32. Paltrow demonstrates her 'magic and talent' through deft manipulation of the press. By allowing all paparazzi to photograph her new son Moses, she drives down demand and future harassment.
33. The photo of Nicole Richie that continues to spark publicity concerning a potential eating disorder.
34. Calling attention to attempts at image construction: 'Victoria Beckham would be so pretty....if she hadn't had so many damn procedures.'
35. The Spice Girls: singular characteristics externalized in dress and image.
36. One of several very public appearances with Holmes at Paris Fashion Week.
37. Victoria Beckham dines out with husband and soccer star David Beckham – a public appearance that functions to solidify her image as 'posh.'
38. Victoria Beckham takes 'posh' to the slopes.
39. Perez critiques aspects of Beckham's image, focusing on her emaciated appearance.
40. Separated at birth, just for fun: Prince William and Harry of 'Harry and the Hendersons.'
41. Pointing to image reclying: Tom Cruise in 2006, Paul McCartney in 1969.
42. Christina Aguilera...
43. ...posed to recall Marilyn Monroe.
44. Janet Jacskon...
45. ...also posed to recall Monroe.
46. Aguilera in a recent publicity shot, side-by-side with a vintage photo of Monroe. Perez's Question: Can't she come up with an original pose?
47. The assured cockiness of Cruise in All the Right Moves.
48. The same cockiness, this time translated into Risky Business.
49. Equally believable as cornerback, desperate to escape his steel-driven hometown, as home-alone kid, taking full advantage of his parent's mansion.
50. Cruise's harmonized image, made manifest in a publicity shot from The Color of Money...
51. ....and yet again here, in Top Gun.
52. Cruise was often likened to Clark Gable, yet another broad-shouldered ladies man – but will Cruise join the colossal stars of the past?
53. The babies of New Media: who will they look to, to guide their consumption?
Yet another category that influences the production and consumption of a star is public sense of a star’s magic and talent. Dyer explains that
If we accept this idea, then we must determine at what an actor is exceptional or gifted – according to Dyer, the skill is
Hilton and his blog showcase magic and talent in becoming “a certain sort of image” in two ways, functioning as pure fan and as critical observer.
There is no doubt that Hilton is a fan. It seems a requisite for blogging with such frequency and passion. When dealing with his favorite stars (Paris, Madonna, Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, and Angelina Jolie) Hilton is not shy in expressing adoration. The words “brazilliant,” “hot,” and “this is why we love” convey affection and admiration. For Perez, such admiration of is often explicitly linked to a smart self-marketing move on the part of the star. On April 16th, following the birth of Gwenyth Paltrow’s son Moses, Perez posted the following:
Do the laws of supply and demand apply to the paparazzi? Gwyneth Paltrow hopes so! The new mom to Moses was glowing as she carefully unveiled her new baby boy to the world, in front of A LOT of paparazzi, which means that no one particular shot will be worth more than the other. In fact, all of them will be worth probably the same and the market will be saturated with that shot. Knowing Paltrow, she will probably not keep new baby Moses in hiding, hoping that by doing the same repetitive tasks with the baby each day maybe even wearing the same clothes the paparazzi will see no monetary incentive to follow her around every day. Yay for economics! Enjoy your mommy time Gwyneth. (image 32)
With this post, Perez lays bare the economics of the paparazzi and Paltrow’s savvy manipulation of them. With her baby’s photo so readily available, the market will close for new pictures, allowing Paltrow and her family privacy from the paparazzi. In a similar vein, following the much-anticipated birth of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s daughter Shiloh Nouvel, Perez posted
His praise for Jolie is not based on any acting skill, but rather her knowledge and control of the media. Control over the media extends to control over one's own image; the tighter control a celebrity possesses over his/her own image, the more authentically magic and talented he/she appears.
One may readily discern who does or does not have “magic and talent” in Perez' eyes through observation of his posting styles. In his opinion, there are two categories of stars: those who deserve to be famous, and those who do not. His posts concerning “real” stars focus on lifestyles: stars' ability to present themselves as a particular “type” through commodity consumption. In these posts, the woman is presented as “spectacle” – her clothes, her children, her dining habits are deconstructed and analyzed, all because she is interesting enough (talented enough) to garner such attention. Put differently, she deserves the attention of the media, Perez, and his readership, for she has produced her image so skillfully as to appear seamless, believable, real.
Conversely, celebrities who do not deserve attention are ridiculed for their attempts at spectacle. Their displays of conspicuous consumption – as defined by Dyer, “the way by which the wealthy display that they are wealthy”; the very backbone of the star lifestyle – are criticized, rather than celebrated (38). Perez calls attention to stars that continue to posture as such long after the capital of their talent has been exhausted – favorite examples include Jennifer Love Hewitt, Tori Spelling, and former Backstreet Boys. Unlike the caricatures of celebrity in which Perez revels, these stars land somewhere between the truly magical and the truly camp; they are neither a pure construction nor pure talent, but a sad mess in between. In the language of camp, they're simply not “bad” enough to be good.
For example, Tori Spelling and Nicole Richie may be equally untalented – both became famous for being the daughter of a famous father, and neither has garnered praise for acting ability. The difference, however, is that Richie is “talented” in sustaining and producing her image – even if those means of production include possible anorexia and an on-again/off-again relationship with a DJ. (image 33) Richie keeps herself interesting by sustaining a feud with Paris Hilton, by dressing with increasing glamour and style, and by overcoming heroin addiction. Her life is absurd and clichéd, but at the same time, much like a train wreck, you just can't look away.
Spelling, however, is uninteresting – apart from a somewhat tumultuous love life, she has done little more than coast on her fame from Beverly Hills 90210 – and therefore, she is untalented, and undeserving of media attention.[open notes in new window] Granted, Perez promotes his individual taste and discernment of talent. He does so in a way that regularly utilizes new media in the form of links to mp3s, videos, and film previews, a technique that distinguishes his promotion from the endorsements of print media. He regularly promotes singers with his “Listen to this!” posts, most recently pushing Paris Hilton’s forthcoming single, “Blinded by the Stars.” Perez claims, “You are going to be very impressed by Paris’s new album,” but also asks “let us know what you think!” By providing a direct link to a song and inviting immediate feedback, Perez creates a direct avenue for consumption and personal evaluation. The post has thus garnered 972 comments, both criticizing and praising the single, but even more interestingly, lambasting Perez for his shameless plug for Paris. A post from “Inkling” exemplifies the overarching critique of the readers:
By allowing comments, Perez' opinions of magic and talent are questioned and pressured, effectively exposing himself as part of the very mechanism that he, in turn, blogs to expose. I would argue that Perez is knowledgeable of this, even revels in it – he regularly refers to himself as on “the Z list,” has no shame in promoting the clothes given to him online and in interviews, and posts (grovels) for party invites. In other words, Hilton exposes himself – he realizes that his only talent or magic lies in his ability to be snarky and draw photoshop arrows – and in so doing, further exposes the mechanisms of star production.
Nature of the medium
Dyer stresses the manner in which
The close-up, a key element to narrative cinema, should create what Bela Balazs terms a “silent monologue,” forming a connection between the star and the viewer. The “medium” of Dyer and Balazs’s discussion is film, but the same principle may be readily applied to the Internet blog. The “medium” in question is both the celebrity photo and the blog; their collective function performs a specific task in connecting or alienating the viewer from the star.
In his essay “The Face of Garbo,” Roland Barthes draws attention to the power of the close-up. Barthes asserts that
He concludes that “the face of Garbo reconciles two iconographic ages, it assures the passage from awe to charm,” situating Audrey Hepburn and her “unique specification of the face, which has nothing of the essence left in it” as the face of charm. As such
Barthes was writing in the late 50s, but this idea of cultural significance connected to the close-up may be extended to the present. With New Media, we have moved to yet another iconographic age: from awe to charm to disbelief. If the face of Garbo is an Idea, and Hepburn’s face is an Event, then the face of Jessica Simpson, of Angelina Jolie, or of Paris Hilton is a Question. Is the photo real? Have wrinkles been airbrushed; have the lips had collagen injections? Has the picture been manipulated to represent an idea or event that does not, in fact, exist? Whose image has been recycled to form that of the new celebrity? In short, not only cosmetic surgery but also Photoshop and digital technology have forever altered the meaning of the close-up and the celebrity photograph in general, working to endlessly question the signs of star production.
As a thoroughly postmodern facet of new media, Photoshop allows for perpetual re-selection: if a celebrity doesn’t like her lips, they may be airbrushed to resemble another set, one more compatible with her desired image. In this way,
To put it in Manovich’s terms, a star is thus the “author” of the “object” of her image; as she composites her image from pieces which she did not create,
Production of star image in postmodern times dictates a process of selection, attempting to reproduce the awe and charm of earlier un(digitally)mediated stars. The resulting image is a simulacrum of the classic movie star, attempting semblance to the ideas of awe and charisma made iconic in the faces of both Garbo and Hepburn.
Hilton and his fellow gossip bloggers call attention to the mediation that occurs in the postmodern, Photoshop-dependent era, exposing the void that lies beneath the simulacrum. In other words, gossip bloggers attempt to answer the question posed by the images of contemporary stars, repeatedly addressing issues of manipulation. Wielding his own rudimentary knowledge of Photoshop, Perez uses the “paint” function to point to specific questions of production. In this way, Perez denies stars the chance to author themselves by drawing attention to their attempts. With a picture of Victoria Beckham posted March 7th, Hilton declares
In the accompanying photo, four hand “painted” arrows point to Beckham’s nose, cheeks, brow, and breasts (image 34 ). This photo, along with dozens of others posted under the category “Knifestyles,” make visible the question of the mediated image, simultaneously providing an answer.
Perez, like many other gossip bloggers, follows Beckham closely, and with good reason: like Paris, she is composed only wholly of surfaces, a true psuedo-event. She first came to fame as a member of The Spice Girls, a group composed of five women, each of whom took on a singular personality characteristic to be emphasized through their dress, attitude, and general image. The group was extravagant, enormously successful, and wholly dependent on surface-level stereotype: pure camp. (image 35) Beckham, formerly Victoria Adams, was labeled “Posh Spice,” a look she manifested in the form of short black dresses, heavy eyeliner, and disinterested staresin her public appearances, projecting a dumbed-down simulacrum of classic Hollywood sophistication. Beckham’s current look is a selection of past “posh” looks, revamped in order to disassociate herself from the connotations of her old image, i.e. fake, cheap glamour. Beckham is attempting to “author” herself – a process that is self-evident when regarding her “category.” After several failed albums, Beckham’s former avenue to stardom is essentially blocked. The only way for her to still be a star is to continue appearing in public as a star. In other words, she “shows up” places where one is certain to be photographed, such as Ivy in London, Koi in Los Angeles, or at Fashion Week in Paris, in outfits that solidify her selected posh image (image 36). The contents of Beckham’s category on Hilton’s website are variations on this selfsame theme: Posh dines out with fashionable husband, Posh goes skiing in all leather, Posh tries on shoes with Katie Holmes at Barney’s (images 37 and 38 ). Regarded collectively, they illuminate Beckham’s attempt at image production.
Beckham, along with stylish soccer star husband David Beckham, have successfully acquired the visual accouterments and commodities of a posh lifestyle. To sustain her star persona, Victoria Beckham need only sustain her established image, even if this process necessitates plastic surgery and a suspected eating disorder. If the reader selects the Victoria Beckham category, Perez' photoshopped post of Beckham’s surgeries appears between numerous others, with exclamations of “Feed me!” scrawled beside bony arms and Beckham’s somewhat emaciated face. (image 39) When regarded as such, Hilton’s posts serve as an amplification and critique of Beckham’s process of image maintenance.
Hilton points even more explicitly to the process of selection with posts filed “Separated at Birth.” While some of the photos point out ridiculous similarities between a star and cartoon character or convicted criminal, (image 40) they also emphasize the manner in which stars borrow and select from the images of others to form their own. (image 41) By placing two photos side by side, the likeness between two stars and their respective images is undeniable. In a “Separated at Birth” post from May 17th, Perez displays several photos of Christina Aguilera, taken for the recent issue of GQ, and several of Janet Jackson (imges 42 and 43 ). He suggests,
Both sets of photos feature Aguilera/Jackson completely naked, covered only by strategically placed sheets. The poses are indeed near identical. But, as one savvy commentator points out,
Through the combined efforts of blogger and reader, the construction of the image is revealed: both Aguilera and Jackson are posed in a manner reminiscent of Monroe, whose sexual connotations they wish to appropriate.
Hilton returns to the comparison on May 21st with a side-by-side comparison of Monroe and Aguilera, both clutching a towel in their teeth, paired with the heading, “Can’t she come up with an original pose?” (image 46) If we consider this to be the Question of the image, then a reader comment puts a fine point on the answer:
While Hilton may have initially missed Aguilera’s homage to Monroe, the vast majority of the time, he, along with other gossip bloggers and their respective armies of informants, do catch such similarities, broadcasting the manner in which stars' images function as composites of selected features. Whether or not the stars are then critiqued as inauthentic depends entirely on their skill at image construction. For example, since these original posts, Perez has retracted much of his criticism of Aguilera, emphasizing its connection to the 30s and 40s atmosphere of her new album, which Aguilera has described as an homage to Old Hollywood. I suspect whether or not he continues to support Aguilera will largely depend on the success of her album – if the public likes it, he’ll declare her a genius, and continue in his praise of her various attempts at image reconstruction. If it fails, he will most likely return to ridiculing her too-obvious authorship. But this is a circuitous process: the public may indeed like the album in part because of Hilton’s new endorsement; Perez may have started to endorse Aguilera because he has a sense that it will resonate with fans. Success results from the symbiotic relationship between production and consumption of star image, each feeding off of and influencing the other.
Dyer and Balazs believe that the close-up possesses the ability to connect star to viewer by portraying the uniqueness of the individual. In a world dominated by new media, uniqueness is impossible, even irrelevant – stars succeed in connecting to the individual through their ability to best select pre-established traits, poses, ideas, and images to form a composite of a likable star. The manner in which they do so is heavily reliant on new technology – plastic surgery and botox, of course, but also new media technologies such as Photoshop, their own producers' official websites, and the proliferation of their image on sites such as Hilton’s. While Hilton and others undeniably take part in the perpetuation of this cycle, republishing photos and reifying images, they likewise draw immediate attention to the cracks in a star's carefully crafted image. In short, they make visible both question and answer of the postmodern photo. This process represents the new nature of the medium, with skill of construction (and resultant believability) functioning as the key determining factors of a star’s popularity.
Through his blog, Perez has initiated a new way to perceive stars, using a sort of absolute value scale to evaluate the signs of star production. To obtain Perez' attention and endorsement, a star must be completely surface level – glaring signs of image production, pure camp, bad enough to be good – or so skilled at image production as to erase such signs entirely. The million-plus readers of his blog have, perhaps obliviously, begun to co-opt this method of judgment. What does this tell us about the state of the star system, the gossip it inspires, and the society that consumes it?
To explore this question, I return to the example of Cruise, a major star for the last 20 years. In 1983, there was something distinctive in the way that Tom Cruise appeared in All the Right Moves (Chapman) – the film opens with shots of his dreary milltown home, shifting to a sleeping Cruise, who awakes with an endearing bleariness, his eyes still sparkling from dreams. Throughout the film, Cruise is earnest, impassioned, and cocky – his set, square jaw, his self-assured flirtiness with girlfriend Lea Redmond, the affected swagger of the 5'6" man. (image 47) This film, juxtaposed with Risky Business (Brickman 1983), released just months apart, were what first made Cruise a star: he appears equally authentic as a home-alone son, taking over the mansion, (image 48) and the scrappy cornerback, desperate for a way to escape the steel legacy of his family. (image 49) His image, meticulously constructed by top publicist Pat Kingsley, served as the common denominator of the films that solidified Cruise’s star – Top Gun (Scott 1986), The Color of Money (Scorsese 1986), Born on the Fourth of July (Stone 1989). In short, his image was so unified, so believable, that the signs of its construction were invisible. (images 50 and 51)
In 2002, David Thomson wrote that for Cruise to maintain his star, he would have to
Thomson brings us back to the purpose of this paper: while I would not go so far to assert that the profession is completely dead, I will claim that the star system will never be the same, and the emergence of New Media, gossip blogs included, are the reason. Cruise was often likened to another broad shouldered lady’s man by the name of Clark Gable, and for a time, he seemed ready to join the colossal stars of the past – Grant, Grant, Garbo, Hepburn – as one who could play both the everyday and the extraordinary. He was simultaneously likable – you could be pals, if he moved into the rambler next door – but, at the same time, on a completely different level, untouchable, godlike, a Top Gun, worthy of devotion and admiration. A large part of that which established the above stars of a past generation was a conflation of star image and star role – the fact that Cary Grant married his fifth wife at age 76 only reinforced his image as the ultimate (authentic) likable cad. You looked at a picture of him, watched a film of his, heard gossip about him, and it all fed back to a single united image, so immensely attractive in its harmonized message.
What has changed, then, and where Cruise has run into trouble, is that in the age of New Media, there are no colossal stars, nor will there ever be. No one is larger than life – rather, they are manipulated simulacra of life. With New Media, there are simply too many aspects of the star image, too many roads leading to a permanently de-centralized Rome. Of course, the images of Gable, Garbo, or Grant were, at their heart, constructions. However, the public was more accepting then; there were fewer discourses surrounding the star, which allowed the viewer to forgo skepticism, finding herself willing to believe. The problem, then, is that we are no longer willing to believe anything – we have been disillusioned and made skeptical by so much technology, so much manipulation, that perhaps the only film that we are willing to believe is that of a plane flying into the World Trade Center. Tom Cruise has fallen from the limelight because he attempted to make the shift from 20th to 21st century star, trading his rare appearances and relative secrecy for overexposure and outspokenness. Before our current age of digitalization, Cruise’s infamous coach-jumping would have been documented and disseminated, but, after a few months, perhaps forgotten, fading from public consciousness. New Media, however, allows that tape to be circulated and viewed again and again, its audio track morphed into a dance remix.
The legends of the early stars of cinema were in large part attributed to the novelty of the medium – and we have become wearied, disaffected, and unimpressed by mere film projection. We clamor for the next level, demanding immediate access to photos, film, music, gossip. We are addicted to the likes of Perez Hilton because he feeds us exactly what we want: he makes visible the signs of production, telling us where to direct our consumption. Our inability to be awed, our reluctance to believe – this is what has changed the star system.
As a film scholar, I suppose I thrive on my own ability to make visible the signs of star production, to draw attention to why we like stars. In this way, I am not so different from Perez – I write scholarly papers, he posts snarky posts – but we both concentrate on and call attention to the machinery of Hollywood. But at the same time, I’m saddened by my own assertion that we will never again believe enough in anything to hold it up for true adoration. Perez and I grew up in the ‘80s, when Cruise, Madonna, and Michael Jackson were indeed larger than life – they were still something to believe in, especially as children. So long as our generation is a part of Hollywood – both as scholars and gossips, viewers and fans – then a modicum of fascination and adoration will remain. I do wonder, however, what will occur when my own children, the babies of New Media, are born into a world that is rapidly becoming digitalized, and, as such, turning into an immense image of itself, an overwhelming question – what will remain for them to believe in, and who will think it important, as both Perez and I so obviously do, to tell them the answers?