Were there unwilling/accidental celebrities before the Internet?
July 25, 2008 1:59 PM   Subscribe

Looking for examples of accidental/unwitting/unwilling celebrities, before the Internet. Help me find the Star Wars Kids, Afroninjas, and Tay Zondays of the pre-1990s.

I'm doing a talk at ROFLThing in late August, and I want to talk about unwilling or accidental celebrities. You'd think there would be historical examples of people who became famous for embarrassing actions before the age of the Internet, but I'm having a very hard time finding them. Were there accidental celebrities in the '60s, '70s, and '80s? How about the Victorian era?

Finding unwitting celebrities is much easier, with the entire genre of outsider art and outsider music. It's easy to make the argument that Tay Zonday and William Hung are the direct descendants of Wesley Willis and Tiny Tim, but they were very willing participants in their celebrity.

I'm more interesting in people that became famous accidentally, real or fictional, before the Internet. Bonus points for anything before 1970. Thank you!
posted by waxpancake to Society & Culture (45 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe not the best example, but my immediate reaction was "Clara Peller".
posted by gimonca at 2:03 PM on July 25, 2008

I think one of the key points you're missing is how critical the internet has been in lowering the barrier to entry for these instant, psuedo-lebrities.

Consider that we had no real medium or mechanism for instantly publishing video to any actual audience. The best you could hope for was a human interest or bizarre news story to get picked up nationally and even then, exposure would be limited at best.

Memes were really birthed and distributed primarily through movies or other pop culture elements like that that people could replay and absorb. News broadcasts didn't have that kind of traction, so "instant celebrities" weren't. They just couldn't build a following or viewer count.

There may be some scattered examples, but you won't see anything even approaching the popularity of today's internet celebrities. That's what the social/viral media revolution is all about. This stuff hasn't been POSSIBLE before the internet.

Enjoy your Brave New World. :-)
posted by disillusioned at 2:04 PM on July 25, 2008

Ooh, Clara Peller is a good one. But not unwitting. She was an actress. While the response to that medium (an advertisement) was disproportionate, it was still a meme spread by wide TV exposure. And in reality, a commercial would be just about the widest exposure you could hope for. Large distribution, repeated showings, et cetera.

Also, remember that no one would've cared about someone practicing Star Wars moves in their garage before. Meme creation and proliferation wasn't what it is today, where we find LOLcats funny. And editors would never publicize a video like that without there having already been a grassroots reason. (The only reason you ever saw that on TV was because editors noticed it getting major traffic on the internet. They would've never picked that on their own, by and large.)
posted by disillusioned at 2:07 PM on July 25, 2008

The idea of the accidental celebrity strikes me as something of a fallacy altogether. The people you mention all self-published in a mass-media format. The internet celebrities just aggregated more popularity than we are used to expecting from such minor talents in the pre-internet tradition, due to cult appeal. The only people I can think of who gain celebrity without intent are crime victims or other figures in the news, like Patty Hearst or Joey Buttafuoco. I don't know where you're going with your talk, but I think that's interesting.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 2:13 PM on July 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

The sexual predator known as "Dangerous Top," who terrorized gays in Manhattan by taking them home for consensual sex and then bound and gagged them and did terrible things to them.

He was revealed to be a hugely wealthy investment banker, with a sex dungeon in his palatial Manhattan townhouse. Can't remember his name, but it was definitely in the news when he was identified.
posted by jayder at 2:21 PM on July 25, 2008

@Ambrosia The Star Wars Kid and Afroninja didn't self-publish... Other people found their footage and published it without their consent. Same goes for some email-borne fame, like Claire Swire.
posted by waxpancake at 2:29 PM on July 25, 2008

I would disagree with the idea of an accidental celebrity being a fallacy. The don't all desire the spotlight, and often they might actually want to avoid. I take the case of Star Wars kid as an example in which the video wasn't self-published. I don't know if before the internet, short of criminal involvement, a person could be forced into the spotlight as some of those mentioned have been.
posted by Carillon at 2:30 PM on July 25, 2008

The famous kissing couple pictured in Times Square on VJ day, although their celebrity came much later.
posted by Gungho at 2:32 PM on July 25, 2008

Metallica Drummer is the first one that comes to mind.
posted by dhammond at 2:33 PM on July 25, 2008

Whoever it is who leaves flowers on Edgar Allen Poe's grave every year
posted by Gungho at 2:35 PM on July 25, 2008

...although that's from the '90s which might be a bit late for what you're doing. However, it was definitely pre-internet as it spread via VHS dubs, much like the Winnebago Man Jack Rebney video (self-link).
posted by dhammond at 2:35 PM on July 25, 2008

What about Baby Jessica? She might not fit your 'embarrassing actions' requirement since she was so young.
posted by macfly at 2:39 PM on July 25, 2008

Although I wasn't around for this, didn't vhs bootleg tapes of random crap like this used to circulate? Pretty much like The Ring?

Also, for my personal comfort, is Tay Zonday really in the same group as Afro Ninja? I mean, I actually like Chocolate Rain, and Internet Dream. I would equate him more with the "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" on ukulele guy.

Are you talking exclusively embarrassing-class celebrities?
posted by cmoj at 2:43 PM on July 25, 2008

Jan Terri.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 2:45 PM on July 25, 2008

Right, I'm mostly interested in unwilling celebrities. People that didn't want to have any part of being a celebrity, and most likely, didn't self-publish at all.
posted by waxpancake at 2:52 PM on July 25, 2008

I don't think it fits your criteria exactly, but my mind wanders to that show Real People that used to be on one of the Big Three. It was sort of the same principle as YouTube: normal everyday people who had some odd talent they wanted to show off to others.
posted by WCityMike at 2:57 PM on July 25, 2008

Um, how about people involved in scandals, like Jessica Hahn or Donna Rice?
posted by MegoSteve at 3:07 PM on July 25, 2008

People like John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer didn't do what they did to become famous, but everybody knew who they were, and knew intimate details about their lives. I guess that fits the idea of celebrity in a weird way.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 3:11 PM on July 25, 2008

I remember cassette tapes being passed around in the 80s and 90s - things like baseball manager Tommy Lasorda's rant, embarrassing studio tape of the Troggs, unintentionally hilarious outsider music. I don't know if any of these rose to the level of "celebrities" (who weren't already) but you might try exploring that avenue.
posted by dfan at 3:16 PM on July 25, 2008

Kaspar Hauser.
posted by arcanecrowbar at 3:27 PM on July 25, 2008

It seems like shows like Johnny Carson used to have this type of guest on with some regularity. Of course I can't remember any of them specifically but the formula was always "Average person thrust into the spotlight because of X."

X would be something like like multiple births (quintuplets or whatever), small child who saved the family by hiding behind the couch and calling police during a home invasion, kid who fell down a well and was rescued in a multi-day operation--that type of thing.

On a slightly different tack, Patty Hearst.
posted by flug at 3:30 PM on July 25, 2008

How about Red from the Tube Bar?
posted by Lou Stuells at 3:41 PM on July 25, 2008

Maybe the Shaggs? Or anything here
posted by destro at 4:07 PM on July 25, 2008

I think you might be setting two different standards here - "accidental celebrity not because of the internet" and "accidental celebrity before the 1990s".

Case in point: Kato Kaelin. His accidental celebrity, such as it was, came in the 1990s. And it wasn't before the internet. But it certainly wasn't because of the internet, and it certainly was before the ubiquity of the internet that leads to the phenomenon of easier accidental celebrity.

In fact, strictly speaking, "before the internet" brings you back to the Sixties. You surely don't actually mean this; you mean something more like "not because of the internet". In which case, the Katos of the world should count, despite being in the Nineties.
posted by Flunkie at 4:28 PM on July 25, 2008

Perhaps Eddie Gaedel?

I suppose one could dispute that it wasn't "accidental", but I would bet that, a day or two before it happened, playing in a major league baseball game and getting his name immortalized as the first (and thus far only) little person to do so was probably the farthest thing from his mind.
posted by Flunkie at 4:37 PM on July 25, 2008

Steve Bartman
posted by fancypants at 4:41 PM on July 25, 2008

People who were caught in famous photos. For example, the guys who hoisted the flag at Iwo Jima achieved some level of celebrity.
posted by Flunkie at 4:42 PM on July 25, 2008

I think you want something like this: Vinko Bogataj, known as the "agony of defeat" guy from the opening credits to ABCs Wide World of Sports. The guy had *no idea* he was famous for a colossal embarrassment until years afterward. The show followed up with the guy.

The melodrama of the narration—which became something of a catch phrase in the US—and the sympathetic pain of watching Bogataj wipe out week after week, transformed the uncredited ski jumper into an American icon of bad luck and misfortune. Meanwhile, having retired to his quiet, private life in Slovenia, Vinko Bogataj was unaware of his celebrity, and so was quite confused to be asked to attend the 30th anniversary celebration for Wide World of Sports in 1991. He was stunned when other, more famous athletes present, such as Muhammad Ali, asked him for his autograph.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:44 PM on July 25, 2008

I bet you could find a bunch of them by going through lists of frequent guests on Howard Stern, and determining which ones are not (A) outright celebrities and (B) pre-YouTube.

The lady who takes Underdog very very seriously, the guy who tapes firecrackers to his genitals, the lady who says that Ronald Reagan stole her architecture, the guy who had a massive debilitating stroke from smoking too much crack, the angry drunken dwarf, and on and on.
posted by Flunkie at 4:55 PM on July 25, 2008

Also, local shopowners around David Letterman's studio.

Mujibur and Sirajul, Rupert, and probably others that I'm forgetting.
posted by Flunkie at 5:00 PM on July 25, 2008

I missed the "embarrassing" part of the question. I didn't mean to imply that any of the people I listed embarrassed themselves.
posted by Flunkie at 5:04 PM on July 25, 2008

Well, it's possible that embarrassing things happened on shows like Candid Camera, Kids Say the Darndest Things or America's Funniest Home Videos that created instant celebrities. Or perhaps news shows where footage was shown that the subject didn't intend others to see. I can remember making jokes about some episodes as kids or hearing adults talking about the subjects of some episodes, but I can't remember specifics.

There are also people like Guy Goma.
posted by jeanmari at 5:30 PM on July 25, 2008

The Dionne Quints. Massively famous in their time and I don't think they were particularly in favour of it. Wikipedia has a pretty good summary of their lives.
posted by GuyZero at 5:44 PM on July 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Jesco White, Dancing Outlaw
posted by kimdog at 6:24 PM on July 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

The first person I thought of was Bill Sipple. His celebrity was unwanted, but it's a sad story and probably not a great topic for ROFL-ing.
posted by dogmom at 7:54 PM on July 25, 2008

Ooh, Clara Peller is a good one. But not unwitting. She was an actress. While the response to that medium (an advertisement) was disproportionate, it was still a meme spread by wide TV exposure.

You know, I went back and checked...I'm not finding any evidence of Ms. Peller appearing in anything before that Wendy's commercial. She certainly didn't seem to be opposed to being a celebrity after it was thrust on her, though.
posted by gimonca at 8:21 PM on July 25, 2008

There's a lot of posts here that seem to be missing the point. Anyone who willingly books themselves onto a talk show probably doesn't count (except maybe if they did the talk-show circuit after becoming famous).

Most of the examples I can think of immediately are either criminals or their victims. Depending on the seriousness of your talk, these may be very inappropriate. Any criminal whose primary goal was not public attention fills this category, as does any victim that made the national news as well.

You may also find photography subjects a fruitful arena, although in many cases, these will again be sad stories. The kissing couple that gungho mentioned is one of the exceptions. Others might include the soldiers raising the flag on Iwo Jima (upon preview: as flunkie said) and the workers in "Lunchtime atop a Skyscraper".

You might also find instances where people who had only a small amount of fame and were suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into larger fame. Relatively unknown athletes, small-time performing artists, and other people who might be on film for reasons other than great fame all have the chance of becoming famous, either intentionally (suddenly a no-name athlete breaks a world record) or unintentionally (such as Vinko Bogotaj, as Cool Papa Bell mentioned). The latter seems to fit your description, and the former doesn't, but that's just my opinion.

Would lottery winners count? I imagine many of them want to win and be famous, but most of them don't really owe their fame to much more than chance.

While I agree that it's easier to find them since the Worldwide Web became popular, it's not the only aspect making it difficult to find examples. The effects of recency, combined with the fact that anyone here is likely relatively well-versed in Internet culture, inflate the perceived fame of the people you mentioned. How many of these people will be remembered by any given person 30 years from now? We're sort of stuck with people who not only became very famous (I'd say at least nationwide fame), but people whose fame lasted long enough for us to remember them now. There are probably thousands of minicelebrities known by at least as many people as Tay Zonday in their time, though the numbers are probably more centralized. If everybody in 1953 NYC knew who you were, that would be pretty famous, even if nobody outside of the area had ever heard of you, and you'd never show up here.

One more sort-of pre-internet minicelebrity. The singer that appears in the opening song of the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? didn't become famous until the movie, but the recording was decades ago, and he wasn't even aware they'd used that recording until someone came to tell him he'd won an award (a Grammy I think, but that's just off the top of my head).
posted by ErWenn at 10:02 PM on July 25, 2008

Floyd Collins, not that he had an opportunity to take real advantage.

Catherine O'Leary.

The Loud Family. They knew they were in a documentary, they had no idea it would fascinate the entire country.

Louise Woodward. Elian. Monica Lewinsky. Numerous other criminal or legal cases that became temporary sensations. The Little Rock Nine.

Sgt. York. The Dionne quints.

Even figures such as T.E. Lawrence struggled mightily with fame in a new mass media age. There wasn't an internet, but there were magazines with massive national circulation such as the Saturday Evening Post or Collier's, and later ones such as LIFE and Look brought photographic celebrity to Middle America. You can browse back issues of People and find "ordinary demi-celebrity" stories in practically every one.
posted by dhartung at 1:42 AM on July 26, 2008

Check out Act One of Recordings for Someone, an episode of This American Life. It's a hilarious story about an answering machine message left for a student at Columbia University (by his mother!) and how the message took on a life of its own. The mother definitely became an unwitting celebrity! Explanation here.
posted by sanitycheck at 3:16 AM on July 26, 2008

Steve Bartman (pretty recent) reminded me of Jeffrey Maier, the kid who reached over the wall to turn an out into a home run and help the Yankees beat the Orioles in the playoffs (1996). Maybe misses the topic a little bit because it wasn't humiliating, a la Star Wars Kid.

Aside from that, Baby Jessica in the well was all I could think of.
posted by bah213 at 8:15 AM on July 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Harvey Pekar. Chronicled his life for an underground comic series late in the seventies. A misanthropic every man, he made it all the way to the Letterman Show but had a meltdown stemming from a disdain for the limelight. Filmed in an '03 movie starring Giamatti.
posted by Student of Man at 8:43 AM on July 26, 2008

Lawnchair Larry (Walters), the guy who "flew" using weather balloons tied to his lawnchair.
posted by carmicha at 1:59 PM on July 26, 2008

Christine Keeler would seem to fit what you're looking for. She was a showgirl who had an affair with British MP John Profumo in 1961, and his subsequent lies about it to the House of Commons caused what's now known as The Profumo Affair.

At the height of the scandal, a portrait was taken of her nude and stradding the back of a chair. It's an iconic image, very recognisable today.
posted by Georgina at 2:09 PM on July 26, 2008

"Quite a few people in the world have seen my penis"

The baby on the Nevermind album cover. Might not fit your premise exactly, but a pretty good example of dealing with unexpected, pre-intarwebs noteriety, I think.
posted by Cyrano at 7:41 AM on July 27, 2008

Well, Florence Foster Jenkins, the notoriously bad soprano, became a celebrity for being an awful singer. She thought she was famous for being a great singer. I don't know if that counts, but I think she compares with Tay Zonday (not that Tay doesn't have a knack for writing catchy melodies. "Chocolate Rain" will probably remain etched onto my neurons until the day I die).
posted by Kattullus at 9:52 AM on July 28, 2008

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