'Where are the next Tom Cruises?': how the internet changed celebrity

Who is the most famous person in the world? According to Google – top of “1,040,000,000” answers – is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the wrestler turned movie star whose brand of brawny justice can be seen in Jumanji, Moana and the Fast & Furious franchise. If this doesn’t seem totally impossible, it feels muddled: why is this according to an Australian website called New Idea? Why is the accompanying picture of Michael Jackson? When you pause for a second, it becomes strangely clear. Chaotic, weirdly sourced, plain wrong in parts but somehow still making sense: this is as good a reflection of modern fame as any.

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We live in a fame-saturated age, and we’ve known this for some time. What is striking now is that there are so many stars, or “stars”, that the celebrity universe really does look like a large black blanket of sky, filled with thousands of similarly sized flickering dots. From actors to influencers to YouTubers to presidents and prime ministers, we have all, as Andy Warhol said, still got 15 minutes of fame in us (or 15 seconds, if you’re using TikTok). And it sometimes feels as if these celebrities are operating in separate galaxies. At the start of this year, one of the wilder rumours to emerge was that Kanye West, holed up in Wyoming, was cheating on Kim Kardashian with Jeffree Star (an allegation that Star has since robustly denied). For a good many people, their first reaction may well have been: OK, Kanye, but who the hell is Jeffree Star?

The answer is less trivial than you’d think. Star, for the uninitiated, is an androgynous YouTube makeup oracle who boasts 16.7 million subscribers on his channel and 14 million Instagram followers. Whether you knew of Star or not could indicate your age, sexuality, politics; or that you loved makeup (as is also the case with similarly popular YouTuber James Charles). We live now in a world where somebody can have nearly 17 million subscribers on YouTube and plenty of people can have no clue who they are.

Likewise, there is a similar jolt when you discover that a song by Olivia Rodrigo, Drivers License, has hit No 1 in the US, amassing 100m streams in eight days – a record. Rodrigo may be the star of a Disney+ show (the puzzlingly titled High School Musical: The Musical: The Series), but you would have had little chance of seeing her coming. As music critic Spencer Kornhaber wrote in The Atlantic, “Broadcast to an atomized teen audience consuming media in its bedrooms, Rodrigo has the kind of fame that remains invisible to large swaths of the population – until something like Drivers License bubbles up and becomes ubiquitous all at once.”

What does it all mean? Well, firstly, yes: you’re probably getting old. But also, secondly, whereas once the assumption would be that a celebrity would be so universally well-known that they could unite us, today that assumption seems thoroughly naive. The main culprit for this fragmentation is obvious: social media. Chris Rojek, a professor at City University who has written extensively on the subject, points to a famous article by sociologist Leo Lowenthal, who in 1944 studied how fame was attributed. In the late 19th century, it was scientists, writers and politicians who got the most column inches; by the 1920s, they were replaced by sportsmen and silent film writers. “The primary reason for that was radio and film – technology changed people’s focal point,” he says.

A hundred years later, the ginormous technological advances of the 21st century have changed people’s focal point again – or rather atomised that focal point, dispersing itself among hundreds and thousands of different faces on highly individualised channels. “We’ve moved from a kind of Hollywood system … where stars were created by moguls and public relations experts, to a DIY kind of celebrity where there are people around us who create websites and build followings,” Rojek says.

This is not news, though. What has been accelerated in the last year is our increased rate of consumption online. As most of culture has shut down, with venues and galleries closing our attention has been hogged by two things: social media and streaming services. In the New Idea article, for instance, the entry on the Rock explains that his fame was due to his acting, adding at the end, almost innocuously, “His Instagram is full of workout videos, diet tips, and funny posts that keep him connected with fans of all ages.” This is no cute list of hobbies: this is the bread and butter of fame today.

Nowhere is this more visible than in the rise of TikTok. Indeed, in many ways, Instagram is the conservative, establishment platform now; instead it’s the mini-video app that emphasises how stardom can develop in parallel universes. The most famous crossover case so far is Charli D’Amelio, who, aided by sister Dixie, has accrued 108 million followers. TikTok is the latest stage you can’t ignore: the musician SZA, for instance, finally created an account last month when a snippet of one of her unreleased songs became a viral craze for a week. “Yall I don’t know how to work this yet but bare w me lmaoooo,” she wrote, possibly aware that, aged 30, she is beyond the usual demographic.

The other big winners have been streamers, which have gobbled up the attention we would usually also give to blockbusters. “[Being on] their really good shows is the real currency of fame,” says Ivana Giachino, a talent booking agent who facilitates brand partnerships between celebrities and the likes of Cartier, Omega and Dom Perignon. As such, she is well placed to know how much fame is valued, in pounds and pence. When it comes down to measuring it, she says, “It’s still a mix … but, mainly, I do think it’s the analytics of a social media following.” Essentially, to thrive online, it’s not just about having followers (though it helps – Cristiano Ronaldo, Ariana Grande and the Rock are currently Instagram’s top three individuals), it’s about how much engagement you get from them.

A chief question is whether all of this will manage to grind other, more old-school ways of mediating fame into oblivion. Hollywood, for instance, is rattled by a crisis that has removed its machinery. When a Tom Cruise rant on the set of Mission: Impossible leaked last December, telling crew off for allegedly not being strict on social distancing, he was nominally getting irate about saving cinema. After all, cinema was the system that created him. “Tom Cruise is nearly 60,” says Rojek. “Where are the next Cruises?” Rojek doesn’t believe there are “generational stars” any more, who cross boundaries as easily as they used to. Giachino, though, says that Hollywood still has plenty of clout, and suggests Timothée Chalamet as a potential new Cruise: “He’s an amazing actor, but also cool.”

Yet the feeling remains that Chalamet will have to do an awful lot more films to get to that level. He could post on Instagram, sure, but he “only” has 11.7 million followers on that, and many of his generation prefer TikTok. Perhaps he’s holding out for a new platform, or perhaps he’s innocently hoping he can wait it all out. What is true in the meantime is that fewer and fewer new stars seem to unite generations, and this brings us back to our original question: who is the most famous person in the world? “I know who wanted to be,” Rojek volunteers. “Trump.”

It would be lovely to write an article about fame in 2021 and to not talk about Donald Trump, but it would be staggeringly naive. Trump comes third on that New Idea ranking, after the Rock and Will Smith, and ahead of Michael Jackson and Drake. He has mastered the art of contemporary celebrity, as his is a hybrid fame, accumulated from decades of monopolising every platform. Firstly he was an ogre stalking the pages of Vanity Fair, then he got into reality TV, then Twitter, and then, as we know, the White House.

There is hope, though. For many, the defining celebrity of the last year was footballer Marcus Rashford, who has leveraged his fame to hold the government to account (as well as bag huge contracts with Nike and Burberry). Rihanna is another example of someone who has adapted seamlessly to this century, shifting from pop icon to beauty mogul; she reminds us that you can get famous from something old-fashioned, but it must always be a launchpad from which to diversify. Cut to now, and she’s tweeting about India’s farmers’ protests. Such interventions remind us that to be a proper star these days, engagement – not just from fans but from the star – is key. Brands and audiences want more “authentic” faces who “stand for something”, Giachino explains. “Covid has heightened this. Whether it’s climate change, BLM, mental health – the world has changed.” What’s more, she points out, identity is really important. “We need to be able to relate [to someone] whether you’re 40, 60 or 19.”

And, viewed from this angle, is the dispersal of celebrity so bad? If you believe in the politics of diversity, then surely a diversity of stars is welcome too, a galaxy where you can zone in on your Kims, Kanyes or Jeffree Stars, according to your age, race, sexuality or gender? Perhaps a first worry here, though, is that celebrity unites us less than before – which to many feels discombobulating. Yet more alarming is that, even faced with this smorgasbord of fame, we never seem sated. Even if you find the celeb tailor-made for you, another will appear soon who seems that little bit more appetising.

“The logical situation in laws of supply and demand is when you have an excess of supply – lots of celebrities – the demand for them will go down,” says Rojek. “But the difference is that the technologies are geared up in such a way that novelty is built into them.” As we constantly refresh for new content, we are being asked to refresh our celebrities. Fussing about who the new famous faces are seems a bit childish; it’s the platforms that matter now. For instance, what is the Instagram account with the most followers? It’s Instagram’s itself, with 387m. Not very reassuring. It almost makes you want to cling to the certainties of the Rock.