Celebrity is Harder to Escape Than You Think

Nicholas Hune-Brown is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist who has written for Toronto Life, The Walrus, Reader’s Digest, The...

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Edward Furlong wasn’t looking for fame. In 1990, the 12-year-old was hanging out on the steps of the Boys & Girls Club in Pasadena when a casting director approached him. The kid had the right face. Would he think about auditioning for a role? The movie was Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and the unknown Furlong was cast as John Connor—the adorable scamp and future saviour of the world who teaches Arnold’s Schwarzenegger’s roided-up robot some questionable slang and, also, exactly why humans cry.

Furlong had never been in a blockbuster before. He’d never acted at all. Now, suddenly, he was everywhere—the heartthrob on the cover of teen magazines, a model for Calvin Klein and the Gap. He was big in Japan, singing a shlocky cover of a Doors song. He was in the video for Aerosmith’s “Livin’ on the Edge” as a teenage badass—crashing a stolen car and contemptuously throwing away the condom his dad had just given him. He was very, very famous.

That success disappeared almost as quickly as it materialized. Throughout the ‘90s Furlong acted in some small indie films. In 1997, he starred in Pecker and American History X. Then he sort of drifted away, appearing in a few minor pictures, then a few straight-to-DVD movies. He had serious substance abuse problems. Today, when he appears in the news, it’s for a drug problem or a new arrest. His name is usually prefixed with “troubled actor.”

The Furlong story is, to most people, the quintessential story of fame. Celebrity is ephemeral, fleeting. A star is born and then extinguished in the next media cycle, as an impatient public latches onto the next fresh young thing. A college athlete makes a splash in one tournament, then disappears from the public eye. A reality-TV star’s name is on everyone’s lips for one season before disappearing again as the industry churns out the next serving of fresh meat—a new Real Housewife or Teen Mom. One month Chesley Sullenberger is everywhere, the next we couldn’t even pick him out of a mustachioed police lineup, much less care to remember he ever landed that plane on the Hudson. The fickle public pays attention for fifteen minutes, then it’s on to the next one.

Or not. A recent study published in the American Sociological Review, led by Eran Shor from McGill University in Montreal and Arnout van de Rijt of Long Island’s Stony Brook University, questions this assumption. Fame, after all, is a scarce resource that, despite many people’s protestations, remains highly desirable. It’s also, obviously, unequally distributed: very few people, after all, are well-known beyond their circle of friends and family. Other scarce resources with unequal distribution—power, wealth, status—tend to be characterized by low mobility. Wealth and political power aren’t fleeting; they’re self-reinforcing. A head start snowballs into an insurmountable advantage. In traditional “stratification systems,” these kinds of hierarchies are very stable, with little turnover. Why would fame be any different?

To test this, the researchers combed through thousands of newspapers, annotating the number of times individual names were mentioned in a year. If fame was fleeting, you would see a high turnover, with new names regularly finding their way into print, only to be replaced by someone else the next year.

At low levels of fame, the researchers did find this to be true. Names seem to jump into public consciousness and then quickly disappear. These kinds of people, the study suggests, are those who have found notoriety for a specific event. A man rescues someone from the subway tracks and makes news for a week, or a player hits an incredible game-winning shot and then disappears back into relative obscurity.

Once fame is decoupled from an event, however, it was surprisingly lasting. Of all the people who were referenced at least 100 times in 2008, 96 percent of them had already been in the news three years earlier. Fame is so persistent that even a decade after their first newspaper mentions, the most famous names still haven’t reached their peak. Big fame, it turns out, is very stable.

In fact, once someone has captured the public’s attention, the self-reinforcing nature of fame makes a return to obscurity nearly impossible. Indeed, the person’s fame entirely transcends the domain in which they became famous. Sports stars become TV hosts. Comedians become senators. Movie stars launch clothing lines. Kanye West delivers amazing quotes to late-night talk show hosts.

When it comes to fame, then, Edward Furlong isn’t the rule, he’s the exception. The better exemplar is his Terminator 2 costar. Arnold Schwarzenegger flexed his way into public consciousness as a grinning, glistening collection of baby-oiled muscles. From that initial recognition—being famous for his pecs—he has built a career that has nothing to do with the world of competitive body building. He was an action hero, then Governor of California, then a bestselling author, and now, again, a film actor. Like one of his muscle-bound characters, the Governator’s celebrity has been impossible to eradicate. His fame is indestructible. He couldn’t kill it now, even if he tried.

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