everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame but what about those who make theirs last a lifetime?
The famous for famous are always performing their own lives for us, and that says a lot about how we live now. They seem to absorb every form of popular entertainment, and seep across every available surface of culture. Everyone wants to be them or...
What is pop today? I would say that all those famous-for-being-famous celebrities that everyone is constantly discussing - the Kendall Jenners and the Kim Kardashians - are the new pop. Their bodies are pop. Their lives are pop. So this is an essay about the famous-for-being-famous, the sort of celebrity that doesn't really do anything, and how they have become the heart of contemporary pop culture.
Their bodies are pop because in recent times body-parts themselves have become famous. It began with the red circles of shame that glossy magazines like to use to highlight the exact parts of minor celebrities' bodies that most displease them. At the same time other fleshly forms were exalted, held up as something to aspire to: the hip bone, the ostentatiously protruding leg, the thigh gap (it's worth noting here that Cara Delevingne's thigh gap has its own Twitter account), and most recently the thigh brow. Even prostheses can cause a stir, for instance Donald Trump's wig is very famous nowadays.
But of course I'm missing out the most important part of any respectable famous-for-being-famous body: the booty. 2014 was declared by many pop-cultural commentators to be "the year of the ass" (or arse), particularly that of Kim Kardashian. It is unlikely that, throughout all of history, there has been another arse that has evinced as much fascination as hers. And really what has happened to it? On one occasion, in order to debunk rumours that she'd had implants, a doctor appearing on Kim's reality show was asked to X-ray her posterior and thus prove that there was no evidence of any foul play. Nonetheless it is an astoundingly, implausibly shaped thing. Recently, at a dinner party at Miami Art Basel, Kim was overheard joking across the table that her bottom was a "work of art".
Celebrity bottoms are everywhere and their vibrating, globular forms even caught the attention of much vaunted French contemporary artist Camille Henrot, winner of the Silver Lion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, who has recently completed a cycle of watercolours of dancing nudes inspired by Nicki Minaj's Anaconda video. By way of explanation, she told the Guardian, "Minaj is portraying the sexuality of women, the wild woman. The dance is quite shamanistic and entrancing - she is challenging us to embrace our primal nature… I love the scene when she is working out in a gym in the jungle, and the ridiculousness of it all. I think she is deliberately likening herself to a Barbie, and the fastidiousness of being plastic and fake. She's making herself a caricature of what people want her to be." Surely the same could also be said of Kim, that she is somehow transforming herself into an exaggerated physical manifestation of our contemporary mores and carnal desires. But at the same time she also offers a much healthier, more realistic body image than we've grown accustomed to in the fashion, movie, and music industries.
At the moment, of course, it's Kim's heavily pregnant body that is keeping her in all the gossip columns, and this completes a rather fitting circle of life because her famous-for-being-famousness blossomed with the leaking of her sex tape in 2007 and through the intervening years she has been transformed from sex object into fertility symbol, and grown into the most commented-upon body in the world. Perhaps her arse really is a work of art, because it certainly belongs in a historical museum of 21st-century artefacts. After all, for a long time artists have been suggesting that the body is a pop object. That's what was happening when Andy Warhol screen-printed those iconic, close-up portraits of Michael Jackson, and, later, when Jeff Koons produced those preposterous sculptures of himself having sex with his Italian-Hungarian porn star wife Cicciolina.
It's been noted before that if Instagram were a country its 300 million inhabitants would make it the fourth largest in the world, and that of its ten most popular accounts four belong to the same family: the Jenner-Kardashians. They are the most famous-for-being-famous personalities around, and their stories appear to encompass the contemporary American dream in all its beauty and horror. Consider the two patriarchs of the family: businessman and attorney Robert Kardashian made much of the family fortune successfully defending O.J. Simpson in his notorious murder trial, which brought so many of the nation's simmering racial prejudices and divisions to the surface; and Olympian hero Bruce Jenner is now Caitlyn Jenner who has become a universally beloved icon of LGBTQ rights. But that's far from all. Think of all the millions of dollars, all the pregnancies, drugs, and divorces. Their lives are pop at its most grandiose, and that is why they're famous: for existing in a way that we find captivating and hypnotic.
Our contemporary fascination with the everyday also transcends the world of celebrity. Art critic Jerry Saltz, the outspoken and infinitely wise oracle of high art and low pop, recently spoke in praise of Selfish, comparing the results to a great work of literature: "Selfish is a kind of American My Struggle - that's Karl Ove Knausgaard's epic, not Hitler's. I mean, a chorus of one, written in a personal language of compassion, infinite theatre, stage sets, set-pieces, ceremony, shallowness, despairs, self-awareness, sexuality, unable to curtail one's selfishness and obsession with one's own image. Extras enter and leave the stage, but photography, rather than writing, as homeopathic medicament, remedy, used to relieve and express painful malaise." Now Karl Ove Knausgaard, if you haven't heard of him, is a Norwegian novelist and the literary phenomenon of the moment because of his internationally bestselling and vast My Struggle. It is a very long autobiographical story spread across thousands of words and six volumes, and what makes it so unusual is that the writing is ordinary to the point of clunkiness - unpretentious, and horribly honest in its descriptions of the author's everyday life, which is just as banal as the Kardashians', if not much, much more so. The second book opens with a hundred-page-long passage in which Karl Ove describes in flabbergasting detail attending a child's birthday party with his daughters, where he doesn't enjoy the cake prepared by his uptight Swedish hosts because the icing doesn't have enough sugar in it. Other times he talks about what he's buying at the supermarket, or throwing in the bin. And somehow it's not boring at all, it's absolutely thrilling.
Through Selfish, and My Struggle, and all of our Facebooks and Instagrams, the uneventful and quotidian has become pop culture. So much of pop has always been about day-to-day life; well now it just is day-to-day life - pictures of your breakfast and things like that.
Because what do the Jenner-Kardashians actually do? From watching their shows it appears that they mostly run errands. They're always performing their own lives for us, and somehow that says a lot about how we live now. It seems that everyone wants to be them, or else sleep with them, or else laugh at them. They've become avatars for our own fantasies, and they pop up all over the place like genies let out of lamps: on television shows and in video games like Hollywood, across the surrealist absurdities of tabloid magazine covers noisily decrying things like "My Butt Won't Stop Growing!", inside coffee table books and in fashion campaigns, on catwalks and in front rows and outside after-parties, in homemade pornography and articles such as this, on motorcycles in music videos like Bound 2, and at dinners thrown in their honour at Miami Art Basel. The family seems to absorb every form of popular entertainment, and seep across every available surface of culture. Super-curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist has never looked happier than when snapping a selfie with Kim.
Where did they come from, the likes of Khloe Kardashian (all the Kardashians), Kylie Jenner (all the Jenners), Paris and Nicky Hilton, Jack and Kelly Osbourne, Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt? I think for a long while we've been more interested in the lives of the famous than whatever it was that originally made them famous - who doesn't enjoy a scandal, a mouthful of salacious gossip? - it's just that in the past it was difficult to become famous without having a talent. Not so much anymore. First reality shows and sex tapes, and then social networks, have changed all that. The actual coining of the phrase "famous for being famous" is usually attributed to British journalist, author and World War II spy Malcolm Muggeridge who wrote in 1967 in the introduction to one of his books that, "In the past if someone was famous or notorious, it was for something - as a writer or an actor or a criminal; for some talent or distinction or abomination. Today one is famous for being famous. People who come up to one in the street or in public places to claim recognition nearly always say: 'I've seen you on the telly!'"
Not so much has changed then because nearly half a century later all of the truly famous-for-being-famous have starred in their own reality shows. These shows changed everything. Programmes like Big Brother (which I used to think about entering every year) made it increasingly possible for very ordinary people to appear on television, for everyone to enjoy their fifteen minutes. At the same time they exposed the flimsiness of much of modern celebrity, most memorably when Essex girl-next-door Chantelle Houghton convinced her fellow contestants that she was a pop star in the opening episodes of Celebrity Big Brother in 2006. By the end of the series she was a celebrity of sorts, and still shows up in the glossies sometimes. All this happened a couple of years after the Paris Hilton sex tape (One Night In Paris) appeared in 2004. It was roughly a decade ago, times were changing, and the famous-for-being-famous were rising, and they have yet to come down.
A more upsetting example of the famous-for-being-famous is Donald Trump and his golden fleece of pretend-hair, because really it was The Apprentice that made him into this pantomime caricature of himself and catapulted that so deeply into the American subconscious. Now he has become such a ridiculous, utterly crackers political proposition that he might even be elected president, and could, subsequently, face off against Kanye in 2020, to win a second term.
Returning to the conundrum of the Jenner-Kardashians, "What is it that they actually do?" Well, in addition to running errands and simply existing in their weird, vaguely desirable and dream-like lives, they are also coming up with new forms of pop. Jerry Saltz, again, recounted recently, "Last year, when I wrote about Kim and Kanye, I said I was 'struck dumb' by the 'collective cultural fracturing' that they actually seemed to be engineering, and doing it with the blatant biraciality of their combined meme, and with grandiosity, sincerity, kitsch, irony, theatre, and ideas of spectacle, privacy, fact, and fiction. All that had compressed into some new essence, an essence that they seemed to be shaping as surely and strangely as Andy Warhol once formed his." In other words he's suggesting that they are today's pop artists, and he's correct.
Because regardless of why they became famous, they are continuously reinventing what it is to perform fame to us, and undertaking this task with a manic, madly inventive theatricality in which everything they do seems unusual. Think of their decision to wander around the grounds of the Château d'Ambleville with Juergen Teller collaborating on, um, just a really bizarre photo shoot that involved Kim rolling around in the dirt and hanging off yellow tractors in flesh-coloured underpants. What was that? Or their impressively pompous and decadent wedding party at Versailles, or the fact that they named their baby daughter North West and took her to Paris to sit front row at Balenciaga, or that time Kim attempted to take a selfie with a Thai elephant and ran away when it blew air out of its trunk at her, or that other time when she had a blood facial and posted a picture of her face absolutely covered in blood. These are strange, almost ritualistic and magical things to do. At the height of their powers the famous-for-being-famous perform fame as nobody has really done before, and not hidden behind closed doors but out in the open for all to observe. They are perfect pop stars for the age of over-sharing.
Text Dean Kissick
Photography Jon Rawlinson