- Fame Games
Turner, Frances Bonner and P. David Marshall)
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
Graeme Turner, Frances Bonner and P. David Marshall
Fame Games: The Production of Celebrity in Australia
CUP $32.95pb, 196pp
0 521 79486 2
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
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.)
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.
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'.
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
--Ken Gelder, http://home.vicnet.net.au/~abr/DecJan01/kg.html
& Author Profiles