Frequently perceived as a characteristic of modern culture, the phenomenon of celebrity has much older roots. In this illuminating new book cultural historian Antoine Lilti shows that the mechanisms of celebrity were developed in Europe during the Enlightenment, well before films, yellow journalism and television, and then flourished during the Romantic period on both sides of the Atlantic. Figures from across the arts like Voltaire, Garrick and Liszt were all veritable celebrities in their time, arousing curiosity and passionate loyalty from their "fans." In Paris as in London, in Berlin as in New York, the rise of the press, new advertising techniques and the marketing of leisure brought a profound transformation in the visibility of celebrities: private lives were now very much on public show. Nor was politics spared this cultural upheaval: Marie-Antoinette, George Washington and Napoleon all experienced a political world transformed by the new demands of celebrity. And when the people suddenly appeared on the revolutionary scene, it was no longer enough to be legitimate, it was crucial to be popular too.
Lilti retraces the profound social upheaval precipitated by the rise of celebrity and explores the ambivalence felt towards this new phenomenon. Jean Jacques Rousseau's career is an exemplary case. A celebrated and adulated writer, Rousseau ended up cursing the effects of his "disastrous celebrity" marred by the feeling that he had become a public figure whom people everywhere could fashion as they wished. Both sought after and denounced, celebrity evolved as the modern form of personal prestige, assuming the role that glory played in the aristocratic world in a new age of democracy and evolving forms of media. To this day, it is of course a type of glory whose value is still disputed.
Lilti's perceptive history uncovers the birth of celebrity in the 18th century, while at the same time shining valuable light on the continuing importance of celebrity in today’s world.