America’s first ‘fame whore’ named

db7acfa3355ff05d80740b191822186fwidth316


BELIEVE it or not, philosopher Voltaire was the Jennifer Aniston of the 18th century.

While today we think of the French writer (born François-Marie Arouet) as a sharp political wit and the author of such classics as the aristocracy-skewering Candide, he was the epitome of celebrity in the 1750s and 1760s.

In fact, he was the “most famous man in Europe,” according to the new book The Invention of Celebrity by Antoine Lilti (Wiley), The New York Post reports.

And it wasn’t easy. Like Aniston, whom the tabloids have seemingly tried to wish into being pregnant, Voltaire was a frequent victim of what we now consider fake news.

Publishers would hawk collections of “his” letters that weren’t really his, since anything with his name on it would sell like hot cakes. World-weary Voltaire called such fakes “the sacrifice one has to make for this unhappy celebrity.”


media_cameraUS actress Jennifer Aniston rose to fame on Friends. Picture: AP Photo/Francois Mori

media_cameraVoltaire was the Jennifer Aniston of the 18th century. Picture: Supplied

Everyone, it seems, wanted to cash in. Unauthorised busts, paintings, engravings, even a nude statue of the writer were popular items.

Artist Jean Huber specialised in Voltaire mundanity, creating “a series of small paintings showing him doing everyday things; drinking coffee, playing chess, taking walks.”

Over time, Huber’s paintings included Voltaire Playing Chess, Voltaire Receiving a Visitor, and Voltaire Whipping a Rearing Horse.

While it’s easy to view the excesses of celebrity as a modern invention, Lilti’s book shows that only the mechanisms have changed. The nature of stardom, including everyday citizens clamouring for stories and visuals chronicling the every movement of famous people, has actually changed little over the past several hundred years.


media_cameraKim Kardashian has redefined celebrity stardom. Picture: AFP/Angela Weiss

The United States’ history of celeb worship goes all the way back to George Washington.

“There was a real demand from the American public to see Washington in person,” Lilti writes of the first president, “attested to by … [the] numerous visitors, sometimes unknown, who showed up at [Washington’s home in] Mount Vernon. Washington often complained that he had not dined alone with his wife in several weeks.”

Just as George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio today earn millions filming liquor commercials in Japan, Washington’s superstardom extended well beyond our borders.

In France, a chocolatier even “sold bonbons a la Washington.” But when the French commissioned a medal in Washington’s honour, they had to use a stand-in for his portrait. Without international editions of People magazine, they had no idea what he looked like.

Like the Kardashians and Jenners, Benjamin Franklin absolutely revelled in his celebrity — especially after seeing his likeness on an engraved medallion.

“The numbers [of these] sold are incredible,” he wrote to his daughter. “These, with pictures, busts and prints, have made your father’s face as well known as that of the moon.”


media_cameraBenjamin Franklin in an 1816 portrait called ‘Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky’ by Benjamin West. Picture: Public domain

He was also image-savvy, taking it upon himself to do what today’s stars hire publicists and stylists to do for them: create a mythology.

In America, Franklin posed for portraits that portrayed him as “a simple man, dressed without ostentation, far from European courtly manners.” But during his time in England, he “posed in a velvet suit like the British aristocracy.”

Then there was Marie Antoinette, who found herself the subject of erotic fan fiction that would make the author of Fifty Shades of Grey blush.

A poem published in 1779 called Les Amours de Charlot et Toinette “described the clandestine loves of the queen and her brother-in-law, the Count of Artois,” Lilti writes.

In the steamy story, “Marie Antoinette, abandoned by her royal spouse, discovered the more torrid ecstasies, thanks to the Count of Artois.”


media_cameraA portrait of Marie Antoinette at age 28. Picture: Supplied

And just as paparazzi today live to catch celebs stumbling out of nightclubs or otherwise behaving badly, so too did the star-chroniclers of bygone centuries love showing their subjects as buffoons.

The aforementioned Huber even created a painting of Voltaire that “showed him … clumsily putting on his pants, all the while dictating to his secretary.”

When the writer protested, Huber stated that the nature of celebrity “was an invitation to play with a subject’s image, introducing ‘a bit of ridicule’ in order to excite public interest.”

Which sounds an awful lot like today’s idol worship, does it not?

“Celebrity is not something new that has arisen in the 20th century,” Lilti writes. “Celebrity is a characteristic trait of modern societies, a form of greatness that corresponds to them.”

This story originally appeared in The New York Post and has been republished here with permission.

Originally published as America’s first ‘fame whore’ named



Source link

Related posts