For years I've been predicting the death of celebrity culture and eventually I'll be right, but for the wrong reasons. It won't be because we've come to our senses and begun to idolize the humanitarians or fighters for truth and justice -- those who have contributed to the public good in a way that Jay-Z and Beyoncé, to use a current example, only touch. America's first couple of hip-hop may hobnob with billionaires, presidents and sports stars, but outside of their fame and business smarts, what have they done, exactly? I don't want to single them out, but they've come to symbolize the American Dream in a more profound way than the Obamas. And don't think the message is lost on the White House image makers who, more recently, have had Michelle presenting at the Oscars and doing the Dougie on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
Don't call me naïve. I don't expect our culture to suddenly turn into a utopia where people are respected for the right reasons, where the white male with a hedge fund and a blue-chip art collection who's made his fortune through insider trading is no longer held up as a pillar of society because he's bought his way onto the right boards. Alas, that's not happening, but, mercifully, it no longer works to fool people and call it a business plan. The collective cultural consciousness has a way of filtering and separating the noise from the music in a way that leads to change. When the banks imploded and Wall Street was caught with its hands in the till, little changed at first. But the Feds are targeting bad guys as examples who must be punished, and the media is joining the chorus. So there's hope.
Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the masterminds behind the production company World of Wonder, have had a front-row seat to the mythmaking machine that is Hollywood for some 20 years. Their view, however, was a bit askew to start with and has become even more eccentric since, growing along with the success of World of Wonder and its impressive string of genre and gender-bending film and TV hits like Party Monster, RuPaul's Drag Race, Inside Deep Throat and The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Just to prove how offbeat they are, the pioneers of reality-based TV and creators of some of the weirdest television shows ever made have published The World According to Wonder (1991-2012), a coffee table book full of portraits of famous people they have loved and worked with, like Pamela Anderson, John Waters, Chloë Sevigny and producer Brian Grazer, as well as fabulous nobodies who mean as much to them as the boldfaced notables.
"Why include photos of people who may be important to you but nobody else?" I asked, when they visited the Paper office. (Full disclosure: We're longtime friends and Bailey once wrote a column for Paper.) "That's just it," replies Bailey. "We thought it was important because today it is a completely level playing field. The drag queen who threw the first brick at Stonewall is as important as the president who speaks about gay marriage in his inauguration address. One is cause and one is effect and they are completely connected. Someone who is not very well-known versus the most famous person on the planet. They're actually on the same level."
"Our first receptionist is as important as Pamela Anderson," adds Barbato.
"Where are the stars of today?" I asked. (If Twitter is to be believed, many viewers of the recent Oscar telecast wondered the same thing.) "We live in the screen age," says Bailey, "a time when stars can be minted from dancers, fashion editors and real estate agents." (For the full interview with Bailey and Barbato click here.)
So if the playing field is as level as they say -- and the evidence is incontrovertible -- the concept of celebrity as we know it is obsolete. The sense of entitlement that keeps the haves from the have-nots that's embedded into celebrities is losing its shine as others come forward to share the spotlight.
And so we introduce the Beautiful People of 2013. This year's class (our Sweet 16th) includes those at the top and others up-and-coming. There are the actors Penn Badgley and Sarah Hyland, rapper Kilo Kish and basketballer Russell Westbrook, as well as drag queen Merrie Cherry, fashion activist Brandice Henderson and nightlife mover and shaker, DJ Mess Kid. You won't know them all, but you should. And in some cases you will, whether you like it or not. Such is the power of Celebrity 2.0.