How the famously famous never fade from view

A new study concludes that fame is not fleeting. It can last decades.
(Claudio Onorati / European Pressphoto Agency)

Whoever said fame was fleeting had no idea what they were talking about. Just ask Oprah Winfrey, Tom Cruise, Donald Trump, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Jordan or Bill Murray. They’ve been soaking up the spotlight for years.

In fact, not only does fame last longer than Andy Warhol’s predicted 15 minutes, true fame often lasts for decades, according to a new study published Thursday in the American Sociological Review.


Sociologists in the emergent field of fame and celebrity used a text analysis system called Lydia to examine 2,200 daily newspapers and other periodicals to search for people’s names and the context of their appearance in print. Some periodicals dated back two decades, while others were from 2004 to 2009.

Lead study author Arnout van de Rijt, an assistant sociology professor at Stony Brook University, and colleagues found that 60% of all newspaper coverage was devoted to just 1% of the people mentioned in print.

They also found that there was little turnover in that group. While some names would appear prominently due to sudden notoriety, they often disappeared in a year or two.

“Leonard Cohen is still well known today, over 40 years after he first became famous,” said Van de Rijt. “But Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who received instant fame after safely landing a disabled plane on the Hudson, is a name that will likely be forgotten pretty quickly. What we have shown is that Leonard Cohen is the rule and Chesley Sullenberger the exception.”


In fact, a true mark of fame, according to the study, was the ability of a person to stop doing the activity that made them famous to begin with and still remain in the public eye.

“Successful movie actors, entrepreneurs, authors and athletes can do anything -- write a book, host a television show, or show up at an event -- and have media attention shift to them,” authors wrote. “Anything they touch turns to gold and attracts the spotlight.... By contrast, ephemeral fame is passive and limited to the respective event -- whether its is a minor crime, a YouTube video, a nearby disaster, or a brief chance appearance on television.”


The study contradicts the perception held by many in academia and the media that fame has become increasingly fleeting.

“This perception is further strengthened by the tabloids’ in-and-out lists, informing us of who is now worthy of public attention, and who is no longer interesting,” the authors wrote. “Newspaper columnists often lament the shallowness of today’s culture, citing reality TV stars such as Kim Kardashian and celebrities such as Paris Hilton, and question if they deserve their fame.”


For much of the last decade, the 10 names that showed up most in entertainment sections were Jamie Foxx, Bill Murray, Natalie Portman, Tommy Lee Jones, Naomi Watts, Howard Hughes, Phil Spector, John Malkovich, Adrien Brody and Steve Buscemi, the authors said.

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