I’ve been thinking a lot about celebrity lately. Not because the word has an unexpected etymology: It came straight into Middle English from Latin celebritāt, where it meant “a crowded celebration or festival.” (OK, I do have one fun fact: celebrate was spelled cellybrate in Middle English.) And also not because there’s a topical hook on which to hang this post.
In lieu of any of that, here is some of the wool I’ve been gathering about celebrity over the last week or so:
1. The New York Times Spelling Bee keeps accepting CELEB, and I keep not seeing it in the hive because I keep disbelieving that it’s an actual word and not just a convenient headline truncation. Well, color me abashed: The OED says that although “in later use” it was “sometimes considered journalese,” it was “recorded earliest among students.” The oldest citation is from 1907, in a Smith College publication: “She is a Senior Celeb, and I’m just any Freshman.” Young women: Innovating language since forever.
Mr. Celebrity (1941), a feature film about racehorse rehab.
2. Here’s another Nancy-Is-Wrong story: The only thing I remember about Dances with Wolves (1990) is a Kevin Costner voiceover in which he marvels “I was a celebrity!” I was sure this was a gross anachronism in a film set just after the U.S. Civil War—celebrity as in “a famous person” and not as in “fame” had to be a 20th-century invention, right? But it turns out that while Dances with Wolves may have been an overrated film, the “celebrity” usage was not inconceivable. The OED’s earliest citation for the “famous person” sense of celebrity is from a 1831 issue of a British publication. And Ralph Waldo Emerson used it that way in 1856: “One of the celebrities of wealth of fashion…”
The Celebrity (1897), by Winston Churchill, but not that Winston Churchill. They weren’t even related.
3. Hello, I’m the only person on Earth who until last week had never seen Notting Hill, the 1999 rom-com starring Julia Roberts (“I’m just a girl…”) and Hugh Grant (“Surreal … but nice”). I watched it while taking a break from my FBOY Island duties, and from the distance of 22 years I found it perfectly satisfying. For starters: There are no cellphones or internet in the movie, although they existed in real life by then, and so the screenplay’s meditations on fame—it isn’t “really real,” don’t you know—seem delightful and quaint, yet also timeless and true. And while the film’s two stars are still bona fide celebrities, I was more interested in the about-to-be celebrities in small roles, like Emily Mortimer (billed simply as “Perfect Girl”), Mischa Barton (“12-year-old actress”), and Clarke Peters (“‘Helix’ Lead Actor”). And look, there’s Lorelei King as Julia Roberts’s publicist! Maybe you haven’t heard of her, but she’s been a major celebrity to me ever since I listened to her brilliant narration of Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy. And she follows me on Twitter, which makes me feel like a celebrity.
I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! debuted on British television in 2002 and is still going strong. There have been multiple international versions of the Survivor-like show, including a two-season American series.
4. Speaking of audiobooks, and of things I’m late to discover, I’ve been enjoying Julie Klam’s The Stars in Our Eyes (2017), whose subtitle is “The Famous, the Infamous, and Why We Care Way Too Much About Them.” It’s all about celebrity and celebrities—from child stars like Quinn Cummings, who turned out completely normal and delightful (and who also follows me on Twitter), to former A-listers like Timothy Hutton and Griffin Dunne who offer some critical perspective on fame. I discovered Julie Klam when, for mysterious reasons, she followed me on Twitter (what can I say? I’m a celeb-magnet!), and I’ve become a fan of her writing. I wish I had a celebrity story to add to her many uproarious and instructive tales, but although I grew up in Los Angeles, appeared on Romper Room for a week when I was 4, and went to the same high school (although not at the same time) as Dustin Hoffman, Marilyn McCoo, George Takei, Johnny Cochran, and Ray Bradbury, I have never known any celebrities in real life, or even had braggable chance encounters. (There was just that one time I spotted Rudolf Nureyev in the San Francisco Neiman Marcus, but our eyes never even met.) I have, however, had a long friendship with Griffin Dunne’s second cousin once or twice removed, and I know the son of the man who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in The Apartment. So there’s that.
5. And here’s a plug for Julie Klam’s new memoir, The Almost Legendary Morris Sisters, which will be published this very week and which I’m looking forward to reading soonest.
6. Celebrity brands—that is, brands with celebrity in their names—abound; at last count, there were 373 live CELEBRITY trademarks. Celebrity Cruises, founded in 1988 and based in Miami, is one of the most familiar. There’s also Celebrity Cellars, which “literally bottles the recognizable names and faces in the world”: your choice of Kiss, Madonna, Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, or the Rolling Stones on etched glass or paper label. The Religious Technology Center, aka Scientology, has been publishing a monthly magazine called Celebrity since 1970; an eBay seller is offering 290 back issues for $895.00 plus shipping charges. There’s a Celebrity Greens (putting-green installation; Scottsdale), a Celebrity Dental (Dallas), a Celebrity Therapeutic Services (Durham, North Carolina), and, inevitably, a Celebrity Branding® [sic] Agency (Winter Park, Florida). The oldest Celebrity mark, in use since 1958. is for dinnerware. And there’s a whole subcategory of celebrity-portmanteau brands, including Nailebrity, Spellebrity, Realebrity, and Celebpreneurs.
Celebrity Cruises logo. The X represents the Greek letter chi, the first letter of Chandris, the surname of the company’s founder.
7. If you want your book, movie, or TV show to sell, try tucking “celebrity” into its title. Here’s a selective list of celebrity-studded entertainments:
The Dead Celebrity Cookbook (2011)
Celebrity in Death (2012)
The Celebrity Black Book (2019)
Celebrity (1928, directed by Tay Garnett)
Celebrity (1998, starring that uber-celeb Leonardo DiCaprio)
A Social Celebrity (1926, starring Adolphe Menjou and Louise Brooks)
Celebrity Sex Tape (2012)
Cult of Celebrity (documentary, in pre-production)
Celebrity Dating Game (2021–)
Celebrity Family Feud (2008, revived in 2015)
Celebrity Golf (1960, revived in 2003)
Celebrity Bowling (1971–1978)
Celebrity Sweat (2015–)
Celebrity Name Game (2014–2017)
Celebrity Wheel of Fortune (2021–)
Celebrity Big Brother (2018–)
Celebrity Rehab with the dubious Dr. Drew