The Accidental Celebrity

Achieving media stardom takes more than luck. It requires hard work and perseverance.

City of stars
Are you shining just for me?
City of stars
You never shined so brightly

—Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, “City of Stars,” from the film La La Land (2016)

Being a celebrity is hard work. This observation is as true today as it was in the studio entertainment worlds of the 1930s and 40s. The fantasy of being “discovered” in a low-paying job and achieving instant fame during the Golden Age of Hollywood turned out to be much harder to achieve in reality. The same might be said of hitting the big time on YouTube.

Online distribution platforms have clearly changed the playing field for achieving media fame, yet they in no way guarantee it. In her classic ethnography Hollywood, The Dream Factory (1950), Powdermaker argued that starlets and producers alike often bought into the myth that fame would come to those who were discovered at a local café. After all, it worked for Lana Turner. Yet much promotional mileage was traversed between discovery and celluloid stardom. Powdermaker suggested that talent and hard work were much more likely to produce consistent success than possessing conventional good looks or social connections.

In the realm of online media today, the myth of the accidental celebrity, while containing a seed of truth at times, masks not only the concerted effort that goes into creating one’s media and cultivating a brand, but also tends to elide the personal toll that success often entails. YouTube turns 12 years old this year, which represents several generations in new media years. Standing on the shoulders of vernacular video, the site represents a “dream factory” of its own, as it incorporates a complex and heterogeneous set of assumptions and desires. Elitist criticisms about the poor quality of YouTube attempt to construct it as a foil against the supposedly expert and polished output of professional work. Such a false dichotomy ignores the sketchy media that is labeled professional entertainment on an ever-expanding array of cable channels. Recall the epic sound fail that caused a fiasco during the Mariah Carey performance live in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. It also denies the fact that certain people now claim to make a living from their YouTube participation and related activities. In 2012, YouTube announced that of its estimated 30,000 partners who receive revenue from ads placed on their videos, several hundred were reportedly making six figures a year, some of them even being courted by Hollywood agents. Still, the image of YouTube as strictly a stage for the hapless, unprofessional novice remains. One ranter on YouTube lamented that people don’t seem to understand that although she is not employed by YouTube, she earns money by making videos, cultivating sponsorships, and selling merchandise. When she tells people her job, she is frustrated when they respond, “Oh you make YouTube videos. Cool. What do you do for a living?”

YouTube video maker Joe Penna, also known as MysteryGuitarMan. Joe Penna

Accidental celebrities have certainly emerged in the form of vernacular media makers who post a video for fun only to see their work go viral. In some cases video stars are able to make significant earnings and even parlay their work into a cottage industry or a media career. Such tales of success fuel today’s video dreams. Consider David DeVore’s now famous video David after Dentist. DeVore posted a video of his seven-year-old son (also called David) in the back seat of the car after young David had received pain medication for a dental procedure. His behavior is disoriented and erratic as he holds himself up in his car seat and screams. The video also includes comic musings on his anesthetized state as he innocently asks his Dad questions such as: “Is this real life?” and “Is this going to be forever?” that have since become online memes as well as catchphrases in professional media works such as the television show, Glee. How pithy his questions truly were, as he experiences an existential exploration of what it means to be on anesthesia, while being filmed by a parent, and ultimately living on indefinitely in the online halls of video fame. The family reportedly earned “in the low six figures” in the aftermath of the video and their release of related merchandise such as t-shirts. As the Yoda-like character of Yogurt enthusiastically states in the Star Wars parody Spaceballs, it is merchandising “where the real money from the movie is made!” Indeed, DeVore has been quoted as being concerned that the family may not have garnered all that they could given their grassroots effort and lack of industry knowledge.

Yet video virality often comes at cost. Others have experienced the dark side and emotional toll that comes from gaining too much attention in the wrong way. The case of Ghyslain Raza, also known as the “Star Wars Kid,” is an example. Raza reportedly filmed himself practicing light saber moves. The video was discovered by a schoolmate who released it online. Raza subsequently revealed that he became a victim of cyberbullying as well as in person bullying and ridicule. He reportedly filed a law suit which was settled out of court.

While certainly true in a few select cases, the accidental celebrity myth fuels the assumption that YouTube videos are inevitably mindless and easy, which obscures the reality of the hard work that goes into producing videos that garner a steady audience over time, long after the viral crowd has left.
A more recent example of video virality that is swirling around the internet is that of a Facebook live-stream video created by Candace Payne, a 37-year-old mother from Texas, now known as “Chewbacca Mom.” Created in May, 2016, the video shows Payne laughing infectiously while wearing her newly-purchased mask of the Chewbaca character from the Star Wars films. Note that Payne’s video was live streamed as it was happening, which arguably applies a different level of internet engagement and vulnerability in comparison with earlier media generations in which videos were typically edited before broadcast. Payne received attention online and appeared on television shows such as Good Morning America and The Late Late Show. She received a range of related gifts, from store cards to college scholarships for her family from Southeastern University.

Like many viral celebrities of the past, Payne too has received criticism on social media, blogs, and broadcast media. Critics accuse her of not having a talent worthy of such attention and of inappropriately extending her fame. Another, more general source of criticism concerns how white video makers like Payne seem to receive such large scale attention and gifts while participants of color who are similarly culturally influential do not receive the same media interest or remuneration. Payne chooses not to address her critics directly when asked but rather prefers to circulate more positive messages.

While certainly true in a few select cases, the accidental celebrity myth fuels the assumption that YouTube videos are inevitably mindless and easy, which obscures the reality of the hard work that goes into producing videos that garner a steady audience over time, long after the viral crowd has left. An example of such achievement is YouTube’s Joe Penna, also known as MysteryGuitarMan. I first interviewed him for my YouTube project years ago when he was in college. Penna focuses on videos that combine music with clever editing techniques. His videos are very popular, but is he emblematic of the accidental celebrity motif? In a way, yes, given that he told me that he had not anticipated a career in media, but given the popularity of his videos, he was considering changing his college program to focus on a media-related major.

Rego Korosl/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I caught up with him at the recent VidCon gathering in Anaheim, and I asked him what made him finally commit to making a change. He referenced his family’s support in pursuing formal education and switching his major to follow his passion. As a guest speaker at VidCon, Penna spoke about how hard he worked and the sacrifices he made until he could afford to hire people to take his videos to the next level. He eventually formed his own production company that creates music videos, television commercials, animations, and short films. He may not have planned a media career, but his continued dedication and passion over the ten years resulted in commercial success.

Pundits claim that the accidental video celebrity is no longer a possibility. People are aware of the potential payoffs for certain YouTube videos, they argue, so the possibility of viral popularity is always present, just as it continues to be in certain broadcast media programs such as America’s Funniest Home Videos. The lure of internet fame, some pundits argue, give many videos a forced quality at best and may even put people, including children, at risk by creating lasting records of staged but harmful pranks or humiliating actions. Such myths are further sustained by the fact that YouTube is known to have spawned or greatly assisted the careers of  stars such as Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, and Carly Rae Jepsen, to name a few. Of course, where there is even the potential for making money, a middle man is likely to appear. New entities known as multi-channel networks (MCNs) have emerged on the scene. In return for a share of video makers’ profits, MCNs agree to promote those YouTubers who sign up with them. While some YouTubers have embraced MCNs, others believe they gouge profits and provide little that video makers cannot do for themselves.

Interestingly, such paths to fame and success are not present in La La Land (2016), a new film about the entertainment business, its artistic compromises, and personal costs. It is receiving critical praise as a delightfully fresh valentine to the Hollywood musicals of the 1940s and 50s. These were the kinds of productions that Powdermaker said provided audiences with a form of dreamy escapism and tangible hopes that their children, for instance, might one day sing like Bing Crosby and join the rich and famous of the showbiz world. Although the film’s story is set in present-day Los Angeles, the lack of social media is striking. Cell phones are referenced but we do not see the recognition that social media might provide the characters with an alternative avenue for success. Take the case of the character of Mia, who has been striving to be an actress for six years. Why endure old-timey poolside Hollywood parties with social climbers, or wait to fill a theatre to see your original one-woman show when you can video blog about your aunt’s Parisian adventures and whip up an online following? Sebastian, the male lead, desperately tries to promote and preserve traditional jazz music single-handedly in a lonely sisyphean battle. Their individual struggles are the very stuff of YouTube, which is filled with video blogs and musical performances that seek enthusiasts and fellow advocates. Fans might argue that omitting social media preserves an innocent energy of the film and its homage to classical Hollywood musicals. However, we learn in Powdermaker’s account that commercial filmmaking did not operate from a place of artistic or populous purity; studios often remade stars and their image for profit.

Of course, even if one is “discovered” on YouTube, it is likely that a lot of energy and talent went into making creative work that people connect with over time. In the case of profitable virality, it also likely that video makers have hit the pavement, made personal appearances, established merchandising and licensing deals with the right entities, and pursued multiple avenues for profit. Accidental celebrities, whether they are taken by surprise by the positive reception of their creative work or are grass roots folks whose video oddity or joy captures the public imagination, must put in the work and maintain visibility before their star also fades into the vast celebrity firmament.

Patricia G. Lange is an anthropologist and assistant professor of critical studies and visual & critical studies at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Her latest book is Kids on YouTube: Technical Identities and Digital Literacies (2014). Her ethnographic film Hey Watch This: Sharing the Self Through Media (2013) was screened in Paris at Ethnografilm. Lange has published in numerous journals and volumes including The Routledge Companion to Digital Ethnography and The YouTube Reader. She is currently researching the use of video rants for civic engagement. Her website is patriciaglange.org

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