James and his team developed the series as a study on the concept fame, and more specifically "world fame". They focused on over 250 people who are "undeniably world famous". Certain artists, musicians or sports figures became well known even for people who don’t know much about their field. Louis Armstrong is for instance world famous, even for non-jazzfans or experts. Pelé became the most famous soccer player, even in the US: one of the few countries in the world where the sport isn’t popular. People who know nothing about art have heard of the name Pablo Picasso and know his style. People who are not interested in tennis have heard of John McEnroe, due to his bad behaviour on the tennis court. More people know Luciano Pavarotti than Plácido Domingo.
Clive James focused on fame in the 20th century, because the arrival of mass media, film and television changed the ways people became famous forever. In the previous centuries people could only become famous by doing something that was remembered ages later. Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte conquered countries, Jesus Christ developed a religion,... In the 20th century people could become world famous in less than no time and without doing anything, thanks to the arrival of mass media. Movie stars like Charlie Chaplin, for instance, have become global stars due to the nearly universal reach of film. James cites Chaplin as the first truly world famous 20th century celebrity. The invention of the film close-up made people on film screens appear larger than life and thus increased the emotional involvement of the audience. This often led to mass hysteria and confusions between an actor's stage persona and the roles he plays on the screen (as in the case of Rudolph Valentino). Certain politicians in the century have used the media to promote their own image to the public, as for instance John F. Kennedy, who looked like a movie star, and Ronald Reagan who even was a former movie star.
People could become world famous in a matter of a few days. Orson Welles became notorious after his radio play War of the Worlds caused mass hysteria in the United States. Salman Rushdie, who was already known in literary circles, became a household name to the broader public due to the fatwa spoken out against him in 1989. Clive James sees the USA as the place where this new type of mass media fame was born. According to him international fame is only possible if the celebrity becomes famous in the USA. Cricketer Jack Hobbs was world famous throughout the British Empire in the interbellum, but unknown in countries where cricket was not popular, like the USA. Babe Ruth did however get internationally famous, even though baseball was hardly played anywhere else outside the US.
Other celebrities have been around for so long that the reason they originally became famous has been almost forgotten. Elizabeth Taylor has been cited by James as an example of someone who originally achieved fame as an actress, but later became more famous for her weddings and lifestyle. Celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Madonna, Michael Jackson, The Beatles never remained out of publicity and are nowadays famous for simply being who they are. Some people became famous due to their association with other celebrities. Examples are Yoko Ono (the wife of Beatle John Lennon), Lady Diana (who married Prince Charles in 1981) and Wallis Simpson (whose affair with King Edward VIII of the United Kingdom caused his abdication). Another phenomenon examined in the series is the change of someone's fame during time and thanks to mass media coverage. Charles Lindbergh, first famous as an aviation pioneer, became, to his horror, even more famous when his son was kidnapped and murdered. Dwight Eisenhower's fame as a general in World War II helped him win the presidential elections a decade later. Joseph McCarthy used the media in his hunt against communism, but in the end the media also worked against him. Elvis Presley‘s fame grew to legendary proportions after his death, when he sold even more albums than during his already successful lifetime.
When Clive James was asked by Charlie Rose in 1993 to name the three most famous people of the century he named: Elvis Presley, Mohammed Ali and Bruce Lee (and Adolf Hitler, "but the fact is the young Neonazis in Germany now don't really know much about Hitler. So that kind of fame not necessarily lasts.")
Read more about this topic: Fame In The 20th Century
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