The 20th Century was the period when the celebrity culture took off, especially from the 1940s onwards. There were people who enjoyed celebrity status before then, such as Lord Byron and some music hall stars, but they were the exception. The more mass media there is, the more celebrities we seem to acquire. There are many reasons for the advent of the celebrity century and sociologists have studied the subject in depth.
The 1920s and 1930s were the decades of the silent film and stars like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy were stars. There was glamour too, with Fay Wray and Lillian Gish. Hollywood’s biggest contribution to the celebrity century was movie icon Valentino. He was charismatic and handsome, and mobbed wherever he went. Women wept uncontrollably when he died. He was probably the first celebrity as we think of them today.
Movies also dominated in the 1940s, with male stars such as John Wayne, Clarke Gable and Robert Mitchum. The ladies were represented by Greta Garbo, Rita Hayworth and Lana Turner. Sometimes the pressure of the celebrity century and the fame it brought was too much. Garbo famously withdrew from the limelight, saying that she wanted to be left alone.
Movie stars were the royalty of America and people couldn’t get enough of them. Scandal was rare then, as they were under the protection of the studios, but if it did break loose then they were finished. It was different then, you’d never see Bette Davis with no make up and her hair undone. They were on duty all the time and they always looked gorgeous. The most exciting celebrity century sensations were the celebrity couples, like Gable and Jean Harlow. All the world loves a lover.
By the late 1950s, the anti hero was in vogue and the celebrity culture was changing. James Dean and Marlon Brando had a bad boy image, which the ladies loved. That led on to the counter culture of the 1960s and movies began to reflect the alternative lifestyles of the young. Rock music was throwing up the biggest icons yet of the celebrity century. The likes of Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger and the Beatles were treated like gods. Performers were celebrities for challenging the establishment.
Celebrities come and go, sometimes lasting a few years and sometimes a few decades. Sport too has contributed its fair share to the celebrity century and fans feel they have a personal stake in their favorite football star or basketball player. Supermodels take a lot of room up in the press and their personal lives are always under scrutiny. Today, the celebrity century seems to have descended into the depths. Nowadays, people want to be famous without putting the work in. We’ve come a long way from Valentino to the Big Brother contestants.