I have had the pleasure of working closely with and being in intimate settings with “celebrities.” The people who grace magazine covers, whose endorsement of a product or place equals support from the masses and who I hear whispered about “you know he’s this…” while I internally shake my head, because I know that the rumor, or the “tea” as it is sometimes called is not true. I’m also a person who values discretion & even if the tea is true, I am not going to be the person to confirm or refute it, just as I would not want someone to share something that I said in confidence.
I have also been called a celebrity, and so has my husband, and I’ve read “celebrity couple” behind mentions of our name in the press. When we meet new people, we are often told how “down to earth” “approachable” “authentic” and “cool” we are. For many, the term “celebrity” has a negative connotation. For the first time in my life, when I go places, I have people recognizing my face… I have people saying that they follow me on social media when we meet face-to-face for the first time and I find myself, especially lately really contemplating what the term “celebrity” means, whether or not it is a label that I (or we) want to embrace and what, if anything is problematic about celebrity.
The term celebrity comes from the latin word celebritas and it means “multitude” “fame” and “celebration.” In America, the people who we call celebrities are often in the entertainment industry – actors & actresses, comedians, athletes, singers and rappers. Sometimes we also add the term in front of other careers like “Celebrity Chef.” On a basic level, celebrity just means a person who is famous or who is appealing to the masses.
So what do I find problematic about celebrity?
(1) Proximity to celebrity is often equated with a person’s value. In my work both personally & professionally I see people pursue fame in lieu of pursuing professional and artistic excellence. My husband often says that both wealth and fame, are by-products of greatness. When you talk to people who are “celebrities” the majority of them did not have a goal of becoming famous. They had a goal of being original, or of making art that challenges or inspires people. I have watched people clamor to celebrities and boast photos with them as if they are somehow better than everyone else because of the access that they have. They sometimes feel and act as if by virtue of the photo or the V.I.P. Pass the rest of the world is unworthy…
(2) People think celebrities are the answer to our world’s challenges. While it is amazing and I am very appreciative of celebrities that are philanthropic, I also understand that celebrities are not the magic elixir to solving our world’s challenges. At least weekly, I receive an e-mail or someone stops me to talk about how we need to make a stop the violence song, and we need to get this rapper, and that singer, and that’s how we’re going to solve Chicago’s violence, world hunger, and get people out of poverty. I am not saying that celebrities do not hold influence and that they shouldn’t be a part of implementing solutions, but what we are dealing with are structural, institutional challenges that require us ALL.
Frankly, celebrities can sometimes murk up the water when they get involved in issues, and it can lead to a mission becoming trivialized or compromised. I think the Civil Rights Movement provides an excellent example of how we can incorporate celebrities. Often, celebrities provided funding and they opened up their platforms via media and their concerts to address social challenges. Additionally, celebrities have certain causes that they may be passionate about just like non-celebrities have causes that they are passionate about. As the ED of Donda’s House, I don’t try to force every celebrity that I know to care about arts education. I have to do my due diligence (research) to find out what they ARE passionate about, and connect with those whose values and passions align with our organizations. I don’t get upset when my thing isn’t someone else’s thing.
You also run the risk of celebrities using a cause for their own corporate or branding goals. I’m always suspicious of a celebrity that broadcasts all of their philanthropic efforts, especially when it centers them as some type of savior or hero, rather than uplifting the issue(s) and the people who are being impacted by the social cause. I have many friends who are publicists and I’m married to an artist, so I understand that there is a literally a such thing as brand architecture. Brands are built, and you’d be surprised to learn just how clueless and out-of-touch some celebrities are. We need to hear from our social psychologists, our mental health practitioners, our teachers, our police officers, our block club Presidents, etc. As my brother Glenn Martin often says, “those who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution.” When it comes to solving challenges, those who are closest to the ground, who have committed their lives to social causes, and who are literally living the experiences, are often the best sources for solutions. Not celebrities who are often receiving their information from 2nd- and 3rd- party sources and may be so far removed that they can’t relate or articulate the challenges.
The situation works in reverse too, where people want to use celebrity platforms for their own individualistic desires. Celebrities are just really popular people, so they often see and smell that a mile away. They have people who try to befriend them, steal money from them or broker for-profit deals that are not beneficial to them. No one likes to be or feel used and celebrities are often stockpiled with operatives and people who do not have their best interest at heart. There is a certain skepticism and paranoia that they experience due to constantly being pitched and misrepresented or used.
(3) People treat celebrities as if they are better than non-celebrities and sometimes celebrities behave as if they are better than non-celebrities. I have been in rooms where there was a noticeable difference between when people had no idea who I or my husband was, and they act one way, and then everything changes when someone tells them what you do or what you’ve done. People literally don’t make eye contact and barely mutter a “hello” & then instantly they are able to give you whatever you need. 5 star service. I have also watched celebrities ignore people who were speaking to them, speak disrespectful to their staff, or to people who were serving them. I have ended personal and professional friendships because someone acted a total fool when a celebrity was in the room. Celebrities can sometimes bring out the worst in people (or be the worst people themselves). I often work event production with celebrities, since I run an arts-focused non-profit and I usually try to stay as far away as possible from the V.I.P. Area or the Celebrity holding area, unless I have a specific job I have to do because I do not want to experience the way that people behave in those settings.
When I go to concerts, unless we have Donda’s House artists around, I will often decline backstage passes, or all-access badges because I’m not a fan of celebrity worship. When my husband and I are blessed to have people who are fans of his work, I often volunteer to take the picture, and no matter what we are thinking or feeling, we go out of our way to be accessible and to have conversations with people. We speak to every single person from the waiter, to the security, to the bartenders, because we believe that everyone matters and everyone should be treated with dignity and respect. We also believe and do not take for granted the fact that people DO NOT have to spend their money, or their time supporting us or the art.
As we find ourselves in more and more rooms with celebrities and as we ourselves feel our popularity increasing, we try to be very thoughtful about what it means to us individually, to our marriage and to the people that we love and cherish the most…