Do I know you? The unstoppable rise of the Unfamous Famous

Is this a sign we've started to outgrow celebrity culture?

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Who is David Sedaris? Could you pick Conan O'Brien out of a line-up? And does Mr Helen McCrory warrant any recognition in his own right? These are the questions perplexing a nation, as we come to terms with the unstoppable rise of the Unfamous Famous. They're all well known, so why does no one know who they are?

It started in Sussex, where David Sedaris, noted radio broadcaster and author of bestselling books, lives a double life as a litter-picker. So appreciative is Horsham District Council that it's named a rubbish truck in his honour. But when the story appeared in the local news, Sedaris was referred to simply as a "volunteer", with no mention of his literary fame.

Or take Mary Beard. As a Cambridge classicist, she's completely up to date with all the juicy goss concerning Caligula and Nero but she couldn't tell Emmy-winning Homeland actor Damian Lewis from a lowly plebeian. This week she admitted to an accidental snub at the National Theatre where his wife Helen McCrory is appearing in Medea. Finding herself seated next to Lewis, Beard opened conversation by asking, "What do you do?"

I once asked the same question of a man sitting next to me. This was in a Soho nightclub circa 2003. He said he was in a band, at which point I bettered Beard with this rejoinder: "Yeah, sure, you're 'in a band' [eye-roll optional], but what do you do for a living?" That man was Pete Doherty and, as someone later informed me, his band, the Libertines, were on the cover of the NME that very week.

This anecdote has done good service in my humble-brag repertoire. It suggests I'm too cool to fawn over the famous and too egalitarian to treat them differently. Or it did, until everybody who's anybody started failing to recognise the famous.

At television industry party last week, the guest of honour was a man called Conan O'Brien. Ask your American friends. Over there he's more famous than David Sedaris, Damian Lewis and Pete Doherty put together. Over here, however, where he's not on television four nights a week, hosting a talk show watched by millions, no one has ever heard of O'Brien. So when he got up to speak it might as well have been open mic night at the Dog and Duck. Some people had their backs to the stage and next to me a woman carried on a phone conversation at full volume.

Is the rise of the Unfamous Famous a sign we've started to outgrow celebrity culture? I'm afraid not. It's just that the number of celebs is increasing exponentially. Between the Commonwealth athletes, the YouTube sensations and the ex-girlfriends of Prince Harry, who can keep up?

People at this party weren't ignoring O'Brien because they'd been too busy living their authentic lives to care. They were ignoring O'Brien because they were captivated by someone else in the room. At the bar, a cast member from The Only Way Is Essex was ordering a drink. I'd tell you her name, but I can't remember it. Rest assured, she's very, very famous.

Big business, little response

Fifteen months after the Rana Plaza factory collapse which killed 1,129 people and injured 2,515, British retailer Matalan has finally agreed to pay towards the victims' compensation fund. It also stressed in a statement that donating money is not the same as taking responsibility.

"Culpability" and "responsibility" are words long since been excised from the Big Business Book of PR. These companies are worried – not unreasonably, perhaps – that to take responsibility in one case would leave them open to attack from opportunistic fortune hunters for evermore.

So instead of companies doing the decent thing, and in good time, it has become customary to test the staying power of the injured party. Currently BA is being sued by lawyers representing young girls in Africa over allegations of sexual abuse by a pilot. In the US, the comedian Tracy Morgan is suing Walmart after one of its trucks ran into his vehicle, leaving him critically injured and another passenger dead. In Britain, eight people who were left out of previous compensation deals have just launched a new legal action against the manufacturers of the birth-defect causing drug thalidomide.

It seems most businesses can be persuaded to shoulder blame for wrongdoing, but only on their own schedule. Meanwhile, the blameless suffer without support.

Elementary, Watson

First Martin Freeman drew crowds in Richard III and now Benedict Cumberbatch, his co-star in BBC One's hit drama Sherlock, is gearing up to play Hamlet in 2015. Amid much fanfare, the Barbican has announced via its website that 100 £10 tickets will go on sale nearer the time. "We expect Hamlet to be very popular," it notes.

The theatre people have finally come up with an arts engagement formula that works and they know it: Sherlock + Shakespeare = culture for the masses. Speaking on behalf of the philistines who never go to the theatre, I can confirm that the Barbican is indeed on to a winner. But speaking also on behalf of the tightwads, I can confirm that the real attraction has nothing to do with Cucumberpatch's celebrity appeal. Ten pounds a ticket? Now we're talking.

Testing times

So, Judith Carlisle, head of a top independent girls' school, agrees with the primary head who wrote that viral letter: exam results aren't really that important after all. No doubt her words bring comfort to stressed pupils gearing up for GCSE results day, but where does that leave the swots? Those of us who've already wasted the sunny weekends of our youths cooped up indoors, cramming for ultimately pointless exams. For them (me), this small crumb of comfort: just because no one cares you got an A in physics, doesn't mean you have to stop banging on about it.

Feet first

America's mysterious "Woman in Black", has joined activist Peace Pilgrim, Wild author Cheryl Strayed and, er, Forrest Gump in the category of people famous for walking, in a country where everyone drives. We have an equivalent in pedestrian-friendly Britain, but Stephen Gough aka the Naked Rambler, also had to strip off to get some attention.

twitter.com/@MsEllenEJones

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