Thursday, January 12, 2006


Society vs. Celebrity

I participate in a discussion group in re IPTC coding of images (International Press Telecommunications Council.

And a discussion among members of the group was recently centered on
the distinctions between "society" and "celebrity," specifically
SubjectMatter 08005000 society: Stories of well-known people
SubjectDetail 08003002 celebrity: News about celebrities

Here's my take on the whole thing:

Many Americans try to pretend we are a classless society, but most thinking people realize that that is utter rubbish. But without an equivalent of Debrett’s, it gets harder to tell who is a “celebrity” and who is a “socialite.”

“Society” is about class distinction. Family, social standing, connections, the right schools, the right education, the right interests, the right accomplishments, etc. It’s not always about money— some learned academics, clergy, musicians, artists, writers, etc. are “society” even if they have not amassed great fortunes.

“Celebrity” is about fame and/or infamy. Andy Warhol's "15 minutes of fame crowd" can be included in the list of "celebrities".

One can be a member of both groups, of either group, or of neither group.

--Jennifer Lopez is a celebrity, but she is not “society”
--Coretta Scott King and Maya Angelou are society, and one would also argue that they are both celebrities.
--The winner of the lottery or a reality TV show is probably a celebrity, and probably not society.
--Monica Lewinsky was a celebrity, but was not society.
--John Kennedy, in 1950, was not really “society”—he was a popular politician with money. Jacqueline Bouvier was “society.” But together, they and their offspring would be considered society even after the death of both parents.

But being elected to high office does not automatically make you “society.” (Though it gets you invited to all the parties with the people who are) Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt were “society.” Bess and Harry Truman were not.

--John Kerry is a politician, and would probably be considered a “celebrity” in his own right, but his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, is probably closer to being “society” in her own right. If she were married to some generic corporate executive rather than a politician on the national stage, she would still attend charity balls and museum openings and get her picture in the style section of the Times now and again for doing good works or attending the right event wearing the right dress and donating the right amount of money to a politically-correct cause.

--Sir Elton John and Sir Paul McCartney cross many boundaries--- By being knighted, they pass into society. But by virtue of being performers, they are also celebrities. Frankly “it’s still rock and roll to me.” LOL

--Paris Hilton is famous for being famous. She’s also incredibly tacky. She’s a celebrity. If she had a bit more class, she might have been society. She has the right friends, and was born into the right kind of family, wears the right clothes…Even does the requisite charity work…... But ummmm……no. Maybe in 40 years, if she lives that long.

--Martha Stewart never really was “society,” but she became a famous and wealthy by pretending to be “society.” Then she went to prison for investment irregularities. Going to prison does not automatically strip one of one’s “society” status. (Especially for a white collar crime) If it did, Dominick Dunne wouldn’t be making a living out of writing and talking about society crimes and misdemeanors.

A lot of people considered “society” attract very little attention whatsoever. They aren't celebrities, and almost no one would recognize their pictures if they appeared on page one of the New York Times. They run foundations, corporations, and relief efforts with more interest in the outcome than in the personal publicity it generates. Many have been born to families of historical wealth and prestige, others have not. Some have married into families of prestige. Some, like Bill and Melinda Gates, are just first-generation wealthy, brainy ex-nerds who try to do the right thing. You don’t really have to be wealthy to be considered society (though it helps) and money can’t really buy you society status for yourself… but it might be able to buy it for your children or grandchildren.

My rant for the day.

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