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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

What Makes a Celebrity

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

What is celebrity? What makes a person a celebrity?

This is more than merely an academic question. Forbes magazine has just released its list of the top 100 celebrities in the world today, and its an interesting and intriguing list for anyone interested in the media and its effect on our society.

In case you were wondering, no, I didn't make the list this year (no doubt an oversight).

The criteria for the ranking on the list are interesting, for starters. Forbes uses a complicated formula that takes earnings, press clippings, magazine covers, TV /radio appearances, and Internet Web hits all intro consideration. This combination of money and media begs the question of what exactly IS celebrity. Obviously, according to Forbes magazine, it has nothing at all to do with talent, intelligence, contributions to the world, or quality of character. It's all money and media.

And this special formula which they created makes for some interesting entries and placements on the list. Julia Roberts - only number 12 in terms of earnings with 50 million dollars - is nonetheless top of the celebrity list, based in large part on her seven magazine covers, ten thousand press clips, and forty-one thousand Internet hits. For the record, George Lucas (400 million dollars in earnings), Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, Michael Jordan, the Rolling Stones, Tiger Woods, the Backstreet Boys, Cher and Stephen Spielberg round out the Top 10.

There are a few actual authors in the list, which the English teacher in me finds interesting. Stephen King (65 million dollars in earnings), Tom Clancy (66 million), John Grisham ( 36 million) and Maya Angelou (3 million) may attest to the fact that our society can still read - and make a few authors quite rich.

There is also the usual mix of sports figures, movie stars, and even fashion designers (Georgio Armani, Calvin Klein, Bill Blass) on the list. It's interesting that neither the President of the United States nor anyone running for that office seems to qualify as a "celebrity" - although Elizabeth Dole (#65 on the list)) and George and Barbara Bush (#76) are included.

Oddly enough, there are some on the list who have absolutely no talent at all - Jim Carrey (#19), Howard Stern (#30), Rosie O'Donnell (#35), and Dr. Laura (#70).

And - as is true with any list - there are some whose presence here just mystifies me: Dale Earnhardt (#36), Roseanne (#74), Don Imus (#77), The Rock (#83).

Another interesting realization that's implied in this list is that being a celebrity is big business - literally. Tiger Woods, for example, ( number 7 on the list, with 47 million dollars in earnings) is more a corporation than an individual. I mean, he makes more money than thousands of businesses. Everything from security to accounting to travel arrangements to publicity is no doubt as important to the Tiger Woods corporation as it is to Dole pineapple or Wheaties. We seem to be witnessing celebrities turning from merely famous people into huge corporate enterprises, capable of earning tens - or hundreds - of millions of dollars. They are commodities, much like winter wheat or pork bellies. Actually, some are more like wheat and some are more like pork bellies, but I digress.

And this is all underscored, I guess, by the very fact that it's Forbes magazine which is doing and publishing this list. It's not People magazine or The National Enquirer or Entertainment Tonight or a personality publication - it's a business magazine. Right next to stock analyses and tips on money management is this list of celebrities. What does THAT say about the nature of celebrity in our society today?

All in all, it's a interesting list, because it reveals our fascination with personalities, money, numbers, and the nature of lists themselves. Who's on it, the standards for ranking them, and even the magazine that published the results tell us a great deal about ourselves, whom we consider celebrities, and the value of these people in our culture.

It is an odd mix of money and media which - if you think about it - may not be so very odd after all.