Celebrity: A 21st-Century Story – 30 December 2020 – 30/12/2020 – Wednesday – BBC Two

Series 1 Episode 2 of 4

Charting fame in the late noughties, the second episode looks at the ways in which different groups cashed in on what had become a worldwide obsession with fame and the ways in which intimacy was being leveraged, both willingly and unwillingly, to feed the celebrity machine. Young celebrities were commoditised, criticised and discarded by the people who profited from them, until a new breed of celeb emerged, ready to wrest control back for themselves. Some would leverage their celebrity, not for fame but for political capital.

The story begins at the World Cup in 2006. This is usually football’s most prestigious competition. Yet in Baden-Baden, England’s greatest players were relegated to a mere sideshow. Unthinkable at earlier tournaments, the first few years of what had become the celebrity century had changed the game. Now the most in-demand members of the England camp were not Beckham’s boys but their wives and girlfriends, and everyone, from the press and paps to the WAGs themselves, was cashing in on the attention. Pictures sold for tens of thousands, tabloid circulation soared, and celebrity profiles skyrocketed.

The trend of wanting to see our idols’ every move had been kick-started by an American gossip magazine a few years earlier. The ‘Stars, they’re just like us!’ trend spread like wildfire, and suddenly the public were clamouring for pictures of people like Charlotte Church putting petrol in their cars, or even – shock, horror – eating food. British titles immediately picked up on the trend, celebrity magazine circulation exploded, and a paparazzi gold rush was born.

Familiarity began to breed contempt, and these celebrities found they had offered themselves up for scrutiny just as a new type of showbiz journalism was emerging to report on them. Digital sites like Popbitch, Holy Moly and Perez Hilton’s took a new, spikier tone, and things began to turn toxic. Where the internet led, the traditional media followed, and a race to the bottom ensued, with tabloids and bloggers alike seeking to outdo each other for the meanest headline or cruellest caption.

The world had become used to having access to all aspects of celebrities’ lives, and by the late noughties, nothing was off limits. When high profile celebs like Kerry Katona and Britney Spears were pushed to the point of breakdown, there was money being made from their misery.

But not everyone fell victim to this exploitative era – some, like the Kardashians, managed to play the game on their own terms. They marketed intimate access to their lives, becoming their own puppet masters and cashing in on countless endorsements and business deals. Within two years of their reality show launching, they out-earned some of the biggest names in Hollywood. But while some were leveraging their celebrity for money, others did so for power. Boris Johnson cashed in on a profile raised by primetime television and won the mayoral election – the first stepping stone to power – and Trump used a reality TV show to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the American public.

Twitter marked the end of a celebrity era when Michael Jackson’s death was announced on the platform – minutes before he actually died. It was the end for the old world of famous recluses and the birth of a new world in which people would use social media to experience celebrity news together. The relationship between the public, the press and celebrities was about to undergo a fundamental shift – one which would define the next decade.

Watch this episode online on BBC iPlayer

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About Celebrity: A 21st-Century Story

History series charting the explosion in celebrity culture.

This show is broadcast on BBC Two, also known as the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Latest Episodes of Celebrity: A 21st-Century Story

About BBC

BBC is an British television network, and is one of the main television networks in the United Kingdom. It broadcasts in English.

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