Research Shows That True Fame Lasts Longer Than 15 Minutes

Contrary to the cliché, an analysis of news articles over the years shows that celebrity has lasting power

Natalie Portman was among the most often-mentioned names of the 2000s, according to a new study, reflecting the fact that true celebrity lasts longer than 15 minutes. Image via Wikimedia Commons/Real TV Films

In 1968, Andy Warhol—already famous in his own right—further added to his celebrity by creating a lasting cliché: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”

Prescient as Warhol might have been, it seems we haven’t reached that future quite yet, at least according to science. A new study, published today in the American Sociological Reviewfinds that true fame lasts a good deal longer than 15 minutes. In an analysis of the celebrity journalism nationwide, researchers found that the most famous (and most often-mentioned) celebrities stick around for decades.

To come to the finding, a number of sociologists each spent a multi-year sabbatical meticulously combing the “Stars: They’re Just Like Us” feature of UsMagazine. Several reportedly declined to return to the field of academia, apparently taking their talents to the analytical departments of the glossy magazine industry full-time.

Just kidding! In all seriousness, the sociologists, led by Eran Shor of McGill University and Arnout van de Rijt of Stony Brook University, used an automated search took a random sample of roughly 100,000 names that appeared in the entertainment sections of 2,200 daily American newspapers published between 2004 and 2009. Their sample didn’t include every single name published, but rather a random selection of names published at all different frequencies—so it wouldn’t be useful for telling you who was the most often-mentioned celebrity overall, but would be illustrative of the sorts of trends that famous (and not-so-famous) names go through over time.

The ten most frequently-mentioned names in their sample: Jamie Foxx, Bill Murray, Natalie Portman, Tommy Lee Jones, Naomi Watts, Howard Hughes, Phil Spector, John Malkovich, Adrien Brody and Steve Buscemi. All celebrities, they note, were relatively famous before the year 2000, in some cases decades earlier (Howard Hughes rose to fame in the 1920s). All ten names, additionally, are still fairly well-known today.

Overall, 96 percent of the most famous names in the sample (those mentioned more than 100 times over the course of a given year) had already been frequently featured in the news three years earlier, further dispelling the 15 minutes cliché. Furthermore, if a name was mentioned extremely often in its first year of appearing, it stood a greater chance of sticking around for an extended period of time.

There is, however, some truth to 15-minutes idea: Names of lesser fame (those less frequently mentioned to start) exhibit significantly higher amounts of turnover from year to year. The researchers say these names mostly fall into the category of people involved in newsworthy events—such as natural disasters and crimes—rather than people who readers find newsworthy in their own right. As an example, Van de Rijt mentions Chelsey Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who briefly achieved celebrity after successfully executing an emergency landing on the Hudson River in 2011, but is now scarcely frequently mentioned in the press.

The list of the most famous names, though, stays relatively similar every year. “The vast majority of coverage goes to names that have already been in the news for several years, and new names rarely penetrate the higher strata of fame,” the researchers write in the study. The bottom of the fame hierarchy is filled with new names annually, but at the top, they write, is “a reshuffling of already familiar names and not rapid replacement of an outgoing cohort by an incoming cohort.”

Apart from the newspaper data, the team also looked at a much smaller sample of celebrity mentions on blogs and TV, and found a similar trend. New media, it seems, follow roughly the same pattern as old outlets—which is why you don’t see much about figures like the “balloon boy” across the web nowadays either.

Frivolous as the work may seem, the researchers say it bears important conclusions about our society. Upward mobility in the celebrity world is extremely scarce. Becoming famous requires some combination of talent and luck that allows a person to break into the elite class of being mentioned over and over by the press. But what is that combination–what makes a person famous? Or is it that the press has created a cycle that allows a person to remain famous, in some cases after his or her career has peaked, or even after his or her death?”

No word yet on whether scientists will someday be able to create a multivariable model to quantify celebrity “fierceness” over time as well.

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