My new book Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity From Bronze Age To Silver Screen tracks the history of celebrity back to its roots in the early 1700s, discovering how ancient ideas of fame were coupled to modern commercialism and publicity to create a vibrant, profitable industry based on human novelty.
This had a profound effect on culture and society, with celebrities doing much to shape who we became as people, and also leaving surprising trip-hazards in our language. We use words like fame, celebrity, stardom, renown, VIP, notorious, and infamous interchangeably, but they all have their own specific (and confusing) heritage. Fame comes from the terrifying Roman monster goddess Fama, whose name derived from the Latin verb 'fari' (meaning to speak) – 2,000 years ago, to be famous was to be gossiped about by strangers.
Strangely, the word celebrity originally meant an important occasion, like a coronation or a parade, and it wasn't until 1849 before somebody famous could be described as a celebrity. There were other words used, however, such as lion, which was a type of intellectual celeb in the nineteenth century – people like Charles Dickens and Alfred Tennyson were literary lions because their stardom was considered more highbrow.
Dead Famous looks at celebrity culture through several thematic chapters, including money, fandom, publicity stunts, fetishisation of celebrity bodies, and the pressure of being famous, but the visual image is given its own chapter because celebrities have long used provocative and seductive imagery to manipulate public perception.
Our national galleries and museums are crammed with images of the glorious, glamorous, and gorgeous – often kept because they are beautiful original works of art – but the thing that makes celebrity so potent is that most of these images would have been widely reproduced so the public could consume the copies too, whether as engravings, cartes de visites, photographs, or posters. The strange power of the celebrity is that the star individual is totally unique, and yet they can exist in thousands, or even millions, of places at once!
On that note, here are some iconic images of just three of the 125 celebrities mentioned in my book...
Mai (also known as Omai)
As the great portrait artist of his age, Sir Joshua Reynolds was undoubtedly a barometer of upstart notoriety; his paintbrush both confirmed fame and conferred it upon his sensational sitters.
Perhaps the most interesting subject was Mai, a young Polynesian man born on the island of Ra'iātea, but who’d fled to Tahiti when his family had been killed by invaders.
Mai – though Brits called him Omai – briefly became a London society darling between 1773 and 1776 after arriving aboard Captain Cook's ship. He was perceived as a 'noble savage', a case study for Jean-Jacques Rousseau's controversial philosophy of primitivism that claimed to live in a natural state made humans happier than so-called enlightened 'civilization'. But in Reynolds’s portrait, there’s no hint of savagery; the artist created a romantic image of a barefoot Mai looking serene in white robes and a turban (Reynolds's best stab at Tahitian fashion, presumably).
But Reynolds wasn't the sole image-maker; Mai presumably wanted to be seen this way, and was happy to be erroneously described as a prince. Some racist commentators had called Mai's broad nose ugly, but Reynolds's agile hand renders it beautifully, and his graceful pose suggests noble power.
Reynolds and Mai shared the load in bolstering a romantic myth, one that had earlier seen the young visitor meet George III under the guise of being a royal ambassador, during which he'd bowed, taken the king's hand, and charmed everyone by saying, 'How do, King Tosh!' which was his best attempt at saying 'George'.
But Mai wasn't Polynesian royalty, he'd just been a guy who'd jumped on a foreign ship, hoping to convince his new friends to provide weapons with which to retake his family's native island. The Reynolds collaboration did them both a favour.
Emma Hamilton was the mistress of Britain's naval titan Horatio Nelson. He rose to fame by defeating Napoleon at the Battle of the Nile, and he celebrated by launching into an open affair with the married Emma Hamilton; it was a romance that couldn’t have been more obvious if he'd painted her famously voluptuous breasts on the side of his flagship.
Satirists eagerly mocked Lord Hamilton for being a blind old cuckold, and increasingly sexualised Emma's image, but the barbs left little injury on the adulterous power couple at the heart of Regency high society. Nelson's heroism defused the explosive anger, leaving only sniggers of innuendo. But as soon as the French sniper's bullet fatally punctured Nelson's body at the Battle of Trafalgar, the harsh rules of decorum kicked back in.
With Lord Hamilton already dead, and her heroic lover's body returning home preserved in a brandy barrel, Emma Hamilton was exposed to a howling gale of moral backlash. Without his protection to shelter her, she was ostracised. Frances Nelson (his wife) assumed the dignified role of grieving widow, but Emma wasn't permitted to grieve in public.
As the decades rolled on, Nelson's biographers stopped referring to the affair altogether, or decried Emma Hamilton as a terribly judged episode in his life which was best left ignored. She'd risen from working-class sex worker (probably) to diplomat's wife to celebrity beauty to notorious mistress, but now she cycled back to shameful indignity. Indeed, such was her poor reputation that the painter most associated with her numerous portraits, George Romney, was also posthumously dissed by Victorians appalled at his collaborations with her.
In 1809, a man named Daniel Lambert succumbed to sudden heart failure staying in an inn. Such a thing must have happened fairly regularly, but there was nothing regular about Lambert.
So what was his thing – acting? Writing? Interpretive dance? Dazzling bagpipe virtuosity? Alas not, his celebrity shtick was being the 'heaviest man that ever lived', or at least heaviest in Britain, because he weighed 739lb, or 335kg, or 53 stone, which is quite a lot. In fact, it's more than the combined weight of the Spice Girls. Lambert's extraordinary body required extraordinary tailoring, and it was said that his decision to exhibit himself for three years, first in London's Piccadilly and then on tour, was largely to pay his clothing bill, with each suit costing him a princely £20.
Lambert became a familiar face, and body, in both paintings and satirical prints, his vast girth being used as a cartoonish stand-in for John Bull – England's stout icon of barrel-chested masculinity – to contrast with Napoleon Bonaparte, the hated foreign bogeyman often depicted as being exaggeratedly thin.
Stood side by side, or with the Englishman gorging on a massive plate of roast beef, Lambert represented an exaggerated, tub-thumping analogy for Britain's huge military power next to the weedy Frenchman. He became a mascot for defying the threat of enemy invasion; his body was a metaphor not for gluttony and laziness but robust health and relentless appetite. His fatness was a political virtue.
In death, his fame continued. The phrase 'Daniel Lambert' became a euphemism for something huge, as in, 'This prizewinning turnip is a real Daniel Lambert!'
His body was cast in wax and the facsimiles shipped off as far as America; his clothes were auctioned, and copies created as tributes to be exhibited in pubs and meeting halls, and his almost square coffin and specially reinforced carriage were put on display.
Later on, Victorians became increasingly fascinated with statistics, and weighing scales were fashionable from the early 1800s, so Lambert's huge body retained its intrigue beyond his lifespan. When P. T. Barnum's touring company arrived in London in 1846, he highlighted the tiny size of his child star, General Tom Thumb – a talented mimic born with dwarfism, at that point standing only 70cm (27½ inches) in height – by inviting him to walk through one of Lambert's shirt-sleeves as if it were a fabric tunnel.
The tiny boy navigating the massive man's clothes provided a sort of Goldilocks logic to standard humanity. Tom Thumb was too small, Daniel Lambert was too big, and everyone else was just right.
Greg Jenner, historian and author
His book Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen can be purchased here.