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Appearance over Substance? Mediatised celebrity politics through time

Betto van Waarden, KU Leuven

‘Back to politics’. Or so it seemed. In the wake of Germany’s elimination in the 2018 World Cup, the Frankfurter Allgemeine observed that the nation’s media could finally return to serious matters like politics. But there was one problem: political reporting actually differed little from sports coverage. While the football confrontation between Brazil and Belgium was still being debated under #BRABEL, the political ‘duel’ between Chancellor Angela Merkel and Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer was being played out under #MERSEE. The substance of this clash, refugee policy, receded to the background.1 While this coverage banked on the appeal of ‘horse-race reporting’ – portraying politics as an exciting person-to-person contest as during American elections – it also reinforced the notion of ‘celebrity politics’. As journalists focus political coverage on key celebrities, even ‘Mutti’ Merkel struggles to keep up, and pales beside the charismatic likes of a Barack Obama, Tony Blair or Gerhard Schröder. But what is the history of these political celebrities?

Political celebrity has been a popular topic in political science and cultural and media studies for the past three decades. However, these scholars generally analyse the 1990s and after, focussing on figures like Bill Clinton or Arnold Schwarzenegger, and only occasionally trace the related concept of the ‘personalisation of politics’ back to the advent of television in the 1950s or radio in the 1920s.2 By 2010, a literature review concluded that most studies either constructed typologies or debated the (de)merits of celebrity politics, but that many remained unsystematic.3 Since then, the field has continued to burgeon, as manifested by the establishment of new journals like Celebrity Studies in 2010 and Persona Studies in 2015, as well as the publication of handbooks.4

Edward Berenson and Eva Giloi (eds.), Constructing Charisma: Celebrity, fame, and power in nineteenth-century Europe (New York: Berghahn Books, 2010).

However, only few scholars have started tracing the phenomenon further into the past. In tracing this history of celebrity, Eva Giloi and Edward Berenson argue for another distinction: between fame, charisma, and celebrity. Fame is more dependent on achievements and longer lasting; charisma constitutes a more religious and temporary phenomenon and was contrasted with more durable traditional and legal-rational authority by Max Weber; and celebrity is more modern and tied to the ability of mass media to provide widespread publicity to an individual overnight.5

Fame, according to Leo Braudy’s classic book on the subject, goes back to antiquity. It centred on glorifying a limited number of political leaders like Alexander and Caesar, which changed with the Christian focus on humility and moderation, and later with the democratisation of fame in modernity. Fame was thus historically contingent.6 Celebrity emerged in early modernity, for example through the visual ‘fabrication’ of ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV as described by Peter Burke.7 Fred Inglis and Antoine Lilti place the ‘invention of celebrity’ in the latter half of the eighteenth century.8 This celebrity was enabled by – in addition to a growing sense of the ‘self’ – an expanding media market and corresponding ‘public sphere’. The ability to reproduce images and complement them with biographical writings about the private lives and personalities of celebrities was particularly important. Consequently, artists and writers – notably Rousseau and Voltaire - gained celebrity status and were mobbed by ‘fans’. Within the political field, Lilti analyses Marie Antoinette, the Count of Mirabeau, Napoléon Bonaparte and George Washington to argue that politicians became mediatised celebrities who continuously needed to balance their aloof authority with popular appeal, and that this popularity became an important factor in politics. Washington thus carefully groomed his image in the press, and Napoleon leveraged his popularity as the first ‘media general’ after his Italian conquests for his coup d’état in France. Methodologically, while making a qualitative analysis, Lilti utilises an Ngram to show how the usage of the term ‘celebrity’ peaked between 1800 and 1840. While unable to avoid the problems of changing terms to denote celebrity and Google Ngram Viewer’s selective corpus and OCR errors, this helps to stimulate our thinking about its historical evolution. Lilti argues that the basic dynamics of celebrity, as it originated in the eighteenth century, persisted forward through time, but acknowledges that its scale changed dramatically in the nineteenth century.9

From the perspective of analysing celebrity, the (late) nineteenth century is particularly interesting for several reasons, including the development of mass media, constitutional monarchies, and the ‘New Imperialism’. What fame, charisma, and celebrity have in common is that they are not inherent in a person: they all depend on being received by an audience. For most of history, audiences were limited to being local spectators and consumers of a restricted set of images and texts, for example coins and prints. However, the advent of a mass press from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, reinforced by the inventions of photography and film, made it possible to reach audiences on an industrial scale. As the mass-market press became more commercialised, journalists needed to sensationalise, personalise and simplify the news to outsell their competitors in an increasingly competitive ‘economy of attention’,10 which reinforced the focus on political celebrities.11

John Plunkett, Queen Victoria: First media monarch (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003).

These new mass audiences enabled monarchs, who faced increasing constitutional restraints, to ‘reinvent’ themselves as media celebrities who symbolised growing nationalism. According to John Plunkett, the wide circulation of Queen Victoria’s image made her the first ‘media monarch’ in the mid-nineteenth century.12 Christopher Clark and Martin Kohlrausch similarly show how the Hohenzollern dynasty in Imperial Germany mixed an image of outdated tradition with modern celebrity through Kaiser Wilhelm II’s pervasive presence in the new mass media. This presence enabled the monarch to function as a political agenda setter, particularly in the fields of social, military, and technology policy, but also made him vulnerable to a series of scandals that made him even more (in)famous.13 The Kaiser was not alone. His predecessor Frederick III, who reigned for a hundred days, already enjoyed a celebrity status enabled through the new means of communication,14 while other princes across Europe also captured the limelight: through their naval journeys, the concept of ‘sailor prince’ became a type of ‘brand’ during the naval rivalries around the turn of the twentieth century. They thereby gained an ‘achieved celebrity’ in addition to the ‘ascribed celebrity’ that monarchs enjoyed by birth, as Miriam Schneider argues.15 While focussing more on the construction of myth than celebrity surrounding Albert I in life and death, Belgian scholars Laurence van Ypersele and Christoph de Spiegeleer also show the role that mass media played in rendering visible the Belgian monarchy.16 A common thread in these studies is that monarchs lost control over the (ab)use of their circulating images - on cartes de visite, postcards, illustrated magazines, etc. – and thus their celebrity persona.17

Yet royals enjoyed no monopoly on media attention. ‘Heroes’ in various contexts similarly capitalised politically on celebrity status. Lucy Riall demonstrates how the revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi, who played a great role in the construction of this status for himself, leveraged his international celebrity to enhance momentum for Italian unification.18 Moreover, Edward Berenson and Berny Sèbe show that the imperialist fervour of the turn of the century witnessed particular media attention for colonial exploits, which benefitted and was reinforced by celebrity explorers such as Henry Morton Stanley and Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza. Berenson notes how this mediatised colonial heroism pressured politicians to engage in further expansionism that they themselves considered unwise. Sèbe, conversely, argues that politicians used these heroes to sustain colonial enthusiasm, and that the commercial logic of journalists, publishers and hagiographers played an important role in giving colonial heroes this political role.19

Why were these celebrities so prominent? The answer is complex, but Robert van Krieken, who builds on the work of C. Wright Mills and Norbert Elias,20 and, unlike many other sociologists, historicises the phenomenon, argues persuasively that celebrity structures social life and that we should speak of a ‘celebrity society’ rather than a ‘celebrity culture’. Van Krieken uses the concept of the strength of weak ties to argue that different social groups all share a common connection to a celebrity, which shapes a sense of a broader (imagined) community. Moreover, a celebrity is not just ‘known for his well-knownness’ as Daniel Boorstin famously defined,21 but celebrity functions according to a type of Matthew principle in which being well-known makes you even more well-known. Celebrities accumulate attention capital that in turn offers status and power. Overall, celebrity and politics are ‘Siamese twins’ because they both need visibility and thus the mass media.22

Is celebrity politics good? It depends. Pessimists have argued since the eighteenth century that celebrity constitutes a trivialisation in which appearance replaces content, which endangers politics. More recently, optimists have posited that a supposed ‘golden age’ of ‘rational public debate’ never existed, and that through an interest in celebrities, the public at least participates in, and learns about, political issues.23 Rather than trying to resolve this normative evaluation, historians could go beyond it to explore empirically the role that (mass) media played in making celebrity a constitutive part of (democratic) politics through time. The suggestion of Dick Pels and Henk te Velde to overcome the false historical dichotomy between substance and appearance by understanding politics from the perspective of ‘political style’ - a complex blend of reason, emotion and representation that evolves according to the demands of different historical contexts - provides a useful point of departure here.24

A particular challenge for historians remains reception: did popular reactions to mediatised celebrity constitute political support or merely hype and curiosity? How and why did audiences respond similarly or differently to ‘political’ versus ‘entertainment’ celebrities? Unfortunately this is notoriously difficult to research due to a scarcity of relevant sources. Another challenge is the question of relative rather than absolute celebrity. Current studies often suffer from selection bias: after years of accumulating archival material on a politician, she or he will quickly appear famous to the researcher. But was this the case within the broader attention economy of that celebrity’s society? To answer this question historians could compare more rigorously different types of political celebrities - monarchs, ministers, parliamentarians, etc. – with each other and with cultural celebrities like artists and writers. Incompatibility between national databases of historical newspapers still hinders the development of transnational quantitative overviews of politicians’ relative celebrity, but the databases are improving and within national contexts such overviews may be feasible. Finally, while the above pioneers have started historicising the concept, much chronological work remains to be done, including on how (the logic of) celebrity was transformed during different time periods. To strengthen the explanatory power of these analyses, historians will need to employ related concepts such as mediatisation, personalisation, scandalisation, and the attention economy.

As the reflection in the Frankfurter Allgemeine suggests, newspapers constitute useful sources for tracing changing celebrity logics in politics. The Belgica Press database would enable such an exploration for the understudied historical role of celebrity in Belgian politics. Moreover, newspapers offer an opportunity to understand how celebrity was transferred from non-political to political fields. After all, the game winner of the previous Brazil-Belgium confrontation in the 2002 World Cup, Ronaldo, used his media celebrity to endorse presidential candidate Aécio Neves in 2014 and is rumoured to leverage it for personal political power in the future – like his former teammates Romário and Bebeto.

- Betto Van Waarden


  1. Betto van Waarden: https://www.arts.kuleuven.be/mosa/english/staff/00101799
  2. Belgica Press database: https://www.kbr.be/en/belgica-press


  1. Harald Staun, ‘Die Wahrheit liegt neben dem Platz’, Frankfurter Allgemeine, 10/07/2018.
  2. See for example J. Evans and D. Hesmondhalgh (eds.), Understanding Media: Inside celebrity (Maidenhead: Open UP, 2005); Ana Inés Langer, The Personalisation of Politics in the UK: Mediated leadership from Attlee to Cameron (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2012); Mark Wheeler, Celebrity Politics: Image and identity in contemporary political communications (Cambridge: Polity, 2013); Graeme Turner, Understanding Celebrity (Los Angeles: Sage, 2014 [2004]); and the most cited book in celebrity studies: P. David Marshall, Celebrity and Power: Fame in contemporary culture (Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 2014 [1997]).
  3. As argued in an initial and useful literature review almost a decade ago: D. Marsh, P. ‘t Hart, and K. Tindall, ‘Celebrity Politics. The politics of the late modernity?’, Political Studies Review, 8/3 (2010), 322.
  4. E.g. Anthony Elliott (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Celebrity Studies (London: Routledge, 2016).
  5. Edward Berenson and Eva Giloi (eds.), Constructing Charisma: Celebrity, fame, and power in nineteenth-century Europe (New York: Berghahn Books, 2010).
  6. Leo Braudy, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and its history (New York: Oxford UP, 1986).
  7. Peter Burke, Ludwig XIV: Die Inszenierung des Sonnenkönigs (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer-Taschbuch-Verl., 1995).
  8. Fred Inglis, A Short History of Celebrity (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010); Antoine Lilti, The Invention of Celebrity: 1750-1850 (Cambridge: Polity, 2017).
  9. Lilti, The Invention of Celebrity (above, n. 8), in particular 160-216, 245-254.
  10. As economy is about scarcity of resources and we have an abundance of information but a scarcity of attention to consume it, we live in an ‘attention’ rather than ‘knowledge’ economy. Originally applied to the internet age, the concept can also help to understand the history of mass media. See Michael Goldhaber, ‘Attention Shoppers!’, Wired, 12/01/1997; Georg Franck, Mentaler Kapitalismus: Eine politische Ökonomie des Geistes (München: Carl Hanser, 2005); Richard Lanham, The Economics of Attention: Style and substance in the age of information (Chicago: Chicago UP, 2006).
  11. C. L. Ponce de Leon, Self-Exposure: Human-interest journalism and the emergence of celebrity in America, 1890-1940 (Chapel Hill: North Carolina UP, 2002).
  12. John Plunkett, Queen Victoria: First media monarch (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003).
  13. Christopher Clark, William II: The last Kaiser (Harlow: Pearson, 2000), 160–85; Martin Kohlrausch, Der Monarch im Skandal: Die Logik der Massenmedien und die Transformation der wilhelminischen Monarchie (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2005); Martin Kohlrausch, ‘The Workings of Royal Celebrity. Wilhelm II as media emperor’, in Edward Berenson and Eva Giloi (eds.), Constructing Charisma. Celebrity, fame, and power in nineteenth-century Europe (New York: Berghahn Books, 2010), 52–68.
  14. Frank Lorenz Müller, Our Fritz: Emperor Frederick III and the political culture of imperial Germany (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2011), 105–17.
  15. Miriam Schneider, The ‘Sailor Prince’ in the Age of Empire: Creating a monarchical brand in nineteenth-century Europe (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).
  16. Laurence van Ypersele, Le roi Albert: Histoire d’un mythe (Bruxelles: Labor, 2006); Christoph de Spiegeleer, ‘Royal Losses, Symbolic Politics and Media Events in Interwar Europe. Responses to the accidental deaths of King Albert I and Queen Astrid of Belgium (1934-1935)’, Contemporary European History, 24/02 (2015), 155–74.
  17. See also Eva Giloi, ‘Copyrighting the Kaiser. Publicity, piracy, and the right to Wilhelm II’s image’, Central European History, 45/3 (2012), 407–51.
  18. Lucy Riall, Garibaldi: Invention of a hero (New Haven: Yale UP, 2008).
  19. Edward Berenson, Heroes of Empire: Five charismatic men and the conquest of Africa (Berkeley: California UP, 2011); Berny Sèbe, Heroic Imperialists in Africa: The promotion of British and French colonial heroes, 1870-1939 (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2013); see also Beau Riffenburgh, The Myth of the Explorer: The press, sensationalism, and geographical discovery (London: Belhaven Press, 1993).
  20. Charles Wright Mills, The Power Elite (London: Oxford UP, 1993 [1956]); Norbert Elias, The Court Society (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983 [1969]).
  21. Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A guide to pseudo-events in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1961), 57.
  22. Robert van Krieken, Celebrity Society (London: Routledge, 2012), in particular 98-118.
  23. E.g. Darrell West and John Orman, Celebrity Politics (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 2003); J. Corner and D. Pels (eds.), The Media and the Restyling of Politics: Consumerism, celebrity and cynicism (London: Sage, 2003); John Street, ‘Celebrity Politicians. Popular culture and political representation’, British Journal of Politics & International Relations, 6/4 (2004), 435–52; L. van Zoonen, Entertaining the Citizen: When politics and popular culture converge (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005); Wheeler, Celebrity Politics (above, n. 2).
  24. Dick Pels and Henk te Velde, ‘Politieke Stijl in Perspectief’, in Dick Pels and Henk te Velde (eds.), Politieke Stijl. Over presentatie en optreden in de politiek (Amsterdam, 2000), 1–14.