CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1Since the 1980s, a significant element has emerged in Anglo-American social science, devoted to “celebrity culture.” In France, the term covers studies ranging from “popular culture” to the “media,” at the meeting point of the sociology of culture and of information and communication technology. However, the main difference between the national traditions is in the contrast between the lack of research carried out in France on the various aspects of star worship—with only a few studies, from Les stars by Edgar Morin two generations ago (Morin 1972 [1957]) to very recent research on the phenomenon of “fans” and the television culture (Le Guern 2002; Macé 2007)—and the abundance of English-language publications (American, British, and Australian) of which several dozen have been produced, with more being published all the time (Marshall 2006a). From this standpoint, French research, which is probably inhibited by the devaluation of this kind of practice in the academic world and by the compartmentalization between studies on communication, art, and political representation (Maigret and Macé 2005), lags behind, both in comparison with Anglo-American research and with the extraordinary expansion of the phenomenon in question in contemporary western societies (Heinich 2011b). Scholarly denunciation of the phenomenon has ranged from the edicts of the Frankfurt School against the cultural alienation of capitalism (Vincent 1976) to those of the philosopher Guy Debord against “the society of the spectacle (Debord 1971 [1967]), and has certainly not helped sociologists to bring this phenomenon under the cold gaze of analysis, through the impartial application of the tools of description, statistics, and observation—in short, of investigation.

2Adopting this stance, based on the various studies available, will enable us to broaden the conventional spectrum of studies on consumption by including this particular consumption, namely consumption of celebrity, through its material manifestations (photographs, films, newspapers, television, etc.) and immaterial manifestation (presence). By interfacing these two problematics—consumption and celebrity—, we can, on the one hand, examine celebrity from a different angle, looking at the market behavior to which it has given rise and demonstrating that it has lead to a specific economy involving the media, press, advertising, entertainment, security, etc. On the other hand, we can portray consumption as consumption of celebrity, by focusing on the specifics of the modes of consumption practiced by those involved, which have broadened the limits of the market economy.

3In a first section, we shall briefly describe the dependence of modern forms of celebrity on technical instruments of reproduction, which goes a long way to explaining the success of this new “celebrity culture.” In a second section, we shall see how celebrity permeates various social classes, which are more or less dependent on this resource, and which is a factor in shifting consumption towards figures unheard of in the past. In a third section, we shall consider the point of view of the consumers of celebrity, by analyzing the main forms taken by the “desire to see.” In a fourth section, we shall give some significant examples of the purely economic consequences of this particular consumption. Finally, we shall demonstrate the axiological limits of such consumption, constrained by ethics and law, before concluding on the more political forms of critique of consumption.

Forms of Celebrity in the Media Age

4In a famous essay on “the work of art in the age of technical reproducibility” (Benjamin 1971 [1935]), the German philosopher Walter Benjamin neglected an even more significant dimension—at least from a growth perspective—of the consequences of the invention of photography: that of what happens to the face in the era of its technical reproduction.

5Invention and the subsequent large-scale use of the photographic portrait profoundly changed the traditional modalities of celebrity. Henceforth, celebrity did not materialize solely in biographical narratives (the “Pantheon of paper” described by the French historian Jean Claude Bonnet [1998, 10]), effigies on medals, and, exceptionally, the timely presence of public figures during official ceremonies or stage performances. Celebrity now took the form of the indefinite reproduction of facial features, with photography and photogravure; then of the voice, with radio and sound films, allowing countless masses to “recognize” a single individual and, as the saying goes, to put “a name to a face.” Potentially huge communities of admiration formed, with the objects of admiration singled out and valued for the fact that they are well known. Thanks to this new visibility of the celebrity, the start of the twentieth century brought what we shall call “star worship,” the novelty of which in the history of our culture can be seen in the abundance of neologisms on the subject: “starlets,” “stars,” “superstars,” “glamour,” “stardom,” “fans,” “groupies,” etc.

6With the development of television in the second half of the twentieth century, the phenomenon took on a new breadth and twist. The objects of admiration lost their exceptional character and gained an everyday one. Mere television hosts (Chalvon-Demersay and Pasquier 1990), then ordinary people—with the télévérité (truth television) of the 1980s (Mehl 1996) and the téléréalité (reality television) of the late 1990s (Segré 2008)—gained access to the now legendary prediction made by the American artist Andy Warhol in 1968, of everybody being “world-famous for 15 minutes" (Warhol 1975), in a democratization of media celebrity that has sometimes been disparaged as a degradation of “stars” to “people.”

7This prompts closer observation of how celebrity nowadays permeates the various social classes. In other words, how technologies of reproduction of image and sound have brought about profound change in the social hierarchy of modern western societies, by transforming certain individuals into objects of large-scale visual or audio consumption.

Social Distribution of Celebrity

8History is also important in understanding the distribution of celebrity among the social classes susceptible to attain it. In fact, the first among them historically was the class of sovereigns and members of royal families. With the technical means of reproduction of the image, their celebrity by name and representation in the form of pictures, coins, and lithography, grew and shifted more towards the visual. This brought an increase in popularity—as was seen in particular at the end of the twentieth century in the extraordinary global sentiment aroused by the accidental death of Princess Diana (Kear and Steinberg1999).

9The visual expansion of celebrity also affected the professions of politicians (Street 2004; Dakhlia 2008), journalists (Marshall 1997), and sportsmen (Andrews and Jackson 2001), as well as those of thinkers and creators (Debray 1979; Williams 2001). In all these cases, celebrity only added value to the person’s abilities. By contrast, in the case of professions organized for and through image, such as announcers, television hosts, or models (Lipovetzky 1997), their celebrity is a value that we might call “endogenous” in the sense that it is mainly created by the large-scale reproduction of their image, without substantial support in a pre-existing intrinsic value, in which being photogenic or being beautiful is a “weak” value with little connection to the person’s worth. Hosts or presenters without other particular talent than being photogenic or having the “gift of the gab” became very widely-known personalities, familiar to millions of people and, in some cases, associated with strong feelings of attachment. Later, the invention of such new television genres as the télévérité of the 1980s in France, and the téléréalité of the late1990s (Segré 2006; Turner 2004), further enhanced the status of the “star of the small screen” to ordinary people, non-professionals, with no other claim than being picked for a game.

10The technical development of the means of reproduction of the image, coupled with the global expansion of this new “celebrity culture” led to a form of democratization—sometimes disparaged as vulgarization—of access to celebrity status. Celebrities tended to display less and less “added” value and more and more “endogenous” value, as with the heroic personalities of téléréalité for the popular classes, or what are sometimes nowadays known as “it-girls”—fashion icons simply “famous for being famous.” [1]

11The novelty of these changes should not make us forget that the type of media celebrity that enjoyed the most spectacular expansion in the twentieth century stands part way between “added” value (to a pre-existing ability) and “endogenous” value (created by the very situation of gaining visibility). This is the celebrity conferred on film actors on the one hand, and on singers on the other, namely “interpretive artists,” and no longer “creators,” as in the nineteenth century. [2] This consumption in these two domains throughout the twentieth century has acquired highly distinctive, unprecedented, and most spectacular forms. Essentially, they arise from a “desire to see,” whether in the media mode (images) or the immediate mode (presence). We shall go on to consider these two modalities of consumption of celebrity.

Platforms for the Desire to See: Reproductions

12Consumption of celebrity in the media age is an essentially visual experience. It is no longer a case of great deeds recounted at a vigil or “famous lives” printed in several volumes, but rather of the contemplation either of images of a person or of that person in the flesh and their “recognition” through the inclusion of their name and, possibly, spoken or written information about their lives. It is worth analyzing precisely what is consumed by all those people (particularly women) who follow celebrities, whoever they are. [3]

13Photographs are a first category of images of personalities that a broad public will see and recognize. Initially in the second half of the nineteenth century, photographs were of sovereigns, of “great men,” and of stage actors or singers. They were reproduced on a large-scale and were presented in the form of cards, possibly inserted in celebrity albums (Boisjoly 2009; McCauley 1994; Rojek 2001a). With the development of photogravure at the start of the next century, these faces could be seen in newspapers and magazines on an even wider scale (Frizot 2001).

14In the same period, a second category of images appeared. These were moving images of movie stars printed on film, at first for a young or popular public and with unknown actors. Then, from the 1910s, for a higher-class public and with screen credits enabling names to be put to faces. Simultaneously the first magazines appeared, specializing in reproducing stars’ photographs and circulating news about them. [4] From this time on, still images came to the service of cinema’s moving images, offering fans the opportunity to gaze at leisure at the faces of their favorite stars. [5]

15Development in the techniques of sound reproduction added a third dimension. As well as contemplating still images and then moving images, the voice could be heard through radio, records, and sound films (Thompson 1995). It then became possible to recognize not only a face, but also a voice, belonging to a particular person. In parallel, photographs of singers reproduced on record covers and in specialist magazines allowed the image of a face to be associated with the sound of a voice, increasing the different prises[6] available for appreciation.

16In the second half of the twentieth century, and particularly from the 1960s in France, television brought these moving images and voices a dual expansion, as we have seen. The expansion was quantitative in terms of the number of consumers and was qualitative in terms of the people becoming objects of consumption of celebrity. In the 1980s, the invention of the video recorder brought the possibility of recording and capturing a flow of images in a new form of photographic shoots. As with vinyl records, this allowed not only the replication of the image and voice, but also the repetition of the visual or auditory experience. [7]

17Finally, the appearance at the end of the 1990s of the internet and the webcam has further multiplied not only the audiences for celebrities—to a global extent and in an almost instantaneous manner—, but also the potential candidates for celebrity. All of us have the possibility of broadcasting our own image on the internet (particularly thanks to the cell phone), our own voice, our thoughts, and opinions. It has led to a spectacular democratization of access to media celebrity, both for the fans through the multiplication of opportunities to view the celebrities, and for the celebrities through the opportunity everyone has of showing themselves to countless numbers of viewers (Marshall 2006b).

18Differentiation between film and music stars, as they have emerged in the first half of the twentieth century, and the celebrities of the television culture is no longer as qualitative as quantitative. The total quantity of candidates for celebrity reshapes access to visibility. Likewise, differentiation between the specialist magazines of the first period and those of television celebrity lies in the expansion of both the readership and the subjects of the images and news consumed (Delporte 2003; Dakhlia 2008). This quantitative expansion is accompanied by a movement towards more “popular” or more “democratic” celebrities (television hosts and reality television celebrities), at the same time as a qualitative movement towards news that is less controlled by the celebrities and more intrusive on their privacy, with the photographs of the paparazzi at the visual level, and gossip about their private lives, and even sex lives, at the content level (Lutaud and Dromard 2006). Consumption of celebrity is increasingly geared to “celebrity gossip,” and the sale of news or discussions on the private lives of the stars. As we shall see below, this can be seen in the explosion of the specialized press over the last fifteen years (Billig 1992; Gamson 1994; Hermes 2006; Giles and Maltby 2006).

Objects of the Desire to See: Presence

19In parallel with the technological platforms of reproduction and repetition, the “desire to see” also follows routes, not of the “media” but of the “immediate,” with the quest for the presence of the celebrity or, failing that, of their tracks. This presence is most often organized. This is the case with concerts for singers (Le Bart 2008; Pasquier 2002), “red carpet” rituals in Hollywood or Cannes for actors (Gamson 1994; Claverie 2001), or book signings. The presence may also be fortuitous, when an ordinary person has a chance public encounter with a celebrity (Ferris 2004). Lastly, it can involve the mere footprints of the celebrity’s path, with fan letters and quests for autographs (Pasquier 1999), the purchase and collection of memorabilia (Giles 2000), or a trip to the birthplace or place of residence of the star (Segré 2003).

20Ethnologists, sociologists, and social psychologists who have studied these practices have often described this search for tracks or “proof of fame” (Lefranc 2004) in religious terms. It often becomes a matter of “relics,” “fetishes,” “pilgrimages,” etc. Here we shall not expand on the implications and limits of such a comparison as it raises significant epistemological and methodological problems and draws us away from a consideration of the matter in terms of consumption. We note only that the desire to see, and the quest for closeness, even intimacy, with the stars can also be described in sexual terms, when the attraction to these unique individuals is experienced by the interested man or woman, or described by the observer, in an erotic sense (Polac 2000). Here one departs from the domain of consumption stricto sensu, given that consumption of the sex act with a star is probably an exceptional circumstance; rather we are touching on a more emotional and fantasist dimension of connection to the celebrity, which establishes the limits of an issue constructed around the concept of consumption.

21In contrast to the consumption of images, presence is rarely consumed in an individual fashion. It involves groups, whether institutionalized ones, such as fan clubs (Le Guern 2009), or groups constituted for a special occasion, like public gatherings for a funeral ceremony, an event, or a show. The range of acts of consumption of celebrity can thus be carried out individually, by a large number of fans dispersed in space and time, and collectively, by crowds meeting around what a “great singular” figure [8] becomes in an era in which “image-persons” are predominant (Lenain 2005).

22This analysis of consumption of celebrity according to whether they take the form of the media (in reproductions) or the immediate (in presence) obviously reveals significant differences both in the psychological investment of consumers, and, as we shall see, in the economic consequences of such consumption, which are so unique and, to date, so little identified as such despite their massive scale.

Economy: the Market for Celebrity

23The purely economic dimension of this consumption of celebrity merits consideration in keeping with the pioneering study by economists Brennan and Pettit on “the economy of esteem” (Brennan and Pettit 2004). Even if celebrity is apparently not yet a systematic element of consumerism, it is clear that these multiple practices of quests for images and presence give rise to significant commercial transactions (Benhamou 2002). We shall consider here only those transactions that are linked to consumption by the public, leaving aside activities linked to the production and maintenance of celebrities (agents and managers, stylists and makeup artists, bodyguards, etc.), in other words, the transformation of persons into consumer products—their “commodification.” [9]

24The trade of images of celebrities is particularly lucrative: specialist photographs (from upmarket studios to the paparazzi), publishers of post cards, and celebrity magazines compete in an industry generating substantial profits. In France in 2007, the magazine with the highest circulation, Voici, had a print run of 5,300,000 (Dakhlia 2008). If we add on recent counterparts (Closer, Public, and Gala) and the more classic France Dimanche, Ici Paris, and Point de vue-Images du monde, we reach some 12,000,000 copies per month, which is “twice as many as the news press.” [10] For images alone, the photographs of celebrities (“film stars, singers, princes and princesses, rulers, television hosts, and sports champions”) bring sunny days to the news agencies: “Forty percent of the turnover of Sipa, 50 percent of Gamma’s, more at Sygma.” Moreover, “a scoop in the celebrity press may reach phenomenal sums, incommensurate with the costs of the ordinary press,” comments a historian of photography (Rouillé 2005).

25Consumption of images is in three dimensions. Waxwork museums show effigies of historic or current celebrities. Appearing from the eighteenth century (Py and Vidart-Fereczi 1987), they developed in the nineteenth century in England with Madame Tussauds, which opened in London in 1802, and in France with the Musée Grévin, which was inaugurated in Paris in 1882. The latter, which is currently listed on the stock exchange, attracts more than 600,000 visitors a year. [11] The choice of models is entrusted to the Académie Grévin, which was established in 2001, and is composed of journalists and television hosts. [12]

26A derivatives market also exists, managed by agencies that collect royalties from the sale of objects in the image of this or that star. A press report on this little studied topic revealed that:


Derivative rights for Marilyn rose to more than one million dollars a year, or the equivalent of the fortune bequeathed by the actress! … she also brought sales of books (at least forty published) and postcards, posters, stationery, ashtrays, badges, statuettes, glasses, perfume, beach towels, sheets, T-shirts, calendars, and even wine. Marilyn-Merlot … is in such demand that the sellers are continually running out of stock! … Over the last three or four years, the derivative rights have been increasing by 20 percent a year. Eighty-five licensees currently exploit her name in the world, including around twenty in France.
(Le Monde July 12, 1990)

28Publishing also makes profits from this consumption of news about celebrities with stars’ biographies or autobiographies. In the United States, in a pioneering study conducted during the Second World War, the sociologist Leo Löwenthal observed that the number of biographies had quadrupled in the first forty years of that century. This coincided with a marked increase in the biographies of celebrities working in show business in comparison with those working in the “serious” arts (literature, fine arts, music, dance, and theater), with the latter going from 77 percent of overall biographies before the First World War (1910–1914) to 9 percent thirty years later (1940–1941), while during the same period, the former went in absolute terms from 47 percent to 69 percent (Löwenthal 1961). Today numerous stars publish methods of body care or beauty tips that women’s magazines readily publish (in particular such film stars and models as Jane Fonda, Victoria Principal, Raquel Welch, Linda Evans, Elizabeth Taylor, Stephanie Powers, Angela Lansbury, Brooke Shields, or Cher). These self-help books also feed the publishing business, which is presumably flourishing, despite the absence of targeted studies.

29Another possibly less well-known aspect of the exploitation of the “image,” in a broad sense, of the celebrities is the practice of endorsements. The public do not pay, but the advertisers make direct payments to the stars if they agree to commend this or that product, or simply to show themselves in public wearing clothing, jewelry, or an accessory with a prestigious label. This developed very early in the United States (Eckert 1978), where “most stars are under contract to a brand” (Lutaud and Dromard 2006, 48), then later in France. It brings great benefit to the stars (just the advertising earnings in 1998 for the basketball player Michael Jordan were an estimated FRF 150,000 million). [13] Benefit also comes to the businesses that use the stars. The Nike advertising campaigns featuring Michael Jordan, Spike Lee, and Bo Johnson in the late 1980s dramatically increased sales (Rojek 2001b, 412–413). This is empirical confirmation of the power of attraction of the stars for many consumers, who transfer their emotional attachment to the personalities to the products manufactured.

30Presence—and not image—has monetary value too, in different forms. We shall mention here only as a reminder entry tickets for concerts by rock stars or singers, in which desire to see the male or female singer “in real life” becomes indistinguishable from attraction to their music. In contrast, the ritual ceremonies of the organized presence of actors in public, as with the “red carpet” at the Hollywood Oscars or the Cannes Film Festival, are not the subject of financial transactions; to be present one pays only in one’s person, in the hours of waiting. Again, we do no more than evoke as a marginal practice the travel agencies that offer specialist “tours” on the trail of stars. For example, the Frenchman who, “specializing in treks and other discoveries of the great outdoors,” offers a stroll “past Boulevard Saint-Germain, Rue Saint-André-des-Arts, Brasserie Lipp, café Les Deux Magots, the Zoological Gardens, the Pantheon and ‘surprises’, according to the guide’s inspiration.” [14]

31More central, however, in what one might term an “economy of presence,” is the market in memorabilia of a star, particularly following their death. This is a modern equivalent of trade in relics, in other words of “objects-as-persons,” which gain value for having been the possessions—real or presumed—of a “great singular” figure (Heinich 1993). Certainly, it is not a real presence at stake, but only the present trace of a past presence, the “footprint”—even if only imaginary—of the person in question. Nonetheless, the added value of the object through this trace of presence is considerable and is reflected in the “culture” pages of the daily papers. An auction of memorabilia offered by Brigitte Bardot raised FRF 3.55 million in 1987 (including FRF 33,000 for a makeup kit). [15] A Nureyev sale in New York in 1995 brought spending of US$7.9 million (about double the estimates), in which “every pair of ballet slippers—grown grey from use and sweat—was estimated at US$40, but sold at US$9,200 on average.” [16] For the Jackie Kennedy sale at Sotheby's a year later there were: “… 85,000 catalogues sold; 40,000 visitors (mostly drawn by lot) for the exhibition spread over four days; 80,000 bids placed before the start of the auction; 90 additional lines set up for buyers by telephone” (as the author of the article emphasized, “the celebrity rate is doing well”). [17] We could carry on for a long while with the Marilyn dress: US$1.267 million at Christie's in1999; a lock of Callas's hair: FRF 78,000 at Drouot-Montaigne in 2000; and Madonna’s conical bra: EUR 22,500 at Christie's in 2001 (Benhamou 2002, 35). Finally, the dealing in autographs—where writing materializes the trace of the presence, attested by the star’s own hand—also belongs to this “celebrity economy,” as transatlantic economists call it. By virtue of this, for example, “the slightest autograph from the latest boy band is worth at least EUR 2,000.” [18]

32We must also mention a last—but no less important—monetary dimension of the price of celebrity: court awards to celebrities that have been victims of the unauthorized exploitation of their image. This occurs frequently, and the amounts involved are so significant that a journalist could speak of a “competition for damages”:


Laurence Ferrari, star journalist of TF1, age 43, is the personality who in 2008 received the largest amount of damages for infringement of privacy. According to a ranking published by Le Journal du Net, she obtained EUR 143,000 from the courts for a total of sixteen cases. She beat the journalist Claire Chazal (EUR 75,000) and Marion Cotillard, who won the Oscar for best actress in 2008 (EUR 74,000). [19]

34This leads us to an aspect of the consumption of celebrity that we have not yet addressed. Without this, the description of the phenomenon would not be complete: axiology, which is inseparable from the legal dimension—the latter punishing breaches of the former insofar as the law will apply.

Axiology: Legal and Ethical Limits

35Consumption of celebrity has a particular property in that the objects are living personalities, subjected to fans caught often in an attachment so intense as to exceed the limits allowed by ethics and law regarding the desire for approximation to another human being. If the consumption of manufactured goods can clash with the prohibition of theft, the consumption of celebrities encounters other categories of constraint, at the forefront of which is the protection of private life. France governs this by a law of 1970 (Bigot 2007; Prost 1987, 151). Supplementary case law on “image rights” increasingly tends to protect not only the celebrities, but also ordinary people. [20] French law is regarded as the most protective, while German law balances “personal rights” against public interest in distinguishing between “absolute public figures” (monarchs and political leaders) and “relative public figures” (figures that have become famous by virtue of a particular event). Only the former benefit from a right to authorize or refuse the publication of their image. In contrast, British and North-American laws give priority to freedom of the press. Only home invasion or defamation may incur civil liability (Dakhlia 2008, 66–67). The United States affords the stars a “right of publicity” allowing them to control the commercial value of their image (McLeod 2002).

36Although they vary according to culture and era, these legal limits on the diffusion of images of personalities within the public space define ethical limits, limits that are drawn by the expansion of the boundaries of private life on the one hand, and by its collective value on the other. In the scholarly world, for example, the sociologist Richard Sennett has disparaged the invasion of the public space by the private domain and the “tyrannies of privacy” (Sennett 1979), and in a more diffuse way, ordinary people (in the letter pages of newspapers, for example) make frequent and numerous objections to media “voyeurism” and “exhibitionism,” with an injunction to transparency and the “privacy industry” (Segré 2008). Significantly, after the tragic death of Princess Diana, who was chased by the paparazzi, questions were raised in the newspapers about the collective responsibilities of the readers of the specialist magazines of celebrity press. Soon after the accident, the writer Salman Rushdie argued that “if blood is on the hands of the photographers and the photo agencies and the news media’s photo editors, it is also on ours. What newspapers do you read?” (Rushdie 1998).

37Difficulties—material or financial—of access to the images or to the physical presence of personalities are limits to the consumption of celebrity. A further limit is what the sociologist Michèle Lamont calls “symbolic boundaries” (Lamont 1995). In this case, these boundaries are ethical barriers, in which the “desire to see” is in opposition to the interests of those who are the object of such desire. Unlike what happens in modern consumption, these objects of consumerist desire are not things, but persons, who are endowed with feelings and therefore vulnerable. The argument for the respect of private life, which is strongly underpinned by the law, is one strand in a very varied repertoire of ethical, and sometimes political, condemnations, expressed by the scholarly world against consumption of celebrity outside any legal framework. They are typical features of what the sociologists Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot have called “the world of fame” (Boltanski and Thévenot 1991), which involves features such as vulgarity, in a world ruled by the mobs and uneducated masses; irrationality, with the histrionics of the stars and the hysteria of their fans; idolatry, with the falseness of worship diverted from its true objects; vanity, with the “false glory” that would not exist without a “social construction.”; the alienation of a “society of the spectacle” that diverts people from their true values; and the simply “merchant” nature of these objects, fabricated to feed a market.

From Idol Worship to the Consumption of Celebrities

38This argument of the “commodification” of celebrity, which is often associated with that of its “fabrication,” seems particularly apt today to ensure an informed collusion against the celebrity culture, uniting the right-wing critique of the poor taste of the masses and the left-wing critique of the alienation of the market. Relevant political arguments, derived from the tradition of the Frankfurt School, [21] closely intertwine with strictly hierarchical arguments, aimed at reaffirming the distance between the elite and the people, and with arguments familiar to religious traditions, derived from the clergy’s denunciation of the excesses of popular worship. In this context, the “people” appear as the object of a contradictory investment in which they are both an ideal figure to protect against the perverseness of an alienating society and supposedly an invasion threat of the sub-culture. This contradiction, although familiar to critical sociology, whether in the footsteps of the Frankfurt School or of Pierre Bourdieu, is rarely examined (Heinich 2005). There is certainly no better way of avoiding confrontation with this contradiction than the consensual denunciation of the “market” in stars or the “media system.” This makes hatred of the media the contemporary and euphemistic version of a hatred of people we can scarcely voice in a democratic regime. We must note the slight weight of these critiques in the face of the massive phenomenon of the popular consumption of celebrities (Heinich 2002; Heinich 2011a). Nothing nowadays better crystallizes the distance between the scholarly world and the ordinary world than these preferred objects of “popular culture,” “cultural industries,” or “mass culture” (Martel 2010). The distance finds its expression in the powerlessness of the educated to impose their values upon the “people” and in their inability to make these practices a genuine subject for study rather than a target for vituperation.

39Law, ethics, politics, and concern for hierarchical differences combine to oppose a continual growth in the consumption of celebrity with the condemnation by the scholarly world of practices perceived as essentially popular, iconophile, and idolatrous. Through a kind of relationship with idols that has been modernized by the technical means of fabrication of icons, we see age-old tensions that have existed since late antiquity in the worship of saints. If there really are continuities between the worship of idols and the consumption of celebrities, one major difference distinguishes them: What has changed in the relationship to the “great singular” figures, from early Christianity to our arrival in the media age, is, as the historian Peter Brown explained, that “these protecting figures are now human beings” (Brown 1984, 81).


  • [1]
    Daniel J. Boorstin, one of the first American analysts and disparagers of the phenomenon, successfully coined the expression “a person who is known for his well-knownness,” from an obviously critical standpoint (Boorstin, 1977 [1961]). For empirical evidence of this development in the morphological distribution of the categories of celebrity, cf. Chenu (2008).
  • [2]
    . On the particular growth of this category following the French Revolution, cf. Heinich (2005).
  • [3]
    We are not concerned here with the social distribution of celebrity fans, which might be the subject of a full investigation. This would detract from our immediate purpose, namely to define the scope of celebrity consumption and to identify the economy involved. We note only that several analysts have stressed the rather feminine nature of this practice (especially, Stacey 1994).
  • [4]
    Numerous studies have been devoted to the emergence of film stars in the first twenty years of the century; cf. in particular Levy (1989), De Cordova (2001), and Barbas (2001).
  • [5]
    Cf. Roland Barthes, “Le visage de Garbo” and “L’acteur d’Harcourt” (Barthes 1970 [1957]).
  • [6]
    Christian Bessy and Francis Chateauraynaud established and developed the concept of “prise,” following on that of “affordance” proposed by James J. Gibson (1977), to describe both the physical qualities of what was perceived and the actors’ capability of grasping them (Bessy and Chateauraynaud 1995).
  • [7]
    On the difference between recorded repetition and replication in relation to celebrities, cf. Castles (2007).
  • [8]
    Heinich (1991) introduces the concept of a “great singular” figure, constructed around Max Scheler’s threefold typology of “saints,” “geniuses,” and “heroes” (Scheler 1944).
  • [9]
    A good example of this commodification of stars is developed in detail by Gabriel Segré (2003) in relation to the Elvis Presley case.
  • [10]
    Le Monde, June 27–28, 2004.
  • [11]
    Libération, May 3, 1988.
  • [12]
    Source: Musée Grévin internet site.
  • [13]
    Le Monde, June 24, 1998.
  • [14]
    Le Monde, February 22, 2008.
  • [15]
    Le Monde, June 19, 1987.
  • [16]
    Le Monde, January 17, 1995.
  • [17]
    Le Monde, April 26, 1996.
  • [18]
    Le Monde, March 9–10, 2008.
  • [19]
    Le Monde, April 2, 2009. For many other quantified examples in a survey of magazines and specialist lawyers, cf. Lutaud & Dromard (2006). According to these authors, Isabelle Adjani demanded US$22 million in damages from Time magazine for publishing a photograph showing her as part of the magazine’s advertising campaign.
  • [20]
    For a genealogy and a detailed legal analysis of rights in respect to reputation, cf. Lefranc (2004).
  • [21]
    For an analysis of the critiques of Adorno and Horckheimer, and of Marcuse, regarding the issue of celebrity, cf. Marshall (2006) and Maigret (2000).


The problematic of consumption is primarily conceived as the consumption of commodities and, secondarily, of “cultural” goods (works of art, entertainment industry). This paper seeks to show that consumption also applies not as mere metaphor to such an immaterial good as celebrity, nowadays with wide and intensive investment through the phenomenon called “people.” This phenomenon, already thoroughly studied in English-speaking countries, but still little in France, has hardly been seen from the aspect of the market behavior to which it has given rise. It surfaced in scholarly thinking essentially from the ethical and political aspects of a sociology of value. Nonetheless, celebrity, through its consumption, gives rise to a specific economy, linked to media, press, advertising, entertainment, security, etc. We may treat available empirical data on celebrity according to this double perspective celebrity as consumption, and consumption as consumption of celebrity.


  • celebrity
  • consumption
  • market
  • media
  • presence
  • reproductions
  • values


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Nathalie Heinich
The sociologist Nathalie Heinich is research director at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique/École des hautes études en sciences sociales (National scientific research center/School of higher education in the social sciences). In addition to numerous articles in scientific or cultural reviews, she has published work on the status of the artist and the concept of auteur, on contemporary art, on the question of identity, and on the history of sociology. Her books and articles have been translated into fifteen languages.
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