Who hasn’t glanced at the myriad of celebrity gossip magazines while standing in line at the grocery store? The glitzy, glamorous and privileged image that many stars have manufactured for themselves is a truly astounding social phenomenon. Equally fascinating is how celebrity gossip, this process of cultivating the image of certain stars and denigrating others has become embedded into our society. I was lucky to catch up with Anne Helen Petersen, a doctorate student at the University of Texas, to discuss this topic. Anne, who is researching the history and psychology behind celebrity gossip, shares her academically-slanted insight on her wonderful blog Celebrity Gossip Academic Style.
Hello Anne, thank you for taking some time off your busy schedule to participate in this interview with us! Can you first tell us about yourself and why exactly you started your fascinating blog “Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style”?
I’m in the fourth year of my Ph.D. in Media Studies at the University of Texas – Austin; I grew up in Idaho, attended Whitman College for undergrad, and received my M.A. at the University of Oregon. I’m doing research for one of my professors instead of teaching this semester, so most of my days are spent performing that research, writing/revising my dissertation, and periodically writing a blog post. My initial interest in film studies probably started when I obsessively consumed my parents’ copies of Entertainment Weekly in the early ’90s, but I didn’t contemplate it as a discipline until my freshman year in college. As for my blog, I wanted to put my beliefs about the value of online, accessible scholarship into practice — I could talk about how much I loved or how important it was to move our conversations outside of the ivory tower all I wanted, but, at the risk of sounding corny, I needed to be the change I wanted to see.
Taking the bull by the horns, I like that! Since you are guilty of enjoying celebrity gossip and for the record, what are some of your favorite actors and actresses and why?
Your choice of the word “actor or actresses” is interesting. I admire the acting of Patricia Clarkston, the cast of Mad Men, Robert De Niro, Katharine Hepburn……but favorite “actor” is very different from “favorite star”, as our attraction to stars stems from something far more complex than his/her ability to act on the screen. My favorite stars, then, are Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, all of whom speak and appeal to different parts of my personality, including the part that appreciates a star with a firm mastery of how to play the “game” of stardom.
Ah! The perpetual actor vs. movie stars debate but then let me ask you this: Why are people fascinated with George Clooney, Brangelina or Jennifer Aniston and what are they doing differently from the vast amount of other successful actors, some of them arguably more talented in their craft?
So Clooney, Pitt, and Jolie are good actors, but what they’re really good at is BEING STARS. Being skilled at being a star requires an entirely different skill set than being skilled at acting. Part of it is skill in hiring a good PR person to manage your image, but you also have to make choices yourself that help create a unified, coherent, appealing, enigmatic image. All three of those stars are very, very good at this. Even more importantly, they have created unified star images without making it seem like they’re doing so — in other words, they’re seamless creations. In contrast, Jennifer Aniston has a unified image, but she seems to be trying very, very hard. The signs of her labor — the seams, the effort — are visible. This is why she’s been subject to critique about her “public” romances that pop up to coincide perfectly with the premiere of a movie, etc.
There has been talks that the true Hollywood movie star is dying, that they aren’t as reliable at the box office as they used to. Some of the biggest blockbusters in recent memory did not feature any true movie stars. Do you think movie stardom is dying?
The “stars are dying” argument is an old and tired one. I’ve seriously found articles saying the exact same thing all the way from the end of the silent era to today. Even during what we think of as the height of the classic stars — during the studio era — a star would oftentimes make a movie that did poorly. The difference was that the star made anywhere from 3-6 movies for the studio every year, none of them super expensive, so one flop didn’t make much of a difference. Now, a star’s worth hinges on his/her ability to open a film, not only here in America, but overseas.
The other problem — or I might say reluctance — for the studios is that big stars not only ask for big salaries, but co-producing credits and a percentage of the profits. The smartest stars these days are taking big salary cuts in exchange for points on the gross — that way their salary hinges on their own performance / publicity for the film, and they can’t be blamed for having an inflated salary that sinks the picture.
It is true that pre-sold concepts seem much more important than stars, but the best films (and biggest franchises) bring together both — see Pirates for a great example. (Although I fully admit that the two sequels are horrible.) Even Twilight and Harry Potter hinge on the presence of the stars that the movies themselves have made — Edward Pattinson and Kristen Stewart may not have been stars before, but they most certainly are now, and the films could not succeed without them.
I love your blog because it delves into the psychology and history of celebrity gossip, a topic that you chose to study academically. People do seem to be truly addicted to tabloids and gossipy websites such as Just Jared or your personal favorite, Lainey’s. Why do you think that is?
I don’t think people are any more addicted to gossip websites than they are to Facebook or email. The fact that many gossip sites post throughout the day encourages repeat visits (the more page views, the more advertising dollars, of course) which has helped cultivated the “obsessive” check-back behavior. As for gossip off the web, people have consumed this sort of gossip — at the same level — for hundreds of years. It’s just been mediated in different forms. And it’s always accompanied by anxiety, as the fascination with gossip seems to indicate a cultural malaise. If that’s the case, we’ve been a sick culture since we first developed the ability to speak, write, and transmit information.
It does feel that there is some sort of cultural malaise, as you call it, associated with celebrity gossip. I personally wouldn’t be caught dead reading Us Weekly (in public). Do you think people should feel guilty for enjoying celebrity gossip? Is it a healthy pleasure of contemporary life or will it lead to something like the eventual collapse of Western civilization?
Gossip is a particularly potent form of discourse: it ‘works through’ and sets limits on acceptable practices, beliefs, and behavior in child-rearing, sexuality, conduct in the public sphere, etc. Anthropologists and sociologists have performed dozens of studies on the function of gossip in social groups, from remote tribal communities to present-day secretary pools. Indeed, gossip is everywhere, and we all do it — whether as teenage girls or grown men over drinks after work. And whether its subject is the new girl in school, a major star, the president, the new quarterback, the Queen, or the new hotshot at work, its function is almost always a variation on the selfsame theme: social policing. Put differently, we talk about people who are different – who mess with the status quo, either by being exceptionally beautiful, exceptionally ugly, super awkward, or too intelligent. We gossip about the person who dresses differently, who does not display his/her gender in a way that’s ‘appropriate,’ flirts with too many co-workers, or espouses radical political beliefs. For a threat to the status quo is tantamount to a threat to the conception of self and society – and gossip is often the first defense against such change.
Have we become a culture of celebrity worshipers only recently or did this type of obsession exist 50 or even 100 years ago?
While I think that it’s easier for “normal” people to obtain fame due to the ubiquity of reality television, people have long been fascinated by those who seem to embody superlatives — the ‘most’ beautiful, the ‘most’ wealthy, the ‘most’ bizarre, the ‘most’ royal. The cult of fandom around, say, Brangelina has nothing on the fandom that surrounded the silent stars.
What else do you do when you are not blogging or stalking Ryan Gosling online for academic reasons?
Ha! As I said above, I spend a tremendous amount of time writing my dissertation, which details the industrial and cultural history of celebrity gossip from 1947 – the present. I also do a lot of yoga, running, and cookie making.
What are some of your favorite bloggers and personalities that have shaped you and “Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style”?
Lainey Gossip, of course. Lainey is very smart and very perceptive about the way that stardom works — stardom as an industry. And she’s hilarious. I try to combine a high level of readability (and self-deprecating humor) with rigorous investigation of celebrity coverage — things Lainey does as well. Anne Thompson’s “Thompson on Hollywood” blog is indispensable for those interested in the business of Hollywood, and she periodically posts star “Career Watches” that provide fantastic insight into the industrial stakes of various stars’ careers/image management.
Final question! Where do you see yourself a few years down the road once you finish school?
I’m on the academic job market right now, so, fingers crossed, I’ll be a professor!
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us Anne! We wish you the best of luck with your dissertation and your job search!