Entertainment Celebrities

CELEBRITY 101: Studying the stars

By Brad Hunter, Toronto Sun

Why are we fascinated with celebrities and who are the academics that have made studying stars like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt their life's work?

Why are we fascinated with celebrities and who are the academics that have made studying stars like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt their life's work?

Kim. Kanye. Jennifer. Brad. Madonna.

Celebrity culture has become so ubiquitous that we're on a first-name basis.

And for a growing coterie of academics, the study of that culture and its wider implications is a full-time pursuit.

Dr. Samita Nandy's life work has been putting stars under glass and drawing lines between the celeb bubble and the wider culture. "Celebrities give us an opportunity to self-reflect," the Toronto-based academic told 24 Hours. "And celebrity studies exist to draw on their stories and points of view."

Nandy is the director of the Centre for Media and Celebrity Studies, a virtual think-tank that has more than 1,600 members, and holds conferences around the world.

And what CMCS does is "shed light on the celebrity process behind the scant biographical details." It even publishes a Celebrity Studies journal.

Nandy was first drawn to the world of celebrities as a child watching the bold and colourful movies of Bollywood. Her inspiration? Nandy's own mother was an actress in the Indian movie machine.

And lest you think the lust for all thing celebrity is reserved for Englishspeaking countries, you'd be wrong. On magazine racks from Barcelona to Beijing, colourful tabloids scream out, gushing, flattering and shaming the local superstars.

But the game has changed.

While celebrity culture has ebbed and flowed over the decades, the emergence of social media has kicked open doors and windows into that world that weren't there before. And, as a result, Nandy says we've never been more intimate with the stars - and never have they been bigger.

"We now know the person a behind Kim Kardashian. We know a lot about what she likes, what she wears and what she doesn't like," Nandy said.

"Social media is letting us experience that culture in a different way, it's more personal."

A tidal wave of intimate snapshots on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter have eliminated the middle man of celeb-driven magazines and tabloids.

Holiday photos, behindthe-scenes moments, family interactions or shopping. The stars have circumvented the paparazzi at the post.

Social media has also led to what Nandy calls "Nanofame and micro-celebrity."

Madonna Kanye West and Kim Kardashian-West Nano-fame is the fruition of Andy Warhol's maxim that: "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." It is the province of the

Bachelor contestant who's booted after a couple episodes, or as The Simpsons satirized, the "I didn't do it, kid."

Except, according to Nandy, "15 minutes is now 15 seconds."

Micro-celebrity is reserved for the enterprising comics, jugglers and vloggers who live and die by YouTube. Nandy says they aren't in the Jennifer Aniston stratosphere but are famous nonetheless. Just less so.

"These people's fame doesn't transfer to traditional media. And you don't even have to be talented," Nandy said, adding that their fame is driven by social media and nothing else.

As for established stars, social media offers them - and their fans - a way to bypass paparazzi and the tabloid media. In some ways, that's good but in another way that approach is as unrealistic as an over-the-top tab headline, Nandy said.

"Social media offers a democratic platform to share what's not found elsewhere," Nandy said, adding that stars use social media to buff their reps. "It can help you be known for good deeds [see Angelina Jolie] rather than notoriety."

Nandy was quick to point out that social media plays a key role in connecting celebrities to wider issues. Whether it's Leo and the environment, Angelina and refugees or Lady Gaga supporting

LGBTQ rights, star power can make a difference.

Just a single tweet from Justin Bieber can trigger support for a worthy cause.

"Celebrity activists can get a cause noticed and help regular people understand complex issues," she said. "And it can help fans understand the person behind the celebrity."

Now, Nandy is turning her eyes northward for a new book entitled Fame in Hollywood North where she tackles celebrity culture in Canada. The book is out in August.

"Fame is very different in Canada," Nandy said, adding that Quebec is an outlier because of its national identity. "But we have had a profound influence on American culture."

Canadians are at once forced to be similar to Americans - and different. "Canadians are much more conservative than Americans but a little too prissy," she said. "Hopefully, some day soon we can ditch the prissiness."