Saturday, December 12, 2009

The New Old Celebrity



Although the relentless news cycle around Tiger Woods continues to remind us that we live in an era preoccupied with celebrity news and gossip, it bears mentioning that this phenomenon pre-dated the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle. Even though Perez Hilton and TMZ weren't around in 1932 to cover the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, it was still the cause celebre of the media. According to a 2008 story in Lindbergh's hometown's newspaper:

"Governments fell, nations warred, industrial empires toppled, and yet the stealing of an infant from his crib in the Lindbergh home in the lonely Sourland hills of New Jersey pulled on the heartstrings of the world as probably no other happening in recent decades," reported the Associated Press.... That was the unanimous judgment of 17 AP editors "over whose desks flow 75 million words of copy a year." They named it the top story.


Of course, Lindbergh was a different kind of celebrity than those we encounter today. I can't think of any celebrity explorers. Maybe Steve Fossett has achieved that status, but only posthumously; he followed the sad rock star route of achieving fame only through mortality. The only living celebrity aviator I can think of (Chuck Yeager) belongs to a different era. (I wouldn't consider Sully Sullenberger to be a celebrity, as there doesn't seem to be much interest in his life outside of the cockpit).

On the flip side, every type of celebrity that we have today also existed in Lindbergh's era. The Hollywood star, the athlete, the politician, the criminal/outlaw, the military hero, and the musician are all basic types that just keep repeating through generations. Even the Paris Hilton/Kim Kardashian variety of celebrity is nothing new; the concept of the debutante has been around for centuries.

Lindbergh, of course, wasn't the only person to achieve stardom by blazing a trail. Edmund Hillary appeared on money in his native New Zealand while he was still alive. Ernest Shackleton was literally the toast of Britain . John Glenn cashed in on his fame to become a U.S. Senator, while Neil Armstrong (fairly recently) had to sue his barber for selling a lock of his hair for $3,000. Jacques Cousteau has inspired both rap lyrics and New Age compositions.

The other category of celebrity that seems to no longer exist would be the scientist/inventor. Thomas Edison got a nickname similar to one earned by the NCAA's all-time winningest (in terms of championships) basketball coach. Albert Einstein became a household name by writing things that households wouldn't comprehend. Carl Sagan developed a pop culture catch phrase. (I suppose Stephen Hawking would qualify as a living scientist/celebrity; it helps that he wrote an accessible best-selling book).

Some might argue that people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have attained stardom based on their ability to innovate, but it seems to me that they are recognized primarily for their enterpreneurial skills, which again puts them in a lone line of iconic American businessmen (Carneigie, Rockefeller, etc...)

So will we ever see an explorer/scientist/inventor celebrity again? A couple factors conspire against such a possibility. I'm sure if we ever make it to Mars, the astronauts who land there will be lauded and feted. But short of that, we are running out of places to explore. And as for inventions and discoveries, it is now more likely that recognition will be shared by a group of collaborators, rather than an individual.

But I can foresee at least one potential opening. If somebody were to actual invent an automobile (or any other form of transportation) that could legitimately displace the status quo, and if he or she were to take the new invention on a spin around the country or the world, that person would make everyone forget about Tiger Woods.

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