Tim Lott: The culture of celebrity is far from dead – it's just growing up

While fame always fascinates, genuine talent is making a comeback at last
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The Independent Online

For snobs, aesthetes and elitists everywhere, something rather pleasing is emerging out of the lurid landscape of the mass media. The cult of celebrity is finally faltering. High profiles are descending. Fame in the marketplace is starting to carry a red cut-price sticker.

Waterstone's bookstores have reported that the latest batch of celebrity memoirs has failed so badly that the boss, who put his shirt on their success, has resigned. At the newsstands, celebrity magazines are showing a big year-on-year drop in readership. Heat, Now and Hello! have all registered significant slumps.

On the idiot box, Celebrity Big Brother is in its final series and the producers have reached new lows of desperation to find anyone who will put themselves through it.

Could the public's love affair with celebrity finally be over? Will the time come when a prime minister will no longer publicly worry about the physical health of Jade Goody and the mental health of Susan Boyle? Will the ransom we pay to celebrity no longer seem to be good value for money?

Well – up to a point. OK! magazine is still selling close on 600,000 a week, only a few thousand down on the 12 months previously. Last year's I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here was a big success for ITV. And even Celebrity Big Brother is still producing respectable figures for Channel 4 – maybe a million up on last year's nonentity Big Brother.

The long and short of it is that although the celebrity factor may be fading on some fronts, it still has too much worth in the marketplace to be allowed to fail. Global business interests are always going to devote vast resources to make sure that it maintains that worth, since celebrity generates so much profit. Damage celebrity culture and you damage vast swathes of sales of perfumes, magazines, handbags, designer labels for clothes and much else, at a stroke. Celebrity culture must continue, not least for purely economic reasons, and it will.

But business can't maintain the crop of celebrity in barren ground. The fascination is deeply rooted in us. Clearly, it answers a deep need, a religious need, almost. We need to worship and we need to crucify. This was true when our celebrities were kings and priests, rather than soap stars and reality TV characters.

There is another reason for celeb worship. We continue to watch celebrities because, it seems, they have a secret. They have a secret that makes them talented or famous or rich. We watch them in the strange hope that we can uncover their secret.

But the reality is that there is no secret – or not one that can be learnt. I have met enough people who are actually famous for being talented to know that talent and personality are very different things. A remarkable talent is rarely a remarkable person. Like evil, talent is often banal. And if this is true of the talented, then it is 10 times more true of the merely famous for being famous.

So much for the theory (and I do not deny that these explanations are not entirely novel). Out there in the real world, the fact is, parts of the celebrity machine are definitely starting to creak. There are certainly enough changes taking place in the celebosphere to at least give pause for thought. What would the world actually look like without celebrities? All snobbery aside, would we be actually better off without them?

I would like to admit first that I occasionally enjoy the spectacle of empty celebrity – my guilty pleasure in CBB cannot be denied – but I am chiefly in favour of people who are famous for their talent. It strikes me as a genuinely positive thing for people who have worked hard to nurture a particular ability to be held up as a role model, whether you are David Beckham (who is a celebrity) or Carol Ann Duffy (who is simply well known).

To clarify that distinction – what is the difference between the well known, or famous, person and the celebrity? Beckham is a celebrity because he is glamorous, beautiful and rich. He especially appeals to young people and working class people, which all tend to point in the direction of the "celebrity" definition.

His undoubted talent is what defines a clear line connecting him to Carol Ann Duffy. Duffy is famous because she has been honoured in her appointment as the Poet Laureate as a consequence of her great ability in her field, like Beckham. But she is merely famous – as opposed to being a "sleb" – because old people are probably more interested in her than young people, because she is not glamorous, because she is not rich. Her fame is of a different nature – one is unlikely to see her modelling swimwear. But it is equally well deserved, and doubtless somewhat welcome to her, at least in financial terms.

It is a good thing that poets can become famous in these modern media times. This points up a much ignored positive side of so called "celebrity culture" (which I would prefer to think of as "fame culture", "celebrity" being a slightly different thing). It is easy to forget that many very talented individuals who would have otherwise been condemned to poverty-ridden obscurity have also been caught up in this fame net, alongside the nonentities and mass-marketed talents.

Poets such as Duffy and Simon Armitage, artists such as Grayson Perry and Rachel Whiteread, even talented classical performers Katherine Jenkins and Evelyn Glennie, all of whom would once have been condemned to popular obscurity, however privately admired, now get sufficient attention to help maintain a career or in some cases, even amass wealth.

So much for the deservedly well known, whether sleb or famous. This brings us to another schism, those on the wrong side of which provoke much wailing and rending of clothes. These are the people who are famously famous for not very much. They are famous because they have appeared on reality TV shows, or because they are related to someone famous (Peaches Geldof) or because they are unusually good looking (Kate Moss), or because they are rich and perform oral sex on the internet (Paris Hilton) or they have some attractive deformity such as unusually large breasts (Jordan). I would include the Royal Family in this category, but I recognise this may be an unpopular view.

It is in this third category, where talent or effort seem only remotely connected to fame, that appears, encouragingly, to be wilting. Nonentity Big Brother has been pulled because of the lack of interest in its participants. Wife Swap has also gone. Jordan's memoir is one of the books that performed badly over Christmas.

The pattern is clear. Although there is no imaginable future in which one can imagine an end to celebrity and fame and mass media attention, there is a prospect that the fame-inflation and boundary-blurring that has been happening over the past decade may finally be losing its impetus.

The middle class may continue to sneer at The X Factor contestants, or Strictly Come Dancing wannabes, but they are at least people who have tried to do something deftly, or well. The pure nonentity celebrity – the dedicated D-lister - is, on the other hand, facing a fall in their fortunes. That is to be welcomed if only for the reason that it means that genuinely earned fame will become more apparent and more prominent as the forest of faces and egos thins out, leaving only forms in view that are possessed of reasonable substance.

When that happens, what you might call the liberal panic against celebrity may dissolve and we can start to see fame for what it is – not simply the addiction, like cigarettes, of the simple-minded and/or poor (or "common" as my mother would have called them) but something that has a function for society. That function is to advertise those who do well, and to reward those people and, ultimately, to generate inspiration among those who watch them from a distance.

The ostentatious dance of fame remains distasteful to the aesthete, and I understand why – my self-disgust after watching an episode of CBB is worse even than when I slip out for a crafty quarter-pounder with cheese – but a reformed celebrity culture, I would assert, is actually better than no celebrity culture at all. Celebrity culture never could disappear of course. Fame is too resilient and will not endure merely 15 minutes but for ever. If it weren't so, we would lose a lot of colour and encouragement from our lives. The key thing is the quality of the fame – and the good news is, over the past six months or so, that quality has been slowly, almost imperceptibly, getting better and better.