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.
The terms 'notorious' and 'infamous' now mean negative fame, but the ancients didn't use them in that way. Notorious just meant 'noteworthy' until Shakespeare's day. Finally, 'star' might seem very modern – we have film stars, pop stars, porn stars, and reality stars in the twenty-first century – but 'star' was first applied to famous actors about 200 years ago, during the Romantic era.
However, like 'fame', the word had much more ancient roots. A murdered Julius Caesar had a star named after him, and astronomical references abounded in the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Moliere – indeed, Chaucer gave us the word 'stellified', meaning a human transformed into a heavenly star. But in the early 1800s there was also widespread talk of the Great Comets of 1811 and 1819, and a wider public interest in the new science of meteorology. This led to actors like Edmund Kean and the child actor Master William Betty being hailed as stars, while Lord Byron was described as a 'portent'.
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, and to follow from 'Dead Famous, part one: a cultural history of celebrity', here are some iconic images of some of the 125 celebrities mentioned in my book.
Edmund Kean is my favourite historical celebrity because, although he became an overnight sensation in 1814, he might just as easily have died in a ditch. Kean was a short-statured, weird-looking, wandering actor with a serious drinking problem and a furious temper. His early years were a disastrous litany of humiliations and failures, including running out of money and making his pregnant wife walk 180 miles so he could get to his next gig.
Some of the celebs in this book were so bursting with energy that, had I built a time machine to go back and thwart them at their breakthrough moment, they still would've found another way to get famous. But Kean fascinates me because he never seemed destined for success. He was playing in a regional Exeter theatre when he was spotted by a talent scout who reported him back to London's prestigious Drury Lane theatre, which was struggling with debts and needed to find a new star to bring in the punters. It was a bizarre gamble, much like hiring a busker to be a Las Vegas headline act, but it worked.
Kean took to the stage in January 1814 to play one of Shakespeare's most compelling characters, Shylock, the Jewish moneylender whose complexity dominates The Merchant of Venice. From the outset his performance was radical – even the opening line had the small crowd pricking up their ears. Kean howled and roared, then whispered and lamented; his gestures were frenzied and bold, his eyes were crazed. The atmosphere in the theatre was electric, the audience screamed their approval and clapped feverishly.
Edmund Kean wowed that small audience, but how did he conquer all of London so fast? Well, not only was he benefiting from Drury Lane's desperate casting experiment, but he also got lucky with the audience.
There were two journalists in that night, and both critics filed rapturous write-ups of his performance. From an opening night seen by a measly crowd, the disseminating power of the printing press, and the reputation-making power of the judicious critic, meant thousands were aware of Edmund Kean by the following day.
After years of failure, and begging in the streets, Edmund Kean was propelled to exalted stardom in barely a month. Kean's box office takings soared; crowds queued outside the theatre long before admission time, then elbowed and shoved their way in, desperately scrambling to get the best seats. Kean was a sensation. He was a star!
In September 1838, a young woman named Grace Darling witnessed a shipwreck from her family's lighthouse built on one of the Farne Islands in Northumbria. A few hours later, she and her father rowed out to save the survivors, and this act of bravery transformed her into a national heroine.
A journalist named David Kennedy of the Berwick and Kelso Warder set the tone for the ensuing deluge of praise, declaring the rescue was 'amongst the noblest instances of purely disinterested and philanthropic exertion on behalf of suffering individuals that ever reflected honour upon humanity'.
Already the myth was being created. Kennedy erroneously reported that Grace had convinced her reticent father to launch the rescue, and that she'd been awakened by the survivors shouting for help. Neither was true, but they boosted her role in the story. Instead of a brave woman working under her father's guidance, the newspapers invented a proactive heroine booting her cowardly dad up the backside as she sprinted off to fetch her oars.
There were several reasons why Britons took her into their hearts – the story of a working-class northern lass defying gender expectations was powerful, romantic stuff. She seemed like a character from a novel. The combination of all these factors was overpowering; her celebrity was a Venn diagram of overlapping wow-factors and it made the public desperate for access to her life.
Journalists raced to interview her family; artists scrambled to paint her; sightseers flocked to her family home; strangers wrote her letters begging for locks of her hair; a national fund was raised in her name; her likeness was mass-produced in Staffordshire pottery; drawings of her family were exhibited publicly to huge crowds; a circus promoter asked whether she fancied being exhibited, like some exotic performing beast; and a theatrical impresario offered her thick wodges of cash to play a heavily fictionalised version of herself in a London play. She cautiously declined.
However, the first four books published about Darling were largely works of fiction. It seems people couldn't resist reshaping her into something even more perfect. The fact that she then died tragically young, just four years after the rescue, meant her brand was both frozen in its glorious prime and yet easily divorced from an unquibbling corpse.
Though her family valiantly struggled to correct the record, Grace Darling had already become public property; her heroic hour was a malleable and exploitable legend. She was exactly what people needed her to be. And when she wasn't, they invented her anew.
One of the most successful novelists of the late nineteenth century, whose career flourished from 1886 until her death in 1924, was Marie Corelli – but you've probably never heard of her. Corelli (not her real name) was a big deal, but her style was deeply melodramatic and her passion for esoteric theology and spiritualism made her quickly fall out of fashion after her death.
Success aside, what's particularly interesting about Corelli was her fear of being photographed. Though she wrote 30 books, her life in the spotlight was spent in the shadows. She stubbornly refused to pose, claiming she hated the growing culture of self-promotional puffery rife within publishing. It's true that, long before ghost-written memoirs were pumped out by C-listers, celebrity had already come to dominate the late-Victorian literary marketplace, with the scholar Marysa Demoor arguing Victorian agents and publishers promoted the authors, not the books, as the commercial product.
However, Corelli was fibbing when she claimed to be above all that; her books were branded with an ostentatiously monogrammed 'MC' in shimmering gold that hardly screamed modesty. She had a carefully contrived image; she just didn't want it to resemble her face.
When she finally did release a promotional photo in 1906, we see a more obvious reason for her reticence. The official portrait was heavily doctored; she'd been made to look younger and slimmer, two decades of wrinkles having vanished along with much of her waistline.
Corelli's real body had been larger, but it didn't tally with the identity she wanted to convey. Her harshest critics snidely mocked her for creating young, angelic heroines who seemed to be thinly veiled ciphers for how she saw herself. The cruellest voice belonged to the American writer Mark Twain, who described their meeting with horrified disgust:
'She is about fifty years old but has no gray hairs; she is fat and shapeless; she has a gross animal face; she dresses for sixteen, and awkwardly and unsuccessfully and pathetically imitates the innocent graces and witcheries of that dearest and sweetest of all ages; and so her exterior matches her interior and harmonizes with it, with the result – as I think – that she is the most offensive sham, inside and out, that misrepresents and satirizes the human race today.'
Modern scholars have been kinder. Corelli was perhaps trying to cling to her fading youth – the equivalent of the parent going raving with their adult kids, hoping to stave off warnings of mortality through the power of neon glowsticks. Or perhaps it was a carefully considered career choice, one acknowledging that her brand was based on romanticised ideas of noble femininity, and male critics would attack her gendered, ageing body as a way to maul her writing? Ultimately, the photo was released because her fans were desperate to know what she looked like, and it helped the book sales.
But perhaps they craved the airbrushed myth just as much as she did? We'll never know, because they never saw the real woman.
Greg Jenner, historian and author
His book Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen can be purchased at Waterstones