These days a great deal of the popular press is locked into a reciprocal and lucrative relationship with a wide variety of celebrities. The press needs stories (and above all else, photographs) of celebrities in order to sell their publications, while most celebrities need press coverage in order to maintain the public profile without which they would not be celebrities. In recent years this closed loop has reached its logical conclusion, resulting in complaints about celebrities who are ‘famous for being famous’, apparently having no public life or career beyond the pages of tabloid newspapers and gossip magazines.
Celebrity is a complex cultural concept (there is for an example, an entire academic journal, Celebrity Studies, dedicated to it), which takes different forms at different moments. However, in all its forms it has a specific history, and one which is inherently tied to the development of mass media. Celebrity in any recognisable form requires a mass media in order to create fame and instant recognition, as there can be no celebrity without an audience. Equally, before mass media and its creation of that audience, there was no real need for celebrities – they were an invention of the popular press and its need to appeal to segmented audiences who must be persuaded to buy each new issue. Celebrities whose star personae were carefully tailored to a particular audience proved to be an exceptionally successful and long-lasting way to attract regular buyers.
Late 19thC mass media – in Ireland and elsewhere – provides an opportunity to watch modern celebrity develop, as publications, advertisers, readers and the proto-celebrities themselves negotiated its form and purpose. The earliest category of famous individuals whose names (and later photographs) could sell newspapers were of course aristocrats. This was entirely logical, as they already possessed many of the characteristics which would later become associated with the celebrity format – they were drawn from a demarcated group whose very names, in the form of their titles, differentiated them from ordinary readers in a parallel fashion to the way that very famous modern celebrities’ very names are also brands. Aristocrats also lived lives of barely imaginable glamour (at least in theory, on the pages of newspapers and magazines), in castles and palaces, with carriages, servants, jewels and other luxuries. Perhaps most appealing of all to those following their lives in the press, they lived a life of permanent leisure. If the earlier Victorian period had struggled with the moral implications of leisure (and how it might be differentiated from idleness, which in the more religious times of the mid-19thC was of course a sin), then the late 19thC had fully resolved that struggle in favour of leisure as something to enjoyed at every opportunity. This could be seen in the rise of music halls, department stores, day-trip tourism and of course the media itself, which were all forms of entertainment which required leisure-time to enjoy. The reality for most people however was that their opportunities for leisure were still extremely limited. The majority of the population left school by 14 at the latest, the working week was typically still 6½ days, paid holidays were unusual, and the old age pension wasn’t introduced until 1909, so even retirement wasn’t a common experience. So fin-de-siècle culture was saturated with leisure activities which most people had a very limited chance to enjoy. The aristocracy’s life of total leisure, only emphasised by the ways they invented to fill it – moving from their country estate to their town-house and then on to the south of France according to the season, and attending court, country house parties, racing meets, grouse shooting or regattas as they went, all the while changing their clothes several times a day – was therefore a source of fascination in itself to over-worked readers of the popular press.
Women’s magazines and society papers, not surprisingly, were the most avid reporters of aristocratic celebrity. In Ireland, these included Lady of the House and Irish Society, among others. The two papers were different from each other in many respects – Lady of the House was more firmly positioned as a women’s magazine, and one which often expressed quite progressive social views, as well as catering to a slightly broader readership. Irish Society’s name probably speaks for itself – it focused entirely upon the activities and interests of the social elite, although it would have been read more broadly too, and that broader readership would have been specifically attracted by the high society lifestyles and individuals it reported on. Both magazines participated in the use of the aristocracy as proto-celebrities however, devoting considerable column inches to news of their lifestyles, fashions and travels. Although the activities of British (and even sometimes continental European) royalty and aristocrats featured fairly regularly, the Irish press tended to give much more attention to Irish aristocrats and the other upper-classes, with much of the narrative centring around the social life of Dublin Castle. In February 1903, for example, Lady of the House reported on the opening of that year’s ‘season’, which always began with the presentation of debutantes at the Castle. Under the headline ‘The First Dublin Drawing Room of the Season’, they printed a double-page photo spread of debutantes in their regulation white ball gowns. In the same issue there were reports of some of the ancillary social events of the season, including the information that ‘Mrs Garrett-Walker gave a ball at her residence, 38 Fitzwilliam Square. She is a daughter of Canon Leeper.’ Often there were minute descriptions of the precise gowns and jewels worn by each of the most important guests at these parties, along with general fashion commentary such as ‘The old-fashioned cut-work, which formed such an important Irish industry during the 1850s, is once more a la mode, and placed more prominently en evidence than of yore’. As the season wore on, and high society marriages were arranged, magazines such as Lady of the House and Irish Society covered those too. In January 1902, Irish Society informed its readers that ‘Miss Kathleen Blake Squires, youngest daughter of Mr WA Squires, of 61 Dartmouth Square, was married on Thursday last, the 2nd, to the Rev FC Day-Lewis, BA, senior curate of Stradbally, Queen’s County…’. As well as these local (and less illustrious) announcements, the magazine concerned itself too with events in the very highest circles, such as its announcement in the same issue that the Marquis of Bute was expected to come into his fortune (estimated at £6m, an immense figure) in that year.
Although publications which gave importance to high society would have actively monitored events such as the presentation of debutantes at the Castle court, it is worth noting that most of the information they published giving details of private parties or engagements and marriages – let alone formal photographs of debutantes and socialites in ball gowns – were supplied to the editors by the subjects themselves. Not that long before the end of the 19thC, the upper echelons of Irish (and British) society would have resisted publicity of this kind, especially for women, and seen it as a severe failing of etiquette and good breeding, but by the start of the 20thC it was becoming increasingly common for members of the upper class to be profiled in magazines, or even to endorse specific products in advertising. In women’s magazines in particular, profiles of and interviews with ‘notable women’ were a regular and popular feature. For example Lady of the House opened the new century with a series of aristocratic profiles under the remarkable title ‘Some Men’s Wives’, and just a few years later in 1904 produced an article on ‘The Ladies of the Guinness Family’, lavishly illustrated with photographs of Lady Gwendoline, Lady Evelyn and the Hon Mrs Ernest Guinness, all of whom frequently appeared in press as a result of their social position and philanthropic activities. Indeed, the increased public profile of many upper-class women by the turn of the 20thC was often predicated on their involvement in heavily-publicised charity events to raise money for good causes – another aspect of contemporary celebrity culture which can be traced to this era. In the 1890s a series of grand-scale ‘charity bazaars’ were held in Dublin in order to raise money for a range of hospitals in the city. These were lavish affairs (mainly held at the RDS) with music, performances, cafes and above all else, stage-set ‘villages’ in which each house was a stall selling souvenirs and goods, all of which were managed and staffed by society girls in full costume. Of these the most famous is the ‘Araby’ bazaar held in 1894 and immortalised in James Joyce’s story of that name. Staged over a week and attended by 80,000 people, ‘Araby’ was a significant popular event in the city from numerous perspectives, but at the time there is no doubt that most of the enormous free publicity it received from magazines such as Lady of the House was a result of its very public display of marriageable young women from the upper-middle-classes and aristocracy. The magazine covered ‘Araby’ obsessively, profiling each stall and its ‘lady stallholders’ in the run-up to the bazaar’s opening, and afterwards published many photographs of them in costume. Given that ‘Araby’ attracted a great many members of the public to buy tickets and attend it, it is not surprising that the press was able to use the bazaar’s proto-celebrity society girls to sell magazine copies.
Interviews with well-known women were also common in both women’s magazines and society papers. In 1902 Irish Society published a series of interviews collectively titled ‘Gentlewomen at Home’, including one with Lady Nixon, who was the wife of Sir Christopher Nixon, then the president of the Royal College of Physicians. Defined primarily by her husband, Lady Nixon was nevertheless interviewed also as the mistress of her grand home at 2 Merrion Square, and praised for her roles as a hostess, mother and philanthropist, the interview mentioning in some detail the charities whose committees she was a member of. An interviewee such as Lady Nixon was beyond reproach as a paragon of upper-class femininity, but many magazine interviews with ‘notable women’ were keen to emphasise their ladylike qualities – all the more so if the women were active beyond the domestic sphere. This tension, between the need to create a public profile for aristocratic women in order to mobilise their celebrity for sales, and the competing concern that publicity and a public life might undermine their respectable femininity, became more and more visible as the years went by and the categories of female celebrity expanded beyond the real aristocracy, whose rank alone provided considerable protection to their reputations.
As a result of this, many interviews with and profiles of famous women worked hard to emphasise their domesticity and traditional femininity. Subjects were typically interviewed in their own homes during ‘afternoon tea’, which prompted the commonly recurring headline for female celebrity interviews, ‘Over the Teacups’, a phrase used for decades by many different magazines to conjure a cosy domestic tone. These highly-staged domestic interviews not only worked to underline their subjects’ femininity, but also allowed readers a pleasing glimpse into their homes. This concern about the effect of a public life upon the private reputation of female celebrities was especially evident in 1892 when Lady of the House included Maude Gonne in a society news column called ‘What Women Are Doing’ and added rather anxiously that, ‘Whatever may be said against Miss Gonne’s politics and methods…no man or woman can otherwise breathe a word against her…she has never been known for a moment to lose or jeopardise her self-respect as a woman’.
As time went on, the categories of women profiled and interviewed in women’s magazines expanded to include more and more non-aristocrats. As women began (very gradually) to enter higher education and the professions, relatively progressive magazines like Lady of the House began to profile some of them, and interviews ‘over the teacups’ appeared with ‘lady graduates’ and ‘lady doctors’. Stage performers such as Lillie Langtry or Nellie Melba also achieved a very modern form of celebrity in the pages of popular magazines, as their glamorous lives were profiled and ever-more photographed. Famed now for their beauty, talent and lifestyles rather than for their birth and breeding, they slowly began to edge out the aristocratic celebrities, a process which was rapidly accelerated by the arrival of film as the dominant leisure culture which would create ‘stars’ of actresses who no longer needed to emphasise their domesticity or traditional femininity. New publications dedicated to film star news, photographs and gossip had begun to emerge by the end of World War One, the forerunners of today’s magazines dedicated to celebrity culture.