You read Us Weekly for the articles. You can't help but be interested in what Lindsay Lohan snorted, ran her car into or slept with this week. But, you went to college, you read the new Chabons and Lethems as soon as they come out! You're not a vapid person! Good news: Celebrity is not only a major driver of the economy, it's a subject worthy of academic scrutiny. University of Southern California professor Elizabeth Currid, PhD., explains the sociology of fame and pop culture.
Like most people who've lived in New York or Los Angeles for a while, I am no longer thrilled about running into celebrities for the sake of running into them. It isn't all that interesting any more, even though it's still amusing to remark, "I ran into Scarlett Johansson and she is so much hotter in person." (She so is).
But intellectually, I'm still curious: What makes someone famous? The obvious answer concerns talent, beauty, or profession. But celebrity validates itself. No one is ever just famous for what they do or what they look like. People are also celebrities because they spend time with other famous people. In other words, they reinforce their status and power by virtue of remaining an exclusive network of celebrities. So how does one even begin to penetrate the celebrity network?
I wanted to get to the bottom of this. But good luck getting someone like Nicole Richie to fill out a survey on who she was hanging out with and where last week. So my colleague at the University of Southern California Gilad Ravid and I figured out the next best thing. How do we know what celebrities do, who they hang out with, and where they go? Because at every great celebrity event is an even greater photographer documenting the entire thing. Getty Images is by far the best, most comprehensible international database of photos and so we looked at every documented entertainment-related event occurring around the world from March 2006 through March 2007. And then we took all this data and ran extensive social network analysis on the people in the photos (who else was at the event, who is in each photo, where the event is located). We wanted to see if we could find patterns in celebrity social behavior. Where do celebrities go and who do they hang out with?
This isn't to say famous people don't have non-famous friends, or that they don't act like regular people in their not-in-the-spotlight moments (remember, US Weekly's mantra, they're just like us!). But we're interested in the public social behavior of celebrities—the events "that matter", the ones that normal people aren't invited to—not so much their morning run to Starbucks. So far, we've figured out a thing or two about the nature of celebrity.
Celebrity is like getting accepted at Harvard: Hard as hell, but once you're in, you're in. Everyone knows everyone. And even if Celebrity X invited you to the party, you will likely know everyone else at the party through a different channel. The celebrity network reinforces itself and its exclusivity. Everyone stays friends with the same people and the gang of beautiful people moves from event to event together—no interlopers allowed.
Look at the social network of the Queen Bee of exclusivity herself, Anna Wintour, darling editrix of Vogue magazine. Between March 2006-2007, Ms. Wintour attended 57 events around the world at which she was photographed by Getty. (This is not a large number, considering Paris Hilton was photographed at approximately 2000 events and Penelope Cruz at more than 1700. And an "event" can be the Costume Institute Benefit and it can also be a boutique opening. Either way, Hilton and Cruz are far more social and out and about than Wintour. Though, this isn't surprising. Ms. Wintour is nothing if not selective in her social life).
While there may have been other people at the events, only 1242 people in events around the world were photographed at the same events as Ms. Wintour. (Contrast this with American Idol star and Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Hudson, who was at events with 2239 other people in just California alone). Ms. Wintour's social life can be categorized as a "fully-connected network," which means that all the people who attend events that Ms. Wintour attends tend to attend them together, meaning that they all go to the same events—as opposed to attending discrete events with her. In other words, they run in a pack, so to speak, even if their packs are made up of limos.
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Within her network, five of the most important people (what social networkers like to call "authorities") are Vogue's main man Andre Leon Talley, Fashion Week organizer Fern Mallis, premier fashion stylist Phillip Bloch, InStyle's editor-in-chief Hal Rubenstein, and socialite Tinsley Mortimer. These people have the most connections with the most connected, which means they have a knack for attending events and being in photographs with the most social of social butterflies.
Another crew within the Wintour crowd worth befriending are those that tend to be friends outside of Wintour. They go to events together even when Wintour is not holding court. Maybe they are genuinely friends. Or married, like Donald and Melania Trump. But count burlesque goddess Dita Von Teese, designer Zac Posen, and musician Harry Connick Jr. in this crowd too. These people go to events together outside of the ones that Ms. Wintour attends.
Then there are the social butterflies themselves. These individuals are the "most connected" of all people at the events and they have been photographed with more people and at more events than anyone else within the Wintour circle. These people know everyone. Knowing these people is generally a good idea if you want to expand your celebrity social network. This group overlaps a lot with the others. For example, Andre Leon Talley not only appears at events with very connected people, he is also very connected to lots of people himself. Same with Zac Posen and Donald and Melania Trump. Other really connected people include the rapper Eve and Ms. Wintour's daughter, Bee Schaffer.
If you really want to become BFF with Ms. Wintour, you might want to befriend those people who go to the most events that Wintour attends. Take a look at the chart above. Ms. Wintour obviously has the most connections within her network, and thus is ranked first. But of all celebrities, Talley, Tinsley Mortimer, Michael Kors, Tommy Hilfiger and Kanye West are among those who tend to go to most events that she does.
People who are not so likely to help your cause if you're trying to become famous are designers Donna Karan and Doo Ri and actress Cameron Diaz. Don't mistake these people for not being cool enough; by the numbers, they're actually too cool. They attend events Ms. Wintour attends but don't tend to go to all the events, and they are unlikely to go to events with the crowd at Wintour's events if she isn't also there.
On the other hand, if your focus is less on getting into the network and more on just getting celebrity publicity, you might want to start hanging out with the people in Ms. Wintour's network that get photographed the most. These are not, interestingly enough, the same people who go to the most events with Ms. Wintour. But, when they do go to an event with Ms. Wintour in attendance, they are photographed more than anyone—sometimes even more than the Queen Bee herself. We analyzed the 11, 740 pictures within the Wintour network and found that fashion designer John Galliano was photographed 321 times, while Ms. Wintour was photographed 192 times. Getty photographers took 97 shots Sienna Miller, 75 of Victoria Beckham and 68 of Katie Holmes.
Of course this makes sense: Consumers of celebrity love these ladies. They are photographed more, we hypothesize, because the press love them and want more pictures of them. In other words, media drives photographs—but that's not the same thing as being at a lot of events. Since the top people who go to events with Ms. Wintour are not the same people who get photographed by the media the most, you'll have to make a choice whether you want to be in the network or just be in a lot of photographs. Your safest bet is becoming chummy with Ms. Wintour herself.
But good luck with that. Unless you're Governor of Fantasyland, you recognize the impossibility of that quest.
As it turns out, being a celebrity is hard work and probably a little boring. Becoming famous—really famous—is virtually impossible unless you know exactly the right people. But that might be a good thing, because once you're in, you're just meeting the same people over and over again. The allure of celebrity world is that no one else is invited, so you must be special. But once you join, it just might be the end to your wild and interesting social life as you know it.
Elizabeth Currid is assistant professor at University of Southern California's School of Policy, Planning and Development. Her first book, The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art and Music Drive New York City, will be published by Princeton University Press this September.
Dr. Gilad Ravid, a post-doctoral researcher at University of Southern California and Lecturer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, assisted with this column.