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Arts and Entertainment

Britney's Snacks, Paris' Tweets, and the Idea of Hollywood: An Interview with 'Starstruck' Author Elizabeth Currid-Halkett

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Welcome to Los Angeles, known to many as the place where dreams come true. While we might be in line for a Frappucino next to Miley Cyrus one day, then seeing a paparazzi shot of a Twilight star pumping gas ("They pump their own gas!") on a glossy page of a gossip rag while waiting at the doctor's office, here we live in a curious world of celebrity, no matter how distant the proximity.

The world loves celebrity, and celebrities, and celebs love to be loved. So what is a celebrity? Are all famous people celebrities? How does celebrity actually work? USC Professor Elizabeth Currid-Halkett is the author of a new book, Starstruck, which breaks down the system and mechanics of celebrity. We had the opportunity to throw Currid-Halkett some questions about her book, Hollywood--geographically and conceptually, social media, and old school celeb crushes.

LAist: What prompted you to explore celebrity in such depth? Have you always had more than just a passing interest in celebrities?

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Elizabeth Currid-Halkett: When I wrote my first book (The Warhol Economy) I was fascinated with how people became “the best” in the creative industries. Because art, fashion, music and film are taste-driven and subjectively measured more than other industries, I was curious as to what it meant to be considered highly talented and/or successful in these fields. Those who did achieve such accolades were, in common parlance, stars or celebrities. Unlike being a world class surgeon or lawyer, being a fantastic film actor or Grammy winning musician meant that most of the world knew you and fans developed a strong interest in all aspects of your persona. Celebrity gossip interests me as much as the next person (I certainly read more than my fair share of US Weekly and OK!). However, my interest in celebrity is more intellectual - I find it to be a fascinating and ubiquitous social phenomenon and I am interested in the processes by which people become stars.

What is the difference between "Hollywood" and Los Angeles?
Hollywood is an idea. Los Angeles is the place where the creation of Hollywood the idea and the brand happen. Anyone who has actually been to the geographically-specified Hollywood knows it’s a bit rundown, seedy and not in any meaningful way aligned with the global conception of Hollywood. The business of creating stars and their accoutrements occurs in Los Angeles more generally, oddly quite removed from Hollywood the place.

Is "Hollywood" considered the top-most tier in the global echelon of celebrity?
Yes and no. By Hollywood I am going to discuss LA more generally because the geographic boundaries of Hollywood are too specific to fully capture the film and entertainment industry’s presence in the city. So yes, according to my (and my colleague Gilad Ravid’s) Getty Images database of entertainment photographs LA is the most photographed place in the world. And statistically speaking it is strongly associated with a star’s media presence. However, the statistical results also demonstrate that for “industry-prestige”, LA is less influential. “Industry-prestige” is our measure of how important a star is to the film industry in terms of box office receipts and ability to draw other talent,. So yes, spending time in LA is a good idea in order to get written up in the media and it is where lots of very important events occur but top industry stars tend to strike out and show up in far flung places like Tokyo or Australia. Partially this can be explained because LA is not a “unique” place to show up - everyone in show business has to be here. So the real test of A-list status is being photographed in other places too. That said, because all the stars pass through LA, the paparazzi, media and photographers are always here and of course they are how a star gets in the news.

In Starstruck, you talk about the earlier years of the movie industry and how stars were handled differently, and compare that with how celebrity happens/functions now. When, chronologically, do you see the shift as happening? Were there any specific changes in society, the industry, technology, etc. that you believe made this shift happen?

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The ubiquitous gossip rag
Well, there was the breakdown of the studio system in the early 1950s and the decline of star system by the 1960s which broke up the control that big studios had over their stars. But I think that the evolution into modern celebrity is more recent. The rise of online media and the 24/7 news cycle catalyzed the 24/7 gossip cycle and these developments were the real game changers because we started to want different things from our celebrities. Suddenly, we didn’t have to wait a whole week for the new installment of People magazine. Also, because blogs and paparazzi sites began to report on an almost minute-by-minute basis they weren’t just reporting on events and galas and ball gowns - they started posting on where Paris Hilton picked up a latte at noon on a Tuesday or where The Hills girls were going shopping or a picture of Britney Spears with a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. I think it was really Janis Min, the former editor-in-chief of US Weekly, who figured it out: When all the photographs would come in for the magazine, she found herself drawn to the more banal images of stars going about their lives. She started the “Stars - They’re Just Like Us” section of the magazine and it was such a hit that almost every other major celebrity tabloid has followed suit. Then of course celebrities started using Twitter, whereby they also fed fans what one might think were totally uninteresting updates. At the outset, this would all seem so bizarre - why would we care about these things? But as time passed we just became even more obsessed with the minutia of our stars’ lives. I think we can explain this obsession partially as a side effect of an increasingly globalized and anonymous world where we find certain topics and information we can all bond over. Celebrity is the global water cooler.You talk about Facebook and Twitter and the role they play. I'm curious, and using your distinctions, do you think a "famous" or "talented" person should use social networking tools for their careers? Do you think Twitter, etc. lets fans "humanize" or "normalize" celebs, or does their act of being "human" or "normal" on a public forum like Twitter fuel their fans' adoration even more? Is Twitter a legitimate way to bring people closer to celebs, or is it more of a device?
The real distinction to make is whether one is using online platforms to distribute information about an upcoming show or release of a new film (talent) or what they had for breakfast (celebrity)

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Celebri-twitting
I think those who use social media to distribute information about their “talent” makes a lot of professional sense. Facebook and MySpace (for music) allow talented people in entertainment industries to let their fans know about upcoming shows, new albums, media coverage etc.But using social and online media for celebrity is different. Modern celebrity is very much about our collective obsession with particular individuals as people (thus transcending their talent). Celebrity’s essence involves humanizing our stars and attaining access to their prosaic existence. And Twitter accomplishes this transmittal of information seamlessly. But the question is why does a star, or aspiring star, want their anonymous fans to know where they’re going to dinner/what shoes they just bought/what mood they were in when they woke up from their afternoon nap? And why do we, the anonymous fans, want to know? Twitter has enabled stars to go from icons of perfection, whom we admired from a distance, to people whose daily lives we know more about than those of our good friends. Twitter is totally legitimate in accomplishing this particular facet of modern celebrity.

As a USC professor, do you see celebrity culture having an increasing influence on the young people you work with? How about among your fellow faculty?
I wouldn’t say I observe this trend in the classroom. My students rarely, if ever, mention celebrities. But then again, our class discussions don’t really lend themselves to celebrity culture.

What's your favorite place to write in Los Angeles?
At my kitchen table or in bed. My husband has an advanced office set up for me at home but I find I’m more creative in less formalized settings. Sometimes 10 hours will have whizzed by without me even noticing and I’ve managed to write 15 pages without even making an attempt of sitting at a desk. If I have to do copy edits, revisions or data analysis I find my office at USC is best. The bigger screen is helpful for going through pesky track changes.

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Who was your teenage celebrity crush? Do you look at them differently now?
Um, Johnny Depp, obviously! In the late teen and early 20s years it was Ed Norton. I don’t have a crush on them at all anymore. They are really talented actors and in that respect I still admire them but as one gets older personality and intelligence are more important, both of which are hard to discern from a glossy photo.

Would you prefer to be talented, famous or a celebrity?
Definitely talented. The other two are far to ephemeral even if in any given moment more influential.