Taxonomy of Celebrity

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The outpouring of aporia following last week’s death of Anna Nicole Smith (in guess which state?) has foregrounded once again the need to examine what it is we are watching when we participate in the celebrity economy. It is imperative we consider different ways to classify the celebrity types that keep entering our field of vision at the tabloid level.

The old system—those discussions of who’s A List, who’s C List—is useless for any meaningful discussion of the nature of celebrity today. Rooted in the old Hollywood class system, it stank of snobbery and old-world disdain. It also clung to that ancient subjective air of judgment, or taste, in an egalitarian society that operates in measurements. In tabloid culture, the C Lister is bigger than the A Lister, so how could the system not be obsolete?

We can group male and female celebrities each into three irreducible types. The fundamental, insurmountable gender difference in celebrity hierarchies is more problematic than any subdivisions of these celebrity Kingdoms into respective Phyla.

But enough dry theory. On to the ladies!!

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Type 1 The Type 1 celebrity is the common, popular Actress or Singer. Jennifer Anistons, Cameron Diazes, or actress-singer hybrids like the Mandy Moores and Beyonces. These appear in tabloids and celebrity magazines with frequency because of talent or box-office / billboard success. This is the fame type that invariably wins in the entertainment magazines’ red-carpet “Who Wears It Best” matchups.

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Type 2 These are women and girls who may have had some potential for the Type 1 category but whose notoriety has eclipsed whatever source talent had originally propelled them into public consciousness. The innovator in the Type 2 category was Britney Spears, though she was by no means the earliest member. Lindsay Lohan, Tara Reid, and Winona Ryder all fall under this classification.

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Type 3 Type 3 are women and girls whose notoriety precedes, and directly or indirectly causes, their fame. It is the most innovative and contemporary of the female celebrity categories. Paris Hilton. And our dearly departed ANS would certainly be a forebear or inspiration, if not a full member (type 3 celebrity, statistically, is a post-9/11 phenomenon). Jessica Simpson and Jennifer Lopez are evolutionary links between Type 2 and Type 3, but their output places them firmly in the 3.

The key to membership in Type 3 celebrity is not mediocrity or lack of talent as much as a freedom from talent. The danger for Type 1 and 2 celebrities is that their status is tied to their product—the singer has to keep putting out albums, the actress has to keep putting out movies, and they all have to be hits, or their valuation goes down. More risky for 1 and 2 is any attempt at diversification; cross-platforming could (still) be received as the old canard of “selling out,” or worse, it could erase the public’s memory of the celebrity’s core strength.

Type 3 celebrities, on the other hand, trade in brands rather than talents. A Type 3 celebrity has no core strength. Paris Hilton is, hands down, a bigger celebrity than Mandy Moore. But every one of Paris Hilton’s movies, partially excepting House of Wax, has been straight to video, and every other one of her products—perfume, handbag, album—has failed commercially. And yet none of these ill-thought brand extensions has dented her visibility or marketability, because the Type 3 celebrity is immune to talent failure. Their asset is purely their exposure. That is the ultimate source of their income, and it is why the core products that are the only reliable conventional entertainment Type 3s successfully release—namely, reality shows and adult videos—themselves only succeed as byproducts of Type 3 fame. These products do not break Type 3 artists, they can only reap.

MEN

The male system of celebrity has no correspondence whatsoever with the ladies’ ranking system. Where female celebrity categorization was a difference of degree, male celebrity is a difference of type. Male celebrity is sui generis, but it is also smaller, an afterthought in the shadow of female celebrity’s media saturation. Male celebrity in tabloid culture is almost entirely parasitic of female celebrity. (I know there’s a species of animal out there where the male is a parasite living on the female, but Google isn’t being helpful tonight–To be honest, Google’s being pretty gross. The species I’m thinking of probably isn’t a shark, but it’s kind of like a shark.)

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Type 1 male celebrities are the Hangers On. They have no intrinsic value except as daters of Type 2 and Type 3 female celebrities. Examples include Kevin Federline, Nick Lachey, Paris Latsis, and Sum 41.

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Type 2 male celebrities are the Contingents. They are demonstrably conventional talents, but their presence in tabloid culture hinges on the severity of their most recent indiscretion while dating a Type 1 female celebrity. Type 2 celebrities include Jude Law, Hugh Grant, Matthew Perry, Ben Affleck, Brad Pitt. All owe their magazine and online exposure to doing something outrageous or stupid to their tabloid-resident significant others, sometimes serially. These fade away from view when unattached or behaving.

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Type 3 male celebrities are the Sublime. These are men whose inconceivable accomplishment and unbridled power have allowed them to unlatch their brains from their spinal cords. They are freed from any accountability or any meaningful relationship whatsoever with generally accepted societal mores. Tom Cruise, Michael Jackson, Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, Bill Clinton. They are not, generally speaking, envied, despite their reach. But they are without blinking the most fascinating of all. They are the future.

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