A celebrity, in Daniel J. Boorstin's lapidary definition, is someone "known for his well-knownness." There
were famous people in earlier periods, of course. But celebrities, in Mr. Boorstin's sense, did not appear until the late
19th century -- a side effect of "human interest" articles about the private lives of public figures. So argues Charles
L. Ponce de Leon, an associate professor of history at the State University of New York College at Purchase, in his new book
Self-Exposure: Human-Interest Journalism and the Emergence of Celebrity in America, 1890-1940 (University of North
Q. What changes occurred in journalism during the half-century you focus on?
The most important development was the explosion of human-interest journalism -- its seepage into virtually every form
of news media, so that journalism was increasingly shaped, if not dominated, by that idiom. In the 1890s, human-interest journalism
was quite literally confined to a page of most metropolitan newspapers. It didn't appear at all in many publications.
publishers sought wider and more diverse audiences, articles written in the human-interest vein expanded into other parts
of the newspaper, and into magazines. That created new opportunities for people seeking to promote themselves. But they could
also find themselves "exposed" quite against their will -- in ways that are less than flattering or comfortable.
Q. You argue that a "master plot," implicit in most celebrity coverage, emerged by the early 20th century. What
was the core of it?
A. The master plot of celebrity journalism addresses a basic democratic concern: the question
of what happens when people are lifted out of obscurity and anonymity. Sympathetic journalists will make it appear as if success
has not changed the celebrity a whole lot; essentially, success has just enhanced the attractive features of his or her personality.
Negative journalism will suggest that being famous means getting access to all kinds of goodies, with a bad effect. The master
plot reflects both the desire for distinction and the suspicion that it is corrupting.
would you contrast the situation 100 years ago and now?
A. Today you find a coexistence of forms that seemingly
shouldn't coexist in one culture. At the newsstand you'll find publications that claim, in quite clear and unambiguous ways,
to present the real selves of celebrities, just as journalism did in 1902. And alongside them, there will be accounts that
are all about "spin control" and the idea that everyone is manipulating everyone else.
A century ago, irony was usually
the preserve of the well-educated, who felt disgust for popular forms and popular idols. Now that attitude has been democratized.
It's no longer class-based. It's built into the culture, and has been since the 1950s and 1960s.