Fame Games

Review - Fame Games
: Graeme Turner, Frances Bonner and P. David Marshall)

Ken Gelder
Ken Gelder is an Associate Professor/Reader in English at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of Reading the Vampire (1994) and co-editor with Sarah Thornton of The Subcultures Reader (1997), both pubished by Routledge

Fame Games Review
Graeme Turner, Frances Bonner and P. David Marshall (eds)
Fame Games: The Production of Celebrity in Australia
CUP $32.95pb, 196pp
0 521 79486 2

CULTURAL STUDIES NOW has many branches, one of which, celebrity studies, has gained some recent notoriety. This is partly because it involves humanities academics working hard to make low cultural activity respectable -- even, in some recent variants, 'progressive' -- which is always interesting to see, both in terms of how they argue their case and who they offend along the way (highbrow literary critics, for example). But celebrity studies has also been notorious, in Australia at least, because some of its own practitioners have become celebrities of a kind themselves. Catherine Lumby and McKenzie Wark are no doubt well enough known to readers here not just for their defence of 'tabloidisation', their fascination with fame and their cross-media flexibility, but also for their tendency to self-promote and to promote each other. Just as in the literary field, as Mark Davis chronicles, Craven reviews Fraser who then reviews Craven, always flatteringly, so Lumby praises Wark who then duly returns the favour (I recall a particularly delirious essay by Wark on Lumby in Continuum not long ago). Nothing unusual about this, of course: every cultural field has its own version of the 'gangland'. So it is gratifying to find our two stars on the back cover of Fame Games, giving this newcomer to celebrity studies their obligatory seal of approval.

Fame Games is in fact a very interesting study of 'promotional culture' in Australia from three academics at the University of Queensland who have kind things to say, in return, about the work of Lumby and Wark. So it goes: this is part of disciplinary routine and makes the book no less worthwhile. Drawing on a number of interviews with key figures, Fame Games gives an excellent 'thick description' of the celebrity production industry in this country, looking at public relations and the mechanisms of publicity, the role of agents, managers and spin doctors (giving job descriptions, no less), the often unstable career of the celebrity, and the ways in which celebrities can be 'integrated' into various media (especially television and magazines). In particular, the book charts the rise of 'celebrity culture' in media generally since the early 1980s, and has much to say about the effects and consequences of all this. It sees television as the most important medium for 'celebrity-driven publicity', and notes that while all this often runs secondary to the U.S entertainment machine it has been formative in the production of Australian identities too. The book draws real distinctions between publicising roles to show the complexity and relationality of the local promotional business. The agent is the oldest promotional job, but there are now 'new wave' agents who cultivate more personal relationships with their celebrities. Publicists are mostly female, again working 'intimately' with clients. There are several kinds of managers, including 'impresario managers' such as Harry M. Miller -- whose first client, for those with long memories, was the TV chef Graham Kerr. I liked hearing about promotional workers with names like Heidi Virtue and Bunty Avieson -- as well as an academic called Joke Hermes whose work on celebrities elsewhere is drawn upon here. (The authors of Fame Games perhaps wisely resist the impulse to remark on these names.)

There are comments on the editor-as-celebrity, the celebrity speaker, the celebrity who produces a personality-driven book, and other variations, each of which has its own logics and requirements. Kerri-Anne Kennerley is a 'vertically integrated' celebrity who willingly co-operates with a range of media: a 'company woman', as one interviewee sourly notes. Exposure in one medium, however, may not necessarily help in another. Full integration is not always possible and, besides, media have their own hierarchies, tastes and interests which are often highly exclusive. Some celebrities are made to carry significances far greater than their professional expertise: think of Cathy Freeman during the Sydney Olympics. On the other hand, the book also speaks well of Kylie Minogue who graces its hot pink front cover -- embracing not the Aboriginal flag but, more appropriately perhaps, her waxwork lookalike. Fame Games seems to see the ideal celebrity career in terms of being able, finally, to 'take control' of one's destiny.

Accordingly, it doesn't like to see vulnerability or bad faith amongst celebrities and promotional people. Nor does it like over-promotion: the front cover notwithstanding, it is critical of 'excessive' attention given to celebrities and (no doubt reflecting the authors' own careers in a public institution) advocates 'restraint', good management and 'regulation'.

How promotional industry regulation might work, and to what end, is, however, barely addressed. This is mostly because the project of Fame Games, as already noted, is descriptive first and foremost. Having interviewed so many people, it has enough to do in just laying out the field: saying how promotional culture in Australia actually works. In the meantime it runs the risk of appearing to lend support to pretty much every feature of this particular 'culture industry' -- and of thus becoming what used to be called 'incorporated'. The book is certainly aware of this problem and develops a more critical voice towards the end. Yet in doing so it touches a central dilemma for contemporary cultural studies. Having so lovingly detailed the nuances of a lowbrow cultural-industrial practice -- to the point where it becomes impossible either to dismiss it or trivialise it -- how critical should these authors then be of what it actually does?

--Ken Gelder, http://home.vicnet.net.au/~abr/DecJan01/kg.html




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