What does Kim Kardashian have that you and I ain’t got? Before you hit me with a snide, “go look in the mirror, Brucie boy,” I’ll sweeten the pot. What’s Donny Deutsch got? How about Thomas Friedman? Piers Morgan? Paris Hilton? What do they have that we don’t?
Are they smarter then I am? Well…yeah, Thomas Friedman is. I’d bet Deutsch is, too. Are they better looking? Deutsch and Hilton are, for sure. Are they better at what they do? Again, most of them might be, but Kardashian and Hilton? Please. They don’t do anything to begin with anyway.
So, how come we all know who they are and what they do and yet most people wouldn’t know me if I passed them on the street?
As far as I can figure, there are a few levels of fame and success that are pretty easy to document but not necessarily emulate. They’re the Three “C”s of Celebrity: Circumstance, Competence, and Creation.
Captain Chesley Sullenberger is a Circumstance Celebrity. Sully was pushed to fame and celebrity success the day he safely ditched US Airways flight #1549 in the Hudson River in New York. Is Sullenberger a hero? Of course. Is he a good pilot? Of course.
But is Sully a better pilot than most of the commercial pilots that safely crisscross the country every day? More to the point, is he a better pilot than the officer who was sitting next to him in the co-pilot’s seat that day? Is he an even better than my pilot friends Richard Kane or Tom Cowan? None of us know. And none of us care. Sullenberger is a celebrity because his heroic action on that fateful day saved all 155 lives on his aircraft.
Being a Circumstance Celebrity is an impossible thing to plan. You can prepare for greatness, but there’s no guarantee that the lightning will ever strike. Sullenberger might have trained for an emergency, but he didn’t plan for his brush with fame. Celebrity was suddenly thrust on him by — you guessed it — circumstance.
John Mayer is a Competence Celebrity. He’s a great songwriter and a good singer and a pretty good-looking kid, to boot. He’s got an arm full of trendy tattoos, a head full of wavy locks, a bed full of hot starlets, and a mouth full of stupid comments. And — oh yeah — he’s a damn good guitar player.
But is he a better guitar player than his guitar-picking peers such as John Bonamassa, Kenny Wayne Sheppard or Jonny Lang? For that matter, is Mayer any better than my incredible guitar-playing friends Josh Chasner, Albert Castigilia or Josh Rowand? Again, none of us know. What we do know is that Mayer is a big celebrity because of his guitar playing and his life.
That means that becoming a Competence Celebrity is a tough row to hoe, too. Of course it requires talent, commitment, and perseverance, but making it on talent calls for something else, as well — timing, luck, contacts, opportunity, and that star quality that makes people want to see you do your thing.
Finally, there’s the Created Celebrity. But here the classification bifurcates because there are two clearly different types of Created Celebrity – the Talented Celebrity and the Lucky Celebrity.
Michael Jordan fits the first category of Created Celebrities. Of course Jordan’s a Competence Celebrity too, but a lot of his success came because of the amount of money Nike invested in his brand. From what I understand, Jordan signed a contract with Nike about the same time that Dominique Wilkins signed his contract with Pony. Both players’ deals were for about the same amount of money. But the big difference was that Jordan’s contract included a requirement that Nike spend money promoting him while Wilkins’ contract did not force Pony to do the same. And so years after their slam-dunk rivalry is a memory, Jordan is still a big star and Wilkins…? When was the last time you heard anything about him?
The second subset of Created Celebrities is the Lucky Celebrity. These are the people who should fall down on their knees and thank their lucky stars every single day for their unlikely success. I’m talking about the Kardashian clan, for example, and well as the unlikely cast of the Jersey Shore and Paris Hilton. They’re all popular and lots of people seem to care passionately about what they do, but few of us can actually understand why. It seems as if these celebrities are just famous because they’re famous.
Sometimes celebrities transcend their category and move between them. Justin Timberlake started his career as a laughable Created Celebrity in the boy band ‘N Sync. But even their insipid performances couldn’t dilute Timberlake’s outsized talent; instead, his prodigious abilities propelled him squarely into the Competence category.
By the way, up isn’t the only way to go in celebrity categories. Bruce Jenner started his public career in the Competence category, setting the world record and winning gold in the decathlon at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Now, thanks to his willingness to expose the goings-on of his extended — and dysfunctional — family on Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Jenner’s kept his star shining by sliding solidly into the lucky group.
Before you think this blog is an attack on those people who have made it big in spite of their lack of talent, think again. What I’m really fascinated by is how people get to the place where we all know who they are without the obvious assets you’d think they’d need to succeed, such as talent or brains. Their public capital – the ability to sell products and services and promote their thoughts and ideas – increases significantly with their celebrity status. To me, figuring out how to get people to both know, and care, about who you are and what you do — regardless of how well you do it — is an increasingly crucial part of modern branding.
After all, as David Bowie sang all those years ago, “Fame, it’s not your brain, it’s just the flame.”