recent article in The New Yorker chronicled the Paris visit of Puff Daddy (Sean Combs), the renowned rap singer and fashion entrepreneur. It was written by a reporter who accompanied him, providing a detailed account of virtually every moment of the four-day trip. The reader could learn a great deal about Puff Daddy, a bona fide celebrity of our times his way of life, beliefs, favored forms of entertainment, consumption, and socializing. Combs was introduced as "the 32 year old rap impressario, restaurateur, clothing entrepreneur, bon vivant, actor and Page Six regular." His claim to fame also rests on having been nominated by the Council of Fashion Designers of America as "the menswear designer of the year." He was urgently summoned to fly to Paris (via Concorde) to lend glamour to a Versace fashion show:
With his hip-hop credentials and his love of the spotlight, not to mention a past that includes highly public moments of violence, Combs provided exactly what the fashion crowd craves... He wore fur and leather and draped himself in enough diamonds to rival Princess Caroline of Monaco... Donatella Versace... was counting on Combs's presence to add some adrenaline to her show... [his accessories included] a silver tie, smoke-colored sunglasses, diamond-and-platinum earrings, a bracelet or two, a couple of diamond rings the size of cherry tomatoes, and a watch covered with jewels and worth nearly a million dollars.
The article also noted (without a hint of disapproval) that his "career has been punctuated by violence... In 1999 he and two others were arrested for beating a rival record-company executive... [he] was [also] involved in an incident at a Manhattan night club in which three people were shot."
On his trip to Paris, Combs "was traveling with a trainer, a stylist and at least two personal assistants." In his Paris hotel suite "there were several garment racks in the living room, with more than a dozen suits, scores of shirts, leather jackets... enough shoes to last a lifetime... flown over from New York... Sunglasses had been arranged in three rows on a high table... There were about ten pairs in each row; each pair in its original case, with the top flipped up."
The elevation of Puff Daddy to celebrity status illustrates a phenomenon that will one day be of interest to social historians seeking to understand the sources and manifestations of American cultural decline in the late 20th and early 21st century. It may be argued that the rise and veneration of celebrities has been a characteristic expression of this decline. Almost half century ago Daniel Boorstin, the social historian, wrote:
As Boorstin suggests, several forces combine to sustain the phenomenon. The existence of the mass media is a fundamental precondition since it creates, disseminates, and dwells on the images of celebrities, ensuring that the celebrity will be known however superficially to millions of people. The media (and their own PR people) can create celebrities because there are millions of people interested in such fantasy figures, upon whom they can project transitory admiration and perhaps a spurious identification.
The second precondition for the phenomenon is a moral, cultural, and aesthetic relativism which both permits and encourages the admiration of people of no genuine distinction moral, artistic, or intellectual. Genuine heroes, people of great accomplishments, are few and far between. And so if fame based on some impressive accomplishment is in short supply, notoriety will do. The populist and egalitarian strains in American history may have provided further support and legitimation for the rise and proliferation of amoral and mediocre celebrities. Anybody can become a celebrity, no special qualifications are required only adequate publicity, a certain degree of egomania, and some attention-getting trait or activity.
The celebrity phenomenon feeds as well on the enlarged, democratic individualism of our times. A growing number of people feel that they are entitled to fame, attention, wealth, power, and special treatment. People wish to and can actually become widely known, for odd, dubious, or absurd reasons, including colorful criminals acts.
Figures of entertainment and fashion fill most of the celebrity ranks, in part because they have at their disposal a well-oiled publicity machine. There is an obvious financial incentive for creating celebrities: Movies, TV programs, popular music all revolve around them; the advertising industry regularly avails itself of their services and endorsements to sell a wide range of products. Most celebrities come from the world of entertainment because the entertainment industries occupy such a prominent place in American life.
As the New Yorker article makes clear, celebrities are handsomely rewarded for the functions they perform. These rewards in turn reinforce their bloated and unrealistic self-conceptions.
The New Yorker's treatment of Puff Daddy is but one of countless examples of a totally uncritical and unreflective view of the phenomenon of celebrity worship. Another telling indication of the trend has been the gradual transformation of The New York Times Magazine from a serious publication focusing on major political and social events or problems into one which now, more often than not, devotes over half its space to profiling assorted celebrities from the world of entertainment, sports, and fashion.
Celebrity worship and the moral-aesthetic-intellectual relativism it enshrines is a symptom of cultural decline and confusion; time will tell how serious. As the New Yorker article observed of two other celebrities: "Ralph Lauren and Martha Stewart are more than brands; they offer visions of the world." With any luck these visions will not become dominant.
Paul Hollander is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His last book Discontents: Postmodern and PostCommunist, was published earlier this year by Transaction Publishers.