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Chronicle of Higher Education, 13 September 2002

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 Carolina Press).

Q. What changes occurred in journalism during the half-century you focus on?

A. 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.

As 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.

Q. How 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.