Why everyone wants to be famous

Posted on 22/12/2011

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Living in the age of the “long tail“, blockbuster success is even harder to come by. Which is exactly what makes this article in the Guardian so curious. Following the UK’s riots in August, the newspaper looked at recent survey results from British teenagers. Over 80% of kids wanted to be famous, but only 50% could answer what they wanted to be famous for.

So what does this mean? Are they a) so unimaginative, they can’t even dream up a future career for themselves, b) hopelessly unrealistic, or c) naive to the point that they don’t know what fame requires?

Celebrity has got a lot of bad press over the past 10 years, but it’s not completely soulless. People have certainly always cheated, misbehaved and gained/ lost weight, but it’s our obsessive fascination with it that’s turned it into something grotesque. Being famous is not intrinsically bad and the desire to be well known can have positive results.

Fame itself suggests quality. It can mean everything being good at something (writing for example – JK Rowling is undeniably good at writing children’s literature, even literature for adults), all the way through to being the absolute best at what you do. Famous guitarists like Jimmy Page, Joe Satriani and Slash are famous because they are/ were brilliant at one thing.

Fame goes well beyond the entertainment industry, and is associated more than ever with the business world, especially business success. Everyone from Dragons Den investors to engineering entrepreneurs like James Dyson to Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin are famous because they’ve created something successful. Men are now more likely to idolize and take entrepreneurs as role models than sports people.

Even people who have changed the world through technology (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Tim Berners Lee) are now famous. For me this show that fame can be a by-product of success. It’s often the result of skill, intelligence and dedication and shows you’re highly valued by other people. Footballers, especially, are acknowledged for their by clubs and supporters (I still think they’re grossly overpaid for the work they do). However, everyone here is at least famous for something.

It’s an ironic quirk that you can be well known for doing nothing, or even for being ordinary, and yet somehow people can make a career of it. At it’s best, this is an attention seeking performance; at its worst, fame becomes infamy and drives people to drastic measures. Some terrible acts have been carried out by people desperate for attention, and wanting to be famous if often one of the drivers of serial killers.

Fortunately, the moderate form of this stupidity is more common. The celebs that grace the pages of heat, now, and Closer magazines are frequently famous simply because their publicists are still able to get them featured. We’re beginning to see the difference between fame and celebrity: one is purely populist, the other suggests something more enduring. Celebs are unlikely to be remembered if they stop appearing in press. Fame is more intrinsic, the result of an extraordinary person. You can be famous without being a celeb, which I think says it all.

So I don’t have a problem with people wanting to be famous. It’s like a prize, or a title given to people who’ve done something special, regardless of whether it resonates with tens of people or with millions. If you’ve worked hard and achieved something that other people value, then you’ve earned the right to the fame, money or power that it brings.

The problem with the 50% who don’t know what they want to be famous for is they’re even less likely to get it. There are millions of others who have the same vague ambition with no clue how to get there. This is not necessarily the sign of a direction-less generation; it’s what happens when you’ve still got a lot of growing up to do.

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