The rise of the celebrity cult phenomenon

Photo supplied by Global Citizen.
Photo supplied by Global Citizen.

The worship of celebrity culture reflects the public’s shift from religious figures to modern-day personalities as symbols that inform how we formulate and understand morality, writes Welcome Lishivha.

There is no denying that the rise of celebrity culture has become no different to the rise of cults.

The fact that celebrity stans need to have a name like Beyoncé’s Beyhive, Rihanna’s Navy and Nicki Minaj’s Barbs is testament to this.

The power that celebrities amass when they attain a following give many a god-like status.

The rise of social media and influencers has also meant that many individuals can now aspire to attain a following and can do so through easy-to-access online platforms without the help of traditional media houses.

Barbados-born singer Rihanna poses before the Chri

South Africa's own Queen B, Bonang Matheba, wins an Inspiration and Influence Award at the Global Social Awards. 

Individuals attain celebrity status when they become celebrated for being exemplary through their successes or personality traits.

Scholars who have studied the celebrity phenomenon have observed that the idea that every one else can attain the same level of visibility and achievement possessed by the likes of Queen Bs (Bonang Matheba or Beyoncé) is quite frankly an illusion. It is an illusion that functions to provide ordinary people with an escape from their not-so-glamorous realities and to reconcile people with the idea that some people will always have more than others.

The question of who is seen and celebrated is almost always either informed by or has deep sociopolitical conditions.

The rise of Nelson Mandela’s celebrity for example – the biggest we’ve known in South Africa and possibly the world – is an indication of South Africa’s need to look away from the failures of the rainbow nation narrative and to instead use one individual as a concealer for the failures that South Africa still experiences post-apartheid.

In an article titled The Visual Mandela: A Pedagogy of Citizenship, associate professor Lize van Robbroeck studies how Madiba is positioned as an ideal citizen who models exemplary personhood that we should all aspire towards.

Income inequalities and feelings of disappointment directed towards the governing party for corruption and inadequate use of state resources gave rise to beliefs directed towards an idealised other, functioning as a role model through which our hopes and desires are projected.

In essence, celebrities allow us an escape from our realities into a fabricated world.

Celebrity household names such as Beyoncé and Oprah Winfrey gained their acclaim for riches that were celebrated with the deep-rooted belief that they had worked hard to attain every cent.


The Carters at The Global Citizen Concert. Photo supplied.

The “hard work” messaging that everyone can achieve their riches if they too work hard is an illusion that makes people forget that they are poor often owing to structural inequalities, not their actions.

Besides the stardom of figures celebrated for achieving great success, reality television is another avenue through which we formulate our moral ideas of how to go about the world. Reality TV enables viewers to act as judges of the decisions made by the reality TV stars, often as a way of affirming their own.

Think of how we all seem to have something to say about the housewives and their lives. There is an assumed moral high ground that comes with having access – or the illusion of having access – to other people’s lives.

Singling out individuals in the media as celebrities or public figures affects us whether we consider the person a hero or a villain, because villains too can only be assumed against the backdrop of an agreeable good.

Today, South African media houses continue to single out, celebrate and shun specific individuals for their successes, failures or personality traits.

The attribution of celebrity status is also seen through initiatives such as the Mail & Guardian 200 Young South Africans, 100 Most Influential Young South Africans, Forbes Africa 30 Under 30, and other such lists celebrating excellence.


South African born comedian, Trevor Noah, now a world-class celebrity and host of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.

These campaigns pick out and celebrate a handful of citizens seen as modelling what is considered ideal citizenship. These representations, much like the celebration of Mandela, compensate for South Africa’s failure in leadership and the living conditions of many by focusing on and arguably exaggerating the deeds of the good citizens.

The campaigns celebrate “movers and shakers” with the well-meaning purpose of inspiring others. Penelope Lockwood and Kunda studied inspiration and observed that inspirational messages can empower the intended recipients of the inspiring message by exposing them to the idea that they can achieve more.

This can take place when there are similarities between the role model and the intended recipient of the message. However, inspiration can also disempower people when they discover that they are not likely to reach the same level of success as the intended role models, or might not enjoy any success at all.

Public figures and celebrities are not a phenomenon that only emerged with mass media. Rulers, religious leaders and prophets were famous people even before mass media. The celebrity figure in our society today has come to take the place of religious leaders, prophets and rulers who were models to whom we looked up to for moral guidance.

When Friedrich Nietzsche said that “God is dead”, he didn’t only mean that religion had declined, he also meant that we no longer had one moral standard that was agreeable to everyone with which to judge what was right and wrong. So celebrities are now an essential aspect to how we formulate our morality and fill the gap of the alleged dead God.

Barbados-born singer Rihanna poses before the Chri

Barbados-born singer Rihanna's fans are called the navy. Photo by Patrick Kovarik. 

The rise of Christianity meant that spiritual guidance became central to how societies functioned. This guidance was only achievable with the facilitation of some individuals who were closer to God than others. One doesn’t need to look further than popular mythologies to understand that the relationship between human beings and gods has been central to how we have approached and understood our morality for the longest time.

In essence, religion was the beginning of human beings giving power to an other who was perceived as divine and well meaning, an idea rooted in the biblical analogy of a shepherd with a flock.

Today, the shepherd-flock relationship is still at the heart of many political models and applies to the celebrity phenomenon that’s characterised by one having “a following”.

This relationship centralises the individual because the shepherd is the one singled-out who must first be the individual icon of sacrifice for the collective flock, while creating the illusion of a well-meaning shared vision. Here, there is also the promise that the shepherd is equal to each sheep.

The celebrity phenomenon today is a modern way through which people give other people god-like power and status, thus subtly rendering them shepherds, and those who follow them, the flock. The phenomenon is one whose traces clearly date as far back as humans being able to organise in groups.

It’s a phenomenon that has morphed into many forms of governance, including religion and aristocracy. According to celebrity culture scholar Chris Rojek, “post-God, celebrity is one of the mainstays of organising recognition and belonging in a secular society”.

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