Who was the Ur-Paris?
October 5, 2008 4:21 AM   Subscribe

Who was the Ur-Paris? Who were the Paris Hiltons of yesteryear? Whenever I find myself in conversation with people-who-think-they're-smarter-than-everyone, I know that I will soon be subjected to a rant about how we now live in the most facile of times, obsessed with celebrities like Paris Hilton. I'd like to hear arguments for the opposing view: that this is nothing new, that, throughout history, it has always been human nature to be interested in the lives of certain people...

Specific examples would be great, particularly examples of people whose celebrity would seem, at first glance, to be disproportionate to their merit. I'm mainly just curious as to other points of view, so straightforward answers about celebrities in past decades would be great, but inflammatory devil's advocate stuff is fine, too: I posed the question to a guy I know, and he made an interesting argument that our culture is much more obsessed with the life of Jesus than that of Paris, and he argued that that was just as crazy.

I'd love to hear any thoughts that differ from the same old, tired song I keep hearing, that our society is so uniquely dumb right now...
posted by surenoproblem to Society & Culture (50 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Alice Roosevelt was the Paris Hilton of a century ago. If they made home sex daguerreotypes in those days, she'd have starred in one.
posted by bunnytricks at 4:33 AM on October 5, 2008

Perhaps Georgiana Cavendish (the Duchess of Devonshire)? She had a huge influence on fashions of her time, was involved in extra-marital affairs which caused much scandal, and even starred in gimmicky political presentations for the Whigs (cf Paris's Presidential Ad here).

Wikipedia has some more, obv.
posted by Tapioca at 4:55 AM on October 5, 2008

The first person who popped into my head was Beau Brummell.
posted by Magnakai at 4:56 AM on October 5, 2008 [3 favorites]

Well, answering the original question might take a little bit of legwork since, with any luck, the Paris Hiltons of the past eventually pass into obscurity. Then again, Rasputin and Nostradamus seem to have had some staying power, so maybe hand waving mysticism is the secret to immortality after all.

More generally, off the top of my head, one could make a case for historical cases of the prevalence of the lowest common denominator phenomenon going back very far pretty easy. For instance: Penny papers and Yellow Journalism, the bread and circuses of Rome, the Sophists of ancient Greece.
posted by Skwirl at 5:11 AM on October 5, 2008

first person i thought of was brenda frazier.
posted by sdn at 5:12 AM on October 5, 2008

Not sure if this is exactly what you were thinking of, but royalties, at least in Europe, during the 20th century? Living anachronisms, no ruling power, but highly profiled in media / gossip mags / etc.

Royalties (kings, queens, princes, etc) became famous and known only because they were born / married into fame. They never DID anything to become king, they just automatically became celebs. Kinda same with Paris, in a way.

IMHO their celebrity would seem disproportionate to their merit?
posted by gmm at 5:31 AM on October 5, 2008

Alice Roosevelt was WAY more interesting as a person than Paris Hilton ever will be.
posted by jeanmari at 5:51 AM on October 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

Zsa-Zsa Gabor
posted by PenDevil at 6:10 AM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Duchess of Argyll made Paris, Lindsay and Co look like a bunch of nuns.
posted by TheRaven at 6:11 AM on October 5, 2008

And looking at Ms Gabor's Wikipedia page I see that she was in fact once a Hilton herself...
posted by PenDevil at 6:12 AM on October 5, 2008

The argument that society today is more obsessed with 'empty' celebrities is pretty valid, despite the fact that there have always been fairly vacant people who've captured the attention of the masses.

One could perform a test where newspaper column inches about such people were calculated against 'meaningful' news, but it's hardly necessary. In the last dozen years in America (in other words, since I've been able to witness it), there has been an explosion of media avenues in which the travails of folks like Paris Hilton have been delineated on a daily basis - gossip television shows, magazines, internet sites, and so on. Yet the media which is supposed to cover "real" news hasn't diminished their coverage of these folks - they've increased it. So one gets a month of nonstop news about the death of Anna Nicole Smith of Paris Hilton spending a few days in jail, but surprisingly little about news of international importance. In other words, despite unique media outlets for this sort of stuff, the proportion of time that "old" media spend covering it has gotten greater.

And for the record, Rasputin had a pretty intense affect on the history of the world - one could argue that his existence helped lead to Communism, the Cold War and much of 20th Century history, conceivably. This is why he's still well known . . . you can't say the same about Paris.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 6:37 AM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:50 AM on October 5, 2008

Evelyn Nesbit
posted by marsha56 at 6:51 AM on October 5, 2008

Probably the first American celebrity who wasn't a President was Jenny Lind (even though she herself was not American). But she was actually famous for something.

I would concur that Alice Roosevelt was probably the first celebrity famous for simply being famous.
posted by briank at 6:55 AM on October 5, 2008

d concur that Alice Roosevelt was probably the first celebrity famous for simply being famous.

I'm not sure about that -- I'd counter that she was famous for being the vivacious daughter of a populalr president. We wouldn't say Chelsea Clinton was famous for nothing, we know that Bill and Hillary are why we know who Chelsea is.

One thing I know -- Alice had a much more interesting pet than Paris (she had a snake she named Emily Spinach).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:03 AM on October 5, 2008

Edie Sedgwick, duh.
posted by pluckysparrow at 7:07 AM on October 5, 2008

The argument that society today is more obsessed with 'empty' celebrities is pretty valid, despite the fact that there have always been fairly vacant people who've captured the attention of the masses.

No, it's not valid. The desire to talk about bullshit is constant; the institutional opportunities increase. If Americans in the eighteenth century had had a zillion cable channels and the Internet, at least half of them would be chock-full of stories like "The Catholics: Evil or Just Stupid?" and "Man Cuts Off Own Penis to Spite Wife."

Politics versus celebrity is also a false dichotomy. If there's one constant in politics, it's that politicians are also celebrities. The difference between now and then is that politics is a little less total for us, so it involves fewer extra-political rituals of party adherence and so on. Political feasts, newspaper exposés, and the like all had very little to do with substantive disagreement and everything to do with bread and circuses. Take John Wilkes. Yes, he was supposed to stand for the cause of freedom, blah blah blah. But the real reason he was so popular was that he was a dashing celebrity figure: a great wit, a man about town, a legendary success with women.

It's not possible to make a clear distinction between substantive and vapid media, simply because the media serves a whole lot of functions that don't have anything to do with reasoned discussion. There wasn't a single moment in history you could point to where public debate was both clearly separable from vapidity and more important than it.
posted by nasreddin at 7:10 AM on October 5, 2008 [12 favorites]

I was going to suggest Lilly Langtree (mistress of the King) and Isabelle Eberhardt (a ludicrous suggestion, since most people haven't heard of her, unless they're fascinated by eccentrics) when I read nasreddin's post and realized that the main question here is the "emptiness" of the "celebrity."

There is something intriguing about those who are famous for being famous. I prefer obscurity, but whatever.

P.S. re "pretty valid . . . fairly vacant," who can forget the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant?"
posted by emhutchinson at 7:19 AM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

For a good fictional example, see Tippi Hedren as Melanie Daniels in The Birds. She's a capricious (and notorious) heiress who is just beginning to realize what her flights of fancy have cost her.
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 7:42 AM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

This has been going on for a long time (my guess since the birth of the human race). I think good parallels for Paris Hilton are not kings and queens, as they might actually have had an effect on their countries (aside from being celebrities), but minor lords and ladies -- gentry.

Most of these people are now forgotten (as Paris will be, soon enough), but people in the 19th Century (and earlier) used to gossip endlessly (read and write about) how lord so and so had a new mistress, lady so and so's gown wasn't up to scratch, etc.

Have you read the famous "list" in "The Great Gatsby"?

The argument that society today is more obsessed with 'empty' celebrities is pretty valid ... One could perform a test where newspaper column inches...

I'm skeptical about arguments based around "the media," e.g. the media is devoting more column inches or air time to stories about empty celebrities, therefore "we" are more obsessed with them than we used to be. Maybe. It is possible. When I say I'm skeptical, I mean that literally. I don't think such statements are necessarily wrong. I'm just waiting for some evidence. I suspect there's some sort of link between the media and popular taste, but I don't think it's as simple as people make it out to be.

I guess the usual argument is that most media is for-profit. It couldn't exist unless people paid for it. Paying for it is a sort of endorsement. So if we're buying "People Magazine," and "People Magazine" is publishing endless stories about Paris Hilton, we must be obsessed with Paris Hilton. Again: maybe. It's a dirty test tube. What other choices do we have? Maybe if "People Magazine" published gossip about less-empty celebrities, we'd be just as apt to buy it.

The "NY Times" drives me nuts with their bad logic about the media's relationship to society. They'll notice that three movies about Japan (or whatever) are all playing at once, and so they'll publish an article titled "America's Obsession With The East." Maybe we're obsessed with The East. Or maybe it's a coincidence. Or maybe one of those movies was popular and the two other ones were just Hollywood gambles, trying to piggyback on the success of the first.

It's become incredibly common to just assume that whatever is on TV is what we're obsessed with. Okay, but which came first, the obsession or the TV show? Most people will eat whatever is dished out to them.
posted by grumblebee at 7:56 AM on October 5, 2008 [6 favorites]

Seconding Beau Brummel. Bonus: He died alone and insane for cracking a fat joke.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:02 AM on October 5, 2008

Alma Mahler was famous for being beautiful and attached to prominent men. I think there's probably many more from the Paris salon era.
posted by mendel at 9:39 AM on October 5, 2008

Should we invite Nell Gwyn to the party?
posted by gimonca at 9:51 AM on October 5, 2008

Lady Hamilton. Also, Oscar Wilde was famous before he'd done anything. He turned out to be a genius, but that wasn't why he became famous.
posted by Kattullus at 9:54 AM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Looking back further, there was Clodia, who was involved with both Catullus and Cicero.

One thing that makes answering such a question difficult: why do we remember, or revive the memory of such people? Attitudes change, and one generation's person of no value may be another generation's brave social revolutionary.
posted by gimonca at 10:04 AM on October 5, 2008

Not an exact answer, but for people who think they are being clever and original with these arguments, I like to trot out this:

"The age is grown so picked that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier, he galls his kibe."
- William Shakespeare, Hamlet 5.1

This is just one of Hamlet's many complaints about how things aren't what they used to be. Lincoln also compared himself and his contemporaries unfavorably to the country's founders. It is human nature to imagine a previous golden age that the present can't live up to.

I usually challenge people by asking which time they would prefer to live in:
-when the age expectancy was around 40
-when career choices for men were: die in a war or work in a steel mill 12 hours a day every day, and career choices for women were: have babies.
-the Black Plague perhaps?

We are amazingly lucky that we live in the time we do. Of COURSE there is more media, and some of it covers celebrities. There are also live five different Discovery channels, and unprecedented access to serious news analysis from every corner of the globe.

I can think of three things that can be realistically said to be worse for us than our ancestors:
1) threat of nuclear war (and even this has gotten steadily less post 1960s)
2) environmental damage
3) danger of overpopulation

Blips like 9/11 and the financial crisis aside, EVERYTHING ELSE about human life on this planet is constantly getting better. Every single thing. To think (or claim to think) otherwise is good for cheap cynicism, which can be fun at the parties we're free to go to rather than dying in a trench or a coal mine. But it utterly fails to stand up to even the most cursory critical thinking.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:15 AM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Also, if we were to meet people of three hundred or a thousand years ago, I think we would find them AMAZINGLY obsessed with the minutiae of the personal lives of insignificant people, almost to the exclusion of any other thoughts.

It's just that there was no global media, so each village had its own Parises.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:22 AM on October 5, 2008

Roxanne Pulitzer, aka the Strumpet with the Trumpet.
posted by cowboy_sally at 10:40 AM on October 5, 2008

Baroness Marie Vetsera was the quasi-Paris Hilton of Vienna in the late 1880s. Her nickname in the press was "the Turf Angel," due to penchant for hanging out at horse races in the most fetching fashions. At 17 she became the mistress of Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria, and died with him in January 1889 at Mayerling.
posted by scody at 11:26 AM on October 5, 2008

sigh. "due to her penchant..."
posted by scody at 11:27 AM on October 5, 2008

Up to the point that she claimed/was accused of being a spy, Mata Hari was not that far off the celebrity-for-no-real-reason trial.
posted by kittyprecious at 11:46 AM on October 5, 2008

er, trail
posted by kittyprecious at 11:46 AM on October 5, 2008

Here is a quotation from the 18thC about a prototype of celebrity worship.

"Upon my inquiry into his life and conversation, I found him to be
the greatest newsmonger in our quarter; that he rose
before day to read the Postman; and that he would take
two or three turns to the other end of the town before
his neighbouts were up, to see if there were any Dutch
mails come in. He had a wife and several children; but
was much more inquisitive to know what passed in Poland
than in his own family, and was in greater pain and anxiety
of mind for King Augustus' welfare than that of his nearest
He looked extremely thin in a dearth of news,
and never enjoyed himself in a westerly wind."

Addison and Steele, Tatler, Volume III. Page 218
posted by jfwlucy at 12:12 PM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Marie Antoinette.

While she never said "Let them eat cake" (it's from a Voltaire play, if I recall correctly.) She was a popular figure of loathing for her perceived frivolity and excess while France was bogged down in recession, war debts, food shortages, and supporting the American Revolutionary War.

While she wasn't quite the Cruel Queen Of Excess as the revolutionaries painted her, she did have an odd, scandal-prone life. For one, she was never supposed to be Queen of anything in the first place. As the youngest of Archduchess Regent Maria Theresa's children, she wasn't expected to be married off to anyone too powerful or important and spared the rigorous training of her siblings. (Her mother wasn't called "The Mother-In-Law Of Europe" for nothing.)

However, in 1768, a smallpox outbreak killed her sister Josepha and disfigured her sister Maria Elizabeth, leaving no one in line to marry the French Dauphin. Marie Antoinette was the only one left and became the Queen of France by default.

She was unpopular at Court and with the public. For one, she was Austrian and thus Suspect. (A bitter recent war with Austria will do that) and she didn't bare children for years, which when you're Queen, is pretty much your job. The popular assumption was that she behaved more like a King's mistress than wife and she became the subject and any and all rumors of excess or impropriety (She eats diamonds! she has a new dress every day and burns the old ones! she sleeps with a dozen men a night! She's a lesbian who grants favors to her lovers! ect ect*)

Because of this negative public opinion, anything could be attributed to Queen Antoinette's frivolity, stupidity, or wantonness. While she probably had nothing to do with the Affair Of the Necklace everyone assumed she did. During the bread shortages, it was believed the King and Queen where hoarding bread, ("let them eat cake!") leading to a riot and storming of the Palace. Her undoing was in asking her brother, Leoplold II for help during house arrest. He saw an opportunity to take back Austrian claims on French lands and began an invasion of France. It was a bit like if, during the civil rights movement, the First Lady asked the German Army to come in and ensure peace, and went over just as well. All out war with Austria soon followed and French where quickly in retreat.

And everyone knows the rest, what with the Reign Of Terror and the cutting off heads and all. Marie Antoinette became a symbol of everything decadent, corrupt, and empty about the French Aristocracy and for the bloody aftermath of the Revolution.

*Not that they where totally unjustified. Marie did seem completely tone-deaf on how a respectable Queen should act, but critics of the royalty and the members of the Revolution used her as a scapegoat for any real or imaginary crimes of the Crown.
posted by The Whelk at 12:20 PM on October 5, 2008 [3 favorites]

A lot of Marie's circle got the same treatment. I believe the duchesse de Polignac was rumored* to have a had that mocked the bread riots, with little cannons and all, but I'm not sure.

*It doesn't matter if she did, it was that it was a widly belived "fact."
posted by The Whelk at 12:23 PM on October 5, 2008

The Library of Congress has been posting photos taken by the Bain News Service around 1910 on Flickr.

While most of them are serious news photos there are plenty of frivolous ones. A baronet/big game hunter/preacher. Chorus girls. Heiresses. Royalty. Rich people and their children. Rich people and their dogs. Rich people at the yacht club.
posted by interplanetjanet at 4:34 PM on October 5, 2008

The Awful Seeley Dinner in 1896 was a notorious scandal involving one exotic dancer, one police captain, and a bunch of young "gentlemen" of society including the grandson of P.T. Barnum. Thackeray's Vanity Fair and Austin's Pride and Prejudice reveal the existence of a "news" media that considered the travels and public appearances of the upper-crust to be news. Larson's Devil in the White City spends several pages talking about Citizen Train, a shipping magnate who engaged in continual self-promotion through publicity stunts. Queen Victoria's custom-tailored white wedding dress pretty much kickstarted the entire American wedding-industrial complex.

And of course, the entire Hollywood studio system during its Golden Age was built around the idea that the star was always "on stage" so to speak.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:11 PM on October 5, 2008

There was plenty of attention directed at Emma Hamilton, whose chief claim to fame seems to be sleeping with a variety of wealthy/famous people.
posted by ikkyu2 at 5:29 PM on October 5, 2008

rumored to have had a hat that mocked the bread riots.

I swear I'll read the preview box one of these days.
posted by The Whelk at 6:25 PM on October 5, 2008

posted by kirkaracha at 7:24 PM on October 5, 2008

ikkyu2: There was plenty of attention directed at Emma Hamilton, whose chief claim to fame seems to be sleeping with a variety of wealthy/famous people.

Today she is famous for bonking Lord Nelson but she did gain genuine fame of her own, though it morphed into notoriety pretty quickly. Her first brush with fame was from being an extremely popular artist's model. Lots of artists employed her, the most famous being George Romney and Joshua Reynolds. She was a familiar face before becoming a household name. She gained wide fame for her dancing, which was essentially striptease without the stripping or nudity. And the type of dress she wore while doing this dance, called "attitudes," became the fashionable attire. But she became someone everyone knew who was because of her relationship with Lord Nelson (they had two children).
posted by Kattullus at 7:54 PM on October 5, 2008

I have an old Time magazine from 1945, and there is an interesting pictorial about the marriage of Jinx Falkenburg, which was very reminiscent of The Philadelphia Story. I wasn't familiar with Falkenburg when I originally procured the magazine, but the pictorial really struck me. She did seem like a Hiltonesque diva/socialite. Also, you might consider Helen Hope Montgomery Scott, a Main Line (Philadelphia area) socialite ('a symbol of an aristocratic but free-spirited style and elegance' .. so not much like Paris, actually). The character Tracy Lord (of The Philadelphia Story/High Society) was based on her.
posted by Mael Oui at 8:31 PM on October 5, 2008

Cleopatra is interesting because she suffered so much at Marc Anthony's propaganda. I know popular opinion at the time painted her as a seductive, corrupting FOREIGN leader, I don't know if it was the same air of ditzy, celebrity worthlessness. Emma Hamilton and Alice Roosevelt seem like better fits.
posted by The Whelk at 9:07 PM on October 5, 2008

I'm going to second Brenda Frazier, who was not just famous for being merely rich, but famous for being rich and spoiled and extravagant during the Great Depression. She even shows up as a reference in Stephen Sondheim's song "I'm Still Here" from "Follies" (see halfway down page).
posted by Asparagirl at 9:20 PM on October 5, 2008

Socialites? Any of the Four Hundred would probably qualify.
posted by booksandlibretti at 12:19 AM on October 6, 2008

You should read Procopius' Secret History: all the celebrity obsessed gossip and scandal you should ever want — from the days of the Byzantine Empire (around 550 CE).
posted by tallus at 7:47 AM on October 6, 2008

Marc Anthony and Augustus' propaganda, I mean. The first Emperor popularized the idea that Cleopatra was unmanning great men with her secret magic woman powers.
posted by The Whelk at 9:08 AM on October 6, 2008

Gloria and Thelma Morgan were twins who became famous in the early 20s for being seen at the right social gatherings and being pretty. Gloria married Reginald Vanderbilt when she was 19; after his death, their daughter, Gloria, became the subject of a custody battle between the elder Gloria and Reginald's sister Gertrude.

Little Gloria, Happy at Last has a lot of fascinating detail on the Morgan twins' career as socialites.
posted by cereselle at 1:12 PM on October 6, 2008

Katullus, anyone could have read that summary in the Wikipedia article. A casual inspection of any of Romney's portraits, however, could have left no doubt that not only was he sleeping with her, he was in love with her.

I imagine she was boinking Reynolds, too, and probably many others.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:52 PM on October 6, 2008

Well yes... I'm sure she boinked a-plenty, but that's not what she first became famous for. I suggested Emma Hamilton myself, upthread, and I still think that she's a very close analogy to Paris Hilton. Incidentally, Paris Hilton became a fixture in fashion and celebrity rags before the sex tapes made her a household name. She and her sister Nicky were in a ton of them, especially fashion magazines, appearing in the sections that are filled to the brim with socialites, heiresses and progeny of people one never hears of outside of fashion mags. But yes, like Paris Hilton, a sex scandal propelled her from being known to megafame.
posted by Kattullus at 10:04 PM on October 6, 2008

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