in more traditional media. These celebrities are, on average, 38 years old, with several in their 50s. Forbes' focus––understandably––is on bloggers who write on tech, entertainment and politics (Matt Drudge, Michael Arrington, Amanda Congdon, Jeff Jarvis), marketing (Seth Godin, Chris Brogan), and celebrities (Perez Hilton).

The Top Internet Celebrities on the Forbes list would be unfamiliar to The Hooked Up Generation or Internet Natives (with the possible––but outdated–– exception of Jessica Lee Rose). On the other hand, Internet cewebrities are well known to The Hooked Up Generation. Yet the legacy media continue to overlook these personalities despite the fact that many cewebrities generate millions more YouTube views than all 25 on the Forbes list combined!

The Internet has become a true launching pad for a wide range of talented people. For example, Twitter phenomenon Justin Halpern got a book deal and a network television show based on his feed $#*! My Dad Says. Author Larry Correia leveraged self-published fiction into a multi-book science fiction contract.

Celebrity as Career Goal

While the goal is typically to leverage online fame into corporate deals, more and more Members of the Hooked Up Generation are content making a name––and a living––for themselves solely via an Internet presence. Creators of YouTube videos, blogs, podcasts and newsletters can generate revenue through advertising or by selling upgrades, books and services.

Many people can easily use their cell phones for video recording, editing and distributing content. The quality is high and the cost is dramatically low. This enables anyone with even marginal interest to take a shot at becoming a YouTube cewebrity. The sheer number of potential viewers and readers makes a living wage possible for those willing and able to create and post content…a process requiring only a smartphone video camera and Internet connection.

The process is still evolving. To date, cewebrities who gain financial success are the exceptions; the majority gain only fleeting fame with little financial reward. But Internet Natives are more likely than past generations to view "celebrity" as a viable career option. A 2010 poll of children age 7 to 13 revealed that eight out of ten believe they have a chance of becoming famous.

This belief shows how the online cewebrity culture will change ideas about fame. As fame becomes easier to achieve, it'll become less valuable in the eyes of The Hooked Up Generation, a commodity unworthy of their time, attention and money.

Internet Presence as Career Requirement

On the other hand, people in traditional celebrity professions are finding an Internet presence is essential to maintaining their own careers. The Internet will be, if it's not already, the major influence for establishing celebrity. Those people who understand how to use the Internet effectively to market themselves and socially engage their fans are most likely to establish and sustain their careers. Examples are the consistently popular celebrity Twitter feeds and websites that focus on news and announcements that keep traditional celebrities in the public mind.

Stars will always rise to receive attention and income disproportionate to their actual contribution to society. However, as more people derive their income from careers that rely on public exposure, the cachet and economic appeal of simply being a celebrity will decrease.

Changing Concept of Celebrity

A 2011 report in the Journal of Cultural Studies indicates that the role of celebrity reporting is changing as celebrity becomes accessible to more people. In fact, the very concept of celebrity is changing. Anyone with a cell phone can tweet and post photos of the comings and goings of even the most marginal celebrity. The ubiquity of celebrity social networking and cultural visibility is making celebrity status less relevant, interesting and economically valuable. In turn, traditional media will have less incentive to cover celebrity news, further diminishing its appeal and value.

"We spend a lot of time (and editorial space) idolizing these celebrities. We're green-eyed about their wealth, beauty and success. But whoa––when they crash, they really crash. We might not be as thin or as rich, but things also don't seem to implode as spectacularly."
Dorothy Robinson
Columnist, NY Metro
Writing about Demi Moore

Robinson's comment reflects the cultural shift away from celebrities as role models. Interest in celebrities will continue in the short term, but for all intents and purposes, the cult of the celebutante is over.

Chapter 14: Gaming is Serious Business for Marketers & Agencies.

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