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The Art of the Celebrity Pecking Order

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September 08, 2017 11:42 EDT

With the seemingly endless celebrities populating our culture, why limit them to A- and B-list hierarchies?

On September 6, People magazine broke the news that the surrogate hired by Kim Kardashian West and her husband, Kanye West, to carry their third child is pregnant. Not news to rival the Pacific nuclear test situation, Hurricane Irma or the apparent Russian attempt to influence the US election, you might think. But Kardashian and her kin are a multi-character, shape-shifting news phenomenon that’s created and sustained an unstoppable momentum. In terms of influence, it’s tough to think of any other family in history that’s defined an era quite like the Kardashians. The Borgias, maybe.

Neither Kim nor the other Kardashians are Hollywood movie stars, singers or artists of any note. They are propelled into our lives by nothing but trash — and I mean this in the nicest possible way: cultural items, ideas and objects of no noticeable quality that might, at another time in history, be regarded as waste material.

At the start of the century, the name Kim could have referred to a member of the North Korean Defense Committee. Now, we know it’s the name of the most recognizable, ubiquitous, inescapable celeb of all time.

Kim is everywhere. Not literally, of course. But her image is instantly accessible at the swipe of a keypad. That’s why she is the ne plus ultra celebrity — not just an A-list member, but the originator and sole occupant of her own list. Let’s call it the K-list … no, the A+ list. We’ll reserve the K-list for all the other members of the Kardashian family — Khloé, Kourtney, Kendall Jenner, Kylie Jenner and so on.

Not All Celebs are Created Equal

Social media has complicated life for us students of celebrity culture. Before Web 2.0, there was a natural order with the A-list dominating the headlines and column inches, while the reality TV stars formed a queue, waiting for someone to drop. Those good old days have gone for good, damned by the rise of interactive smartphones that let audiences not just follow, but share the life of the stars. Coverage in the papers or on television still counts, but today we ask, Who are the influencers?

You don’t have to be on The Sunday Times Rich List or have a bulging portfolio of advertising contracts, less still hit records or Oscar-nominated movies; though, of course, if you are an influencer, chances are you’ll have some of these. Selena Gomez, for instance, has 122 million followers on Instagram and commands about $660,000 per post. This makes me think we should have an I-list too.

Seventeen years into the century and celebrity culture has changed character to the point where the old order is showing its age. The Kardashians have not so much changed culture as left their fingerprints all over it. Perhaps it’s time to draw up a new post-Kardashian celebrity list.

A+ list: Kim Kardashian has this list all to herself, though she’s also an ex officio member of the K-list.

A-list: We started to use the A-list about 17 years ago. It was a haughty way of distinguishing what we used to think were deserving celebs from the emerging figures who had been evacuated from the Big Brother house (BB started in 2000) or amusing but hapless contestants in Pop Idol (a precursor to The X Factor). The wisdom of the day was that the likes of Charlize Theron, David Beckham or Kate Moss had actually accomplished something to merit their fame and adulation. Today, this looks old school: We, the audience, the fans, the people who confer celeb status, are the ones who decide who and what merits A-list status. In fact, A-list is itself becoming a bit of an anachronism. So, we’ll reserve it for the traditional celebs from Hollywood, the music industry and supermodels who are transitioning from belle femme to grand dame.

One more thing. Try to get through a day without the word “Trump” leaving your lips. Love him or — more likely — hate him, the supremo celeb politician is inescapable (never a bad thing for a celeb). I’ll bet his name occurs in the conversations of everyone at least once a day.

B-list: There are a lot of B-listers about, and people use the term snootily to describe footballers, TV actors and singers who are on the borders of popular consciousness, but not quite in the cortex. Of course, actors like Martin Freeman or Sarah Lancashire will probably argue they have no interest in celebritydom and prefer to pursue their art regardless. Plenty of footballers will say “this celebrity stuff is all very nice, but we’re competitors not poseurs,” neglecting how Cristiano Ronaldo manages to kick a ball and strike a “blue steel” look at the same time, seemingly without trying (though we know it’s due to hours and hours of practice after training).

So the B-list is for respectable souls without inhumanly chiselled handsomeness or beauty and who can’t be bothered to apply mascara every time they appear in public.

C-list: Prospective celebs who have signed their Faustian contract and agree to surrender any semblance of what we once, in the early days of the Age of Celebrity, call a private life, don’t mind being in the C-list. It’s like practicing on dry ski slopes, while you’re waiting for the real thing. (That would be Channel 4’s The Jump.)

Remember, Robyn Rihanna Fenty was once (in 2005) just an up-and-coming starlet with a single called “Pon de Replay,” which you’ve probably never heard of. So, there’s no disgrace in biding time in this category. You just don’t want to stay here too long, or drop in as you slide from A or B.  A case in point is Kris Humphries, once a major character in the stage show I Was Kim Kardashian’s Husband for 72-Days (cf. K-list, below). I almost made that up. Almost. The actual stage production is called The Marriage of Kim K, adapted from The Marriage of Figaro. Now, here’s an acid test of celebrity culture: Are you going to believe me or Google this apparent factoid?

K-list: Ubiquitous, omnipresent, all pervasive … I could go on. The Kardashians are everywhere at all times. They surround us and invade us. I’m sometimes reminded of the sociologist Peter Berger’s metaphor of society as a prison in which the prisoners are constantly engaged in building the walls. We’ve created the Ks: They didn’t do anything to us. Well, at least, not unless you count Kim’s sex tape. But, for the most part, they just appeared on reality TV and we did the rest, elevating them to a list all of their own. We can’t dodge them now.

Twitter and other social media have been their umbilical cords and they keep the essential supplies flowing with a miscellany of information, none of which could ever be described as valuable, except by a few hundred million of their devotees. We should respect the honorary status granted to Kanye West, not for marrying the ineffable Kim, but for contributing to the amalgam “Kimye.”

New Inventory

I-list: I mentioned that the influencers were a new inventory. These are figures who have such a surreal presence on social media that they can persuade us loyal followers to do practically anything. Especially keep hitting the “Pay with PayPal” button. The above-mentioned Selena Gomez sings and acts, though these are not her signature skills: Her magic is being able to bend several million people to her will. This is no hypnotist routine or a trans Svengali act; people just engage with her in a way that inclines them to copy, emulate or just take notice. Advertisers do take notice, of course.

Other distinguished I-listers include the models-cum-actors Cara Delevingne and Gigi Hadid, and the superstar athletes LeBron James and Cristiano Ronaldo (see also A-list). The rest are pretty much all members of the Kardashians.

R-list: So where do the royals fit in? Kate Middleton must have loved life on the celebrity landscape until she turned over a stone to discover creepy, loathsome things beneath. Holidaying in Provence, in southern France, in 2012, she was horrified to see topless pictures of her adoring the front and inside pages of the French edition of Closer magazine. Her husband thought a €1.5 million fine would be in order, though a court in Paris last week ordered a €100,000 ($120,000) penalty.

Meghan Markle was already a celebrity before she met and fell in love with Prince Harry. But she hasn’t yet felt the full force of the paparazzi. A cover article in Vanity Fair will burnish her new credentials.

When we first started thinking in terms of celebrity lists, we weren’t quite sure whether the royals fitted in. Clearly Princess Diana was a peerless celebrity, an unqualified A+ constituent. Even her celebrity afterlife has influenced a generation of royals, most of whom now come across as visibly human. Harry, Wills and Kate are on the A-list, while Fergy and her daughters are probably C or T. But Meghan and co. will ensure that royal celebs will soon occupy a list of their own.

T-list: Transients are either on their way up, or en route to oblivion. Countless reality TV stars spend time in this list, hoping they’re poised to ascend, but usually slithering. This is a place that is, by definition, a temporary outpost. Someone like Blac Chyna leaps in after declaring she’s taking legal action against (here we go again) one of the Kardashians (Rob, this time). In a month or so, we’ll either all know her, or mention of her name will elicit the response: “We don’t have any, luv. Will PG Tips do?”

Z-list: This evil stalks the everyday lives of wannabe celebs. No one wants to be in the Z-list. It signifies desperation, hopelessness, forlornness and the torments of being so close, yet so far away. Or, more accurately, not-very-close and miles away. Z-listers aren’t so much hungry for fame: They will eat babies with scabby heads for a namecheck in The Sun.

Onetime soap actors who’ve been dropped, then struggle to find parts. Kiss-and-tell squealers, who’ve had sexual encounters with celebs above them on the hierarchy, but can’t generate further interest. Novelty acts that find themselves overnight sensations on a talent show, but discover overnight means exactly that. They’re all members of celebrity culture’s most feared list. Even a well-publicized spell in rehab, which works wonders for members of all the other lists, only meets with indifference.

And indifference is, for a celeb of any rank, the equivalent of a lethal injection.

*[Ellis Cashmore is the author of Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption. His Kardashian Kulture will be published by Emerald in 2018.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Tinseltown / Shutterstock.com

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