Leo Braudy, author of The Frenzy of Renown, talks to Bill Moyers about the phenomenon of fame and the world’s obsession with celebrity.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The image of fame permeates America. Star athletes and movie stars, stars of rock music and television stars. Celebrity is a code we all learn to read. A face tells us what appealed then, what appeals now, what beauty we agree is enduring. A personality can define the past. A face can profile a decade. A name can sell a product, or stand in for an idea. The history of fame since ancient times and the phenomenon of celebrity in 20th-century America have been the focus of Leo Braudy’s scholarship. His book, The Frenzy of Renown, traced how our attention shifted from the political leader, the artist and the intellectual to the talk show host and television personality. Since the book appeared three years ago, there’s been a further explosion of fame in media-obsessed America. That was the subject of our conversation at Leo Braudy’s home near the University of Southern California, where he teaches.
[interviewing] My late friend, Joseph Campbell, said that a celebrity serves only his or her self, and a hero goes out and redeems society. Don’t you think we’re losing the difference between a celebrity and a hero in this world?
LEO BRAUDY: Oh, I think we have. We’ve certainly lost that distinction, because we’re not as interested in doing as we are in being. And to me, a celebrity is someone who is, by his or her nature.
BILL MOYERS: Is what? That’s it. Only is, only is. Is-
BILL MOYERS: Only is there, like-
LEO BRAUDY: -only is there, only has a spiritual quality, I think, it’s almost like an etiquette. That is, we’re interested in celebrities-if you look at every age, it seems to me, that in different ages there’s a kind of central vocation that becomes the measure by which fame, achievement, whatever it is, is measured in other areas. So it could be the king. Everything is measured by the idea of monarchy. Or it could be the artist. In our period, it’s the performer.
BILL MOYERS: I have here, hot off the presses, the new World Almanac with its annual poll of top heroes of young Americans. And the top hero this year, you want to take a guess who won?
LEO BRAUDY: This year?
BILL MOYERS: Mm-hmm.
LEO BRAUDY: Hmm. Who would it be this year?
BILL MOYERS: Michael Jordan, basketball player, the Chicago Bulls. And then they have the list of the heroes of young America, a synthesis of them from the ’80s. Burt Reynolds won twice, Alan Alda, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Jackson, Eddie Murphy won twice, Bill Cosby, Tom Cruise, and last year, Michael Jordan. What does it say to you, that young Americans’ heroes every year come from either sports or entertainment? Are we giving up on the real people who make a difference in the world we live in?
LEO BRAUDY: Well, certainly polls like this are giving up on those kinds of people. And to a great extent, what these polls mean are who are the images that we load all this meaning into? To the extent that somebody is famous for doing something, for being a great brain surgeon or even being a great philanthropist, that’s very specific. They have done this, and therefore they are famous for doing this. But the people on these polls, the people who win out in who is your hero kinds of situations, are people who have a vaguer image, who have not really done anything to merit that kind of attention. These people have done things, Michael Jordan is a basketball player, Sylvester Stallone is a movie actor, but they don’t get on these polls because that-because of their professions. They get on these polls because the people who vote there feel they can load all this meaning onto them.
What does Michael Jordan mean? I don’t know, he means a certain kind of skill, a certain kind of aspiration, a certain kind of ambition. Every member of the audience probably has a somewhat different view of what Michael Jordan means. And I think this is true of people who-the people who are grandly famous throughout the ages, on a much larger scale than this particular poll. The people who are grandly famous are people who are often famous for contradictory reasons. The more contradictions you can hold in yourself, the more contradictions your image has, the more famous you will be, because people will interpret you in different ways.
BILL MOYERS: Example?
LEO BRAUDY: Well, there is that poll that tried to-I saw, I think it was in Psychology Today, that said that-tried to measure not just the heroes but also the most mediocre and the people in the middle and the people that nobody cared about. ‘Who do you not care about the most?” And Reagan was at the top of virtually every list in that poll.
BILL MOYERS: You mean the most admired, the least cared about?
LEO BRAUDY: Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: The most-liked?
LEO BRAUDY: The worst, the best, everything. It’s kind of-this is a triumph of image that in fact, it doesn’t make any difference whatever the category is, he’s the one who’s being thought about the most in that category. So it’s a kind of blanket thing.
BILL MOYERS: Somebody said real fame happens when you’re the center of attention and you’re not even present.
LEO BRAUDY: When you’re the “empty-center.” Right.
BILL MOYERS: What does that say about fame, though, that he can be on every list, those the most admired, those the least admired?
LEO BRAUDY: Well, I think one of the things that it says is that the public, the audience, all of us, have these categories of heroism, have these categories of people that we pay attention to. And they have to be filled. Now, I think they’re inside of us. I don’t think that, you know, some might say that it’s manipulated, that we really wouldn’t think about this if we weren’t told to think about it by advertising.
BILL MOYERS: The World Almanac poll of top heroes says that Michael Jordan, who was last year’s top hero, has gained fame not only for his exploits on the basketball court, but for his endorsements of fast foods, breakfast cereal, sneakers, clothing, soft drinks and so forth. What does that say to you about fame? It’s not just for what he does as an athlete, but for his image there selling things. He’s become a pitchman.
LEO BRAUDY: Well, it’s-one of the things that it says is that if you get fame for doing anything, for an actual achievement, somehow this fame is transferable to all sorts of other areas that would seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with it. To be a pitchman, that is, to say you should eat this food or use this detergent or whatever it is because I’m a great basketball player. It’s an odd kind of logic here, and I think what the logic, the hidden logic there is that fame is a spiritual quality. That is, if you are famous, somehow you have a radiance and somehow you have an authority that should persuade people to do virtually anything, and certainly is usable in commercials. I mean, commercials are all about ideals and the way to become a better person. All commercials say, ”You are lacking, you are empty, you need this product and then you will be wonderful.” And so the famous person who is the pitchman for these commercials says: “Be like me, be wonderful. If you do this-or you not necessarily will become a great basketball player, but you will share in my aura,” in some sense.
BILL MOYERS: It’s interesting to me that half of the top heroes of the 1980s on the World Almanac list are black. We’ve certainly democratized that authority as far as it is transmitted through the media, haven’t we?
LEO BRAUDY: Mm-hmm. Oh, I think that-yes, that’s a very striking thing. And it’s happened even in the last four or five years. It’s definitely-it’s been a new trend.
BILL MOYERS: So fame has some positive results, too, when it enables people long denied access to the mainstream imagery of America to become universally appealing.
LEO BRAUDY: I think that’s true. And the more people that are brought into this-this spectrum or this pantheon of the famous, the more different kinds of people, the more this democratic theme is really being served.
BILL MOYERS: Well, that’s a novel thought to me, because I’ve often I’ve long thought of fame as that notoriety which comes from great accomplishment, that rises above the pack, that stands out beyond the masses and strikes a path into the future. And you’re saying that that’s-that we’ve leveled fame even as fame is lifted up.
LEO BRAUDY: Well, I wouldn’t say leveled. The kind of fame that you’re talking about, I think, is much more typical of a monarchical world, or a world that has a pyramid structure. And the fame at the top is unique. And then let’s say there’s a fame even above the top that rises above the whole social world. And I think what happened in-well, since the end of the 18th century and the democratic revolutions in America and in France, that the democratic fame that arose then was a fame that made an interesting connection, it was the unique person who was also the representative person.
BILL MOYERS: The man of the people.
LEO BRAUDY: The man of the people, the spokesman for the people who realize the potential in everyone. That’s really democratic, the essence of democratic fame, so that all these are—all the famous now, not all of them, but a lot of the ones we’ve been talking about, are famous because they are potentials for each person in the audience. Perhaps none of these students are going to become like Michael Jackson-
BILL MOYERS: Or Jordan.
LEO BRAUDY: -or Michael Jordan, or any other Michael that may come around.
BILL MOYERS: Both heroes.
LEO BRAUDY: All the—no one is going to become like Michael Jordan, but on the other hand, when they’re on the basketball court, that image will be inside of them when they’re being athletic at all. So it’s a potential, it’s connected to all sorts of American myths, certainly, you know, Abraham Lincoln writing his lessons on his shovel next to the fireplace, rising from the log cabin to the White House. The idea-
BILL MOYERS: On the way becoming one of America’s first corporate lawyers.
LEO BRAUDY: -well, that’s right. Well, this is sort of left out of the story-
BILL MOYERS: That’s right.
LEO BRAUDY: -the way in which Lincoln very much was a member of the establishment of his own day, and connected to political and social power. But what’s left in the story, the myth, the mythic part of the story, is that-that sense of it happened to Lincoln, it could happen to you.
BILL MOYERS: It’s been said that the true function of the hero relies in the realm of the imagination. The hero represents not so much a specific achievement as a whole range of human possibilities, and all inspiring a glimpse of perfection. You think that’s still true?
LEO BRAUDY: I think it’s still true in that spiritual sense, that is, it’s a perfection of a type, and the problem is that because we are inundated every day by so many names and faces, constantly, that the specific embodiment keeps changing. But the type, the type still remains. And the desire to see other people as somehow more perfect, in a sense, so that we can become more perfect, that sense of aspiration, that sense of potential and possibility, this is what-this is part of what heroes are for. I mean, heroes are not only there to be admired as being totally different from we are, but they’re also there to be emulated, I would think, as similar to the way we are.
And I think one of the things that’s happened, let’s say, with the kind of media, the fame explosion of the last 10 or 15 years, is that the heroes have become much too cut off from normal people. And so what falls, what happens, what takes up that space, the gossip magazines, I think the function of the gossip magazines is to say, ”Well, they may be superstars, and they may make millions of dollars and they may live in a way that’s totally inconceivable to any normal person, on the other hand, they have drug problems, they have sex problems, they’re sad.” It’s back to Pagliacei, you know, laughing on the outside, crying on the inside, or any musical, anyone—any Hollywood musical is all about success in front of the audience means failure backstage.
And we like that. We like that. Because some people say it’s because we want to cut down the heroes, but I think it’s because we want to humanize them, too. We want—because part of that heroic definition is the potential, is the connection with the audience, not the separation from it.
BILL MOYERS: On the plane coming out here, an interesting thing happened in serendipitous connection to our conversation. I was sitting next to an 18-year-old, a young 18-year-old from Louisiana who was on his way to San Diego to be inducted into the Marine Corps, first airplane flight. We were sitting there, having a chit-chat, and the stewardess, who did not recognize me, came up and said, “Did you fellows know that Lily Tomlin is up in the first class cabin?” And I said, “Oh, that’s very interesting.” And the young man said, “Who’s Lily Tomlin?” And eyes utterly blank. I said, “She’s on television.” “She’s on television! Is that—she’s up in first class?” He didn’t know who Lily Tomlin was, but the fact that she was on television excited that imagination, made him, bonded him in some way with that stewardess who was excited about Lily Tomlin being up there. Yet, when we got off the airplane and I said to him, “That’s Lily Tomlin,” nondescript, she had on sunglasses, she was obviously trying to avoid people, he said, “Oh, she’s famous?”
LEO BRAUDY: Well, there’s a whole sense also, I think, in that interchange, of negotiation. That is, America is a country that has very little in common when-America is a country in which people have very little in common. There is no state religion, we live in different places with different laws and things like that. We’re all-we all consider ourselves Americans, however, and one thing that connects us is that we all watch the same television programs, or we all watch television, with a capital T. And the idea that somebody is on television then becomes like a kind of instant coin of recognition around the country. And this is-and your story is almost like a pure version of that. It doesn’t make any difference what she was doing on television. He wasn’t interested was she the star of a show, did she appear on a commercial, whatever it was. The mere fact that she was on television meant that she was important. And then, of course, the appropriate ending, too, that when you see the real person, it’s always a letdown in some way. But television gives that gaudy enhancement of the self that people connect with as fame, and then reality, it seems like an afterthought.
BILL MOYERS: It also gives us something new in the dictionary of identity, the television personality. He or she is a television personality. No one has any idea what a television personality does.
LEO BRAUDY: Mm-hmm.
BILL MOYERS: It’s just that he or she is. Vanna White, for example, is to me the essence of the television personality.
LEO BRAUDY: Well, these people appear on television, they have a function on television, and because they are there, because, again, the like the young man on the plane, we’re paying so much attention to them because they’re on television, we start ascribing to them all sorts of characteristics. They are there as kind of canvases on which we can project virtually anything. What we think, it’s in them. We in the audience think that that glow is coming from them, when in fact we’re directing it towards them.
Clark Gable once talked about the contract that a star has with the audience, and that certain stars had breached that contract and were rejected by the audience. And that contract is this constant reciprocity between what the celebrity or the hero in the public eye does, and what the audience thinks about that. And the confusion results when people in the audience -and I think it’s especially true of young people -somehow think that it’s the star that is doing it. They are doing it, too. The star does something, they pay attention to it. And that attention that we give to those people is really an important part of the power that we give them, too. And the extent that we give them all that power is the extent that we give up to them in that way. And we could see this is some of the crimes, things like that, that have been committed against celebrities, murders and attacks and whatever. It’s like an extreme-again, an extreme version of that. These people feel that the celebrity has somehow sucked their characters out of them. This is an extreme version of the fan. The fan in all senses wants to connect with the celebrity because the fan sees the celebrity as a heightened version of himself or herself, wants to enter that aura. The crazy fan, the murderous fan, feels that so much that they feel they don’t exist anymore, and the only way that they can exist is to attack, to kill the celebrity.
BILL MOYERS: What does the famous owe the fan? I mean, isn’t giving up privacy part of the bargain? Do Greta Garbo and Woody Allen really have a right to be reclusive?
LEO BRAUDY: I think they have a right to be reclusive. I think-but it is-giving it up is part of the bargain. Greta Garbo has dropped out, so—and she’s become famous for her reclusiveness, I mean, in one of the typical paradoxes. But it does-it always strikes me as somewhat strange that—and this is-they don’t realize the bargain. It strikes me as strange when stars or people in the public eye get upset about it, and want to withdraw.
BILL MOYERS: Because they wouldn’t exist without it.
LEO BRAUDY: Without it, they’re nothing.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think the famous really want to be famous, or do they set out to accomplish something, and then the fame comes in the wake of the achievement?
LEO BRAUDY: Well, I think the people who handle it the best are the latter sort. The people who are obsessed with an idea, who have work that they really must do, who have achievements that can’t wait, that something inside of them makes them want to do. And then, when the fame comes, if the fame comes for that, they’re in a much better position to deal with it than if they think about the fame to begin with. I think anybody who thinks about the fame to begin with is looking for trouble. But the other spiritual side is, in fact, that it comes from the inside. It comes from your desire to work-well, it used to be in early Christian-in the early Christian view of fame, that the only true fame was a fame for achievements that were done in the eyes of God.
BILL MOYERS: God was the public that mattered.
LEO BRAUDY: God was the public that mattered, not the people in front of you, but God was the public that mattered. Now, in general, this can be generalized to all invisible audiences, all audiences that aren’t present. It could be God, it could be posterity, it could be some other audience that you don’t even know about. The key is not to think about that immediate audience, but only to think about your connection with that other audience, that invisible audience. That audience is there for what you do for yourself, and the more that you have that kind of inner desire, the more that you have that kind of spiritual connection to your work, the more satisfied you’ll be. Then, if the other fame comes, okay. That’s a problem, you can deal with it, because you’re dealing with it from a much more solid and substantial center.
BILL MOYERS: You keep bringing up this idea of fame as a spiritual force, and I try to connect that to the famous people we see in popular culture, Johnny Carson, Arsenio Hall, Roseanne Barr, Peter Jennings. Am I mishearing you? Are you suggesting that they play a spiritual role in our modern world?
LEO BRAUDY: Well, I think they do as minor deities of one sort or another, and because of the kind of aura that they have. They have a kind of unrelenting aura, they can have that. If you were tapped by them, they’re like fairy godparents or something who come down and make you turn-the Cinderella you, the normal everyday you, into something special. I think that myth is there, underneath it.
BILL MOYERS: But the saints of old, the people upon whom others put their affection and reverence, pointed us to a god, pointed beyond ourself to another reality. I’m not sure that’s happening with minor deities, as you call them.
LEO BRAUDY: Well, I think they point to the idea of fame, and that’s maybe the problem. They encourage people to seek fame in the abstract, and that’s the problem.
BILL MOYERS: So what is Johnny Carson doing every night for us?
LEO BRAUDY: He is directing our attention, he is directing our focus. He is saying, “I’m paying attention to these people, therefore they are people that you should pay attention to.” We get so much information, we are told that so many people are-so many people are trying to get our attention, how do we know if this new singer or this new actor or actress or this new politician is worth paying attention to? We look to the intermediaries. We look to the columnists, the journalists, we look to the talk show hosts, we look to the producers to tell us these things. Depending on our temperament, we might say, “Ah, they’re all wrong.” We might say, in fact, this actress, this journalist, this politician that nobody is paying attention to is really a lot more interesting than the other ones. But then we’re still buying into the whole system. We’re buying into it in reverse. We’re saying that, in fact, the fame machine makes mistakes, but we’re going to rectify it. Either way, we’re looking to have our choices and our will ratified.
BILL MOYERS: “The fame machine.” I like that term. Once upon a time, the king ran the fame machine.
LEO BRAUDY: Mm-hmm.
BILL MOYERS: Then the priests
LEO BRAUDY: Ran-
BILL MOYERS: -ran the fame machine. And you’re suggesting-who’s running it today?
LEO BRAUDY: We are. We’re running it. I think that’s my-probably my most optimistic view. We are running it. Other people put it together, other people set it in motion, but we give it all the energy and we can turn it off, too. We really have that power. We can be flimflammed for a while, but not in the long run.
BILL MOYERS: You don’t seem very cynical about this.
LEO BRAUDY: Well, I think the cynical position is the most normal position, and I think the problem with it is that it somehow assumes that there was, at some time, there was an Eden in which this wasn’t true. And the cynical position wishes that we were back then, that we weren’t so corrupt, that there wasn’t television or there wasn’t newspapers or whatever particular thing bothers the cynic the most. But I’m much more interested in how we deal with what’s happening right now, how we-
BILL MOYERS: When fame, with this explosion of fame-
LEO BRAUDY: -with the explosion of fame, how we understand it as part of what’s going on in our culture, and in a sense, how it’s unavoidable. I’m not-I don’t think it’s going to keep increasing and continually expanding its bounds necessarily, but on the other hand, we’re never-we’re not going to get smaller as a society, we’re not going to get less complex as a society. The modes of communication are going to become more and more elaborate. There’s going to be more and more information. So I think the challenge is to try to understand that, to figure out exactly how we can discern what’s valuable and what isn’t valuable. And especially when the topic of fame and image, a lot of negative things that happen, a lot of superficial and trivial things, but on the other hand, we’ve learned a lot about fame. We’ve learned a lot about the famous. And we keep paying that attention, and I think that’s part of true democracy.
BILL MOYERS: From his home in Los Angeles, this has been a conversation with Leo Braudy. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on May 18, 2015.