Merriam-Webster defines a celebrity as “a famous or celebrated person.”
The Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles, CA, the iconic intersection of Hollywood and Vine where stars of “honorees” line the sidewalks on both sides of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, is dedicated to celebrities in movies, music, television, recording, radio, and live performance.
However, in today’s world of social, streaming, TV, movies, podcast, blogging, books, music, stage theatre, and politics, the definition of celebrity has stretched its meaning and given us an endless supply of high profile, well-known figures that capture our hearts and have us coming back for more.
For Many of Us, Celebrities Are Our Personal Heroes
It’s a generally accepted notion that for an individual to hit celeb status, they have achieved fame among a significant group of people who admire them for their talents and ability to entertain. These celebs also find themselves — whether they like it or not — in entertainment news and celeb gossip media coverage.
But defining celebrities also involves recognizing genius by way of the heart. We know celebrities when we see them in action. Whether they’re politicians, musicians, athletes, Hollywood actors or New York City stage actors, celebrities wow us with their talent and leave us breathless or yearning for a higher good.
In the words of the song “For Good” from the musical Wicked, celebrities often feel like “people who come into our lives for a reason, bringing something we must learn.” And because we know them, at least through their work, we’ve been “changed for good.”
Celebrity Success Is Enduring
The success of any one celebrity is due to their talent as much as staying power. That’s why some tend to think of fame in a historical context, and more traditionally as having achieved lasting movie, music, or television icon status. But the thing about celebrity is, it’s timeless, and its meaning is continuously evolving right along with us.
The notion of celebrity is also both universal and deeply personal. Passion for certain celebrities is an individual choice. In many cases, our favorite stars feel like people we could be friends with if we only knew them personally. They are all-at-once a world away and the friend next door; they make us feel good and leave us wanting more. We love the way they entertain us and also how we imagine them to be “in real life.” They can strike a chord that reminds us of our best selves, what a good day looks like, and how the world ought to be. They can even make us feel interconnected – shout out to Kevin Bacon for having us believe we’re only “six degrees” apart from each other!
Politicians, athletes, teen and tween influencers, and even some beloved animals are achieving celebrity-level popularity thanks to the proliferation of new and engaging social media platforms and the eagerness to develop one’s own “personal brand.”
Let’s look at what defines a timeless celebrity – both those of the past and the ones we’re talking about right now:
Celebrities and Movies
Celebrities have always made our world technicolor—like the switch going on in The Wizard of Oz. Consider some of the old icons who sparkled with wit, depth, and nuance. Think Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Vivien Leigh and Cary Grant in Gone With the Wind, Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Marlon Brando in The Godfather (if you’re a fan of The Godfather trilogy, check out these 12 signs that your love is more like an obsession).
That sparkle still captivates today. We’re indebted to classic movies and the actors who defined brilliant moments-turned-cultural reference points, which is one way to measure lasting impact. To them, we nod with a smile and say: “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
Today, our movie celebrities make our world just as technicolor as ever. But with a bigger world and more complex emotions depicted in movies, celebrities light the way on the most pressing issues of our day.
Actors Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, and Kate McKinnon in Bombshell depicted sexual harassment at Fox News; their collective star power helped the movie became part of the larger conversation in the #MeToo era.
Still, today’s celebrities leap off the screen and into our “real lives” now even more powerfully, thanks to their dedication and use of social media. Much to our exhilaration, we see our lives intersecting with theirs, and we witness qualities we’ve come to know and love on screen.
Think Tom Hanks’ quiet determination in Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia or Ron Howard’s Apollo 13—we see similar determination when he and his wife Rita Wilson showed us how to handle quarantine gracefully.
Social media also helps to foster the cult followings of new actors, like 25-year-old Timothée Chalamet, most known for starring in the 2017 film Call Me By Your Name and the 2020 movie Little Women. Chalamet blew up in 2020, but was first inspired to become an artist after listening to Kid Cudi’s music.
Far before the black squares that followed George Floyd’s death in May 2020, actor and director Spike Lee amplified the stories of race relations and extremist hate in movies like Do the Right Thing and BlackkKlansman. Considered Hollywood’s conscience, Lee teamed up with HBO Max and Rock the Vote last September to share the ‘why’ of voting: #VoteBecause ___depends on it.” Lee dropped Da 5 Bloods on Netflix, which takes on the despair of the Trump era, among other things, and stars the late Chadwick Boseman. Last May, Lee released a short film in response to the death of George Floyd, with the opening words “Will History Stop Repeating Itself?”
Celebrities and Television
Television and movies have always influenced each other. Stars like Jennifer Aniston and George Clooney got their start in TV and made it to the “big screen” shortly after (see 20 other celebs who also got their start in TV).
Aniston’s character Rachel Green in Friends is still considered one of the greatest female characters in television history. And Clooney’s role as Dr. Doug Ross had us obsessed with the medical drama ER back in the day, including the steamy doctor and nurse affair between Clooney’s character and actress Julianna Marguiles.
TV scripts are now top-notch, and drama and thrillers are worthy of Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Scorsese. You only need to look to shows like Big Little Lies, Ozark, and The Undoing for the latest in thrillers that keep you guessing.
What’s more, streaming platforms like Disney+, HBO Max, Netflix, Apple TV+, and Amazon Prime TV release entire seasons of binge-worthy series at once. This generosity nurtures the TV lover in all of us.
Yet even though the golden age of television appears to be happening now, let’s not forget all the life-changing television gems over the years, from talk show hosts like Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres, news shows like 20/20 and 60 Minutes, and iconic series, from I Love Lucy and The Mary Tyler Moore Show to Mash, Cheers, Seinfeld, Will and Grace, and Glee.
Celebrities and Music
Musicians are singers, songwriters, and performers, earning their celeb status thanks to legions of fans who are passionate about their music. From The Beatles to Beyoncé, Marvin Gaye to Justin Bieber, Judy Garland to Blondie, or The Cure to ACDC, we love to watch and listen to our favorite bands and entertainers.
The music we loved in our youth, though, is not necessarily what inspires us when we’re older; but in some cases, we find that we grow right along with our faves. Taylor Swift said it well in her documentary Miss Americana when she observed: “There is an element to my fan base where we feel like we grew up together. I’ll be going through something, write the album about it, and then it’ll come out, and sometimes it’ll just coincide with what they’re going through. Kind of…like they’re reading my diary.”
Indeed, the interconnectedness between musical legends and their fans is real as we grow and age; our interest in music changes with the times. The bands, singers, and songs of our youth can transport us back to our favorite memories of coming of age, old loves, times of joy, or sadness and loss, and everything in between.
The songs aren’t the only thing that keep us hooked––we can’t help but be curious about the lives lived beyond the music. In 2020, celeb musicians Shakira, August Alsina, and Adele were among the most-searched musicians on Google.
Alsina became a popular search after celeb actor Jada Pinkett Smith confessed about her alleged romance with the singer-songwriter, which Smith defined as an “entanglement.”
But for decades, the line has been blurred with music stars achieving super fame by extending their talents to movies and television, like Jennifer Lopez, Madonna, Will Smith, Cher, Barbra Streisand, Elvis Presley, and Adam Levine. Music celebrities who achieve crossover success cement their place in history as an iconic success.
Celebrities and Sports
The international language of…sports. It’s an age-old tale of winners and losers, and overcoming tremendous odds with hard work, grit and determination to come out on top.
While some celeb athletes, like Tom Brady, can be polarizing figures, we can’t help but watch their stories unfold both on and off the field. NBA star Rudy Gobert made headlines everywhere after Shaq roasted him on Instagram.
Celebrity sports figures and their stories are particularly riveting — especially when spotlighting a time or experience that was utterly life-changing for them.
In January 2020, basketball fans everywhere grieved alongside Vanessa Bryant and daughter Gianna Bryant after the loss of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, whose legacy has been honored in many ways since his loss, including his very own street name.
In February 2020, just weeks after Kobe Bryant’s helicopter accident, NASCAR athlete Ryan Newman was involved in a horrific crash, but thankfully made it out alive.
Recently, Netflix released some incredible sports-themed documentaries worth watching, like Athlete A about the toxic culture of USA Gymnastics and the ongoing sexual abuse by the team’s doctor Larry Nassar; The Last Dance, ESPN’s 10-episode documentary about the great Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bull’s dynasty in the 1990s; and Undefeated, an inspirational story about an inner-city high school football team from Memphis, TN. The life of legendary boxer Mike Tyson will soon be highlighted in a Netflix original documentary, according to The U.S. Sun.
Movie performances in films based on the life stories of real athletes are also particularly memorable; consider Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side, Kurt Russell in Miracle, Emma Stone in Battle of the Sexes, and the all-star cast from A League of Their Own. Even fictional iconic sports figures like Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa character have become international sports sensations that keep us coming back for more.
So whether we’re playing sports, rooting for our #1 team—or watching our favorite fictional sports figures—everyone can agree that countless athletes have earned their celebrity status— both real and fictional — and watching them is pure entertainment that’s fun for the whole family.
Celebrities and Theatre
Oscar Wilde famously said: “I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”
There are countless actors across the country and around the world with a passion for live theatre that is unlike any other type of acting. The wonderful thing about acting is that you don’t need to be a star to be able to do it; local theatre is open to almost anyone.
But for those with their eye on a bigger arena, it’s a well-known fact that many popular actors experienced local celebrity first as they honed their craft on stage in local community productions before ever making it in Hollywood, on New York’s Broadway, or The London stage.
What’s more, theatre acting has been the launchpad for many successful careers, a few examples of which include: Taye Diggs (whos shares company with several celeb actors who once worked in Disney parks), Meryl Streep, Hugh Jackman, Jason Alexander, and Sarah Jessica Parker.
On the flip side, Broadway has also long attracted established movie and television personalities to its stage; big-name stars like Neil Patrick Harris, Matthew Broderick, Glenn Close, and John Travolta have all starred in major productions.
The annual Tony Awards recognize excellence in Broadway theatre. The Tony represents the “T” in the highly regarded EGOT status for artists that have earned an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award. To date, only 16 people have achieved this status.
Celebrities and Politics
Hollywood has always borrowed from Washington DC politics to inspire television and movie plots of mystery, suspense, and international intrigue. Actors who play government officials are remembered for their portrayal of iconic characters, like Carrie Matheson (Claire Danes) from Homeland, Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) from The West Wing, and Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Berstein (Dustin Hoffman) in All the President’s Men (if you appreciate political movies, you’ll want to see this list).
In modern-day politics, many politicians have also reached a celebrity-type status. Current and former politicians, and political talking heads, are branching out in ways that bolster their celeb status. After leaving The White House, the Obamas launched Higher Ground Productions in partnership with Netflix, “to harness the power of storytelling.” Others have become best-selling authors like Van Jones, Hillary Clinton, Pete Buttigieg, and Michelle Obama.
We’re also seeing many politicians wade into podcasting and other new media to reach wider audiences and talk about causes that are important to them. Kamala Harris is making entertainment news headlines for her appearance on the covers of fashion and news magazines like Vogue, Elle, and Time.
There are other synergies, too. We’ve seen many examples of Hollywood celebrities entering politics, such as Ronald Reagan, Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon, Al Franken, Fred Grandy – and even Kanye West, who floated a run for President of the United States in 2020.
Historically, many celebrities have been known for their involvement with politicians, among them: Marilyn Monroe and President John F. Kennedy; Rosario Dawson and Senator Corey Booker; and Actor-turned-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver.
As political figures continue to take center stage in the news, they will continue to be known for their star power as well – and we’ll be watching.
Celebrities and Social Influencers
Decades ago, social influencers were people like Jackie Kennedy, Coco Chanel, Robert Redford, and Carey Grant — all known and admired for their unique talents and incredible style.
Today, social media platforms have opened the door to a newer category of celebrity: social media influencers who attract an enormous number of followers and/or subscribers to their Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat, and other social platforms. Most influencers gain their audience thanks to their knowledge or influence in a particular category; others offer straightforward general interest information or entertainment, posting sometimes several times a day.
In part, the social media influencer movement began in the 2010s with the Kardashian family, who redefined what it is to be an influencer in the entertainment industry. They earned tremendous star power through their reality TV show Keeping Up With the Kardashians while concurrently harnessing the internet to build a ubiquitous online presence through social media to directly connect with fans. Since then, various family members have launched their own clothing, makeup, and beauty product lines and continue to influence millions of fans around the world.
Among the flurry of current online influencers with a steady following of teen and tween fans — in some cases in the tens or hundreds of millions — are Charli D’Amelio, Addison Rae, Jeffree Star, James Charles, and Bretman Rock. Their innate star power has people around the world looking to them for tips on makeup, music, dance, and fashion.
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