Celebrity worship has changed over the last decades. The notion of celebrity has been stretched and expanded to the point of meaninglessness. Once celebrities were people who had achieved something—a something that made them famous. Today, celebrities include the infamous, the notorious and even. or perhaps mostly, the common. Reality TV has turned just about everyone into a celebrity at some time or another. We can become one by behaving badly enough, by winning money in a contest of luck or losing enough weight. Or by talking about our drug addiction, sexual perversions and moral lapses to a bald psychiatrist on TV. People become famous, and famous is enough. Famous has become everything.
This blurring of the lines between celebrities and the rest of us has made many people famous for at least Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes.
Madame Tussaud was only one of the many people who made it happen. P.T. Barnum was another; Wild Bill Hickok and his Wild West show helped the process along. Technology was the most important influence through photographs, movies, television and, now, the social media. The effigies grow in number and so do the visitors, fans posing with their favorite famous people: arm-in-arm, kissing…. there’s a picture on-line of a woman acting out the part of Monica Lewinsky with a wax Bill Clinton.
In wax museums visitors try to figure out who’s alive and who’s dead.
The uncanniness of wax effigies is almost certainly about their lifelessness. The living blink, swallow and breathe. The effigies, on the other hand, are only about appearance. But it doesn’t even matter whether or not they represent someone living. The dead will do. The celebrity worshipper may be just as happy to get chummy with Einstein, Gandhi or Marilyn Monroe as with Britney Spears. The deification of Monroe and Elvis Presley is as ongoing as ever it was for George Washington. Whether celebrities are dead or alive isn’t that important to our need to associate ourselves with them.
They don’t even have to be real. Shrek is at Madame Tussaud’s.
Recent surveys reveal how young people feel about the subject of themselves and fame. American teenage girls responded that if they could press a button and become one of the following—smarter, stronger, more beautiful, or famous—they would choose the last. In another survey of “American students,” the choice was among “the CEO of a Fortune 500 company,” “president of Harvard/Yale,” “a Navy Seal” “a U.S. senator”, and “an assistant to a celebrity.” The celebrity post won hands-down.
Perhaps it’s true, as Thomas de Zengotita suggests in his book Mediated, that “In this society, if you’re not famous, there is a certain very real sense in which you don’t exist.?”