Illustration by Meiko Takechi Arquillos

Behind the curtain

We examine how our scholars and practitioners help shape and communicate the world of celebrity.

On March 20, musician Josh Groban hosted one of the first Billboard Live At-Home music sessions. Dressed casually in an Interlochen Center of the Arts baseball cap and sitting up against a gray wall, he was a little out of focus, a little off-center, and initially wondered aloud if anyone would be joining the Facebook Live feed. He introduced his viewers to his dog Sweeney via photo, and let them know he was raising money for Meals on Wheels America.

After spending a few minutes interacting with his fans via chat, Groban opened up with a tinny rendition of his 2010 hit song “Changing Colors.” He joked that he sounded like he was singing from inside a well, before jumping into a 28-minute combination of banter and song. After multiple requests for “You Raise Me Up,” he reminded the viewers, “I don’t have a bagpipe. I don’t have a string section. I don’t have a choir.” Nevertheless, Groban decided to improvise by bringing his computer into the shower — in order to achieve the right acoustics — asking the online audience to do the same and sing along.

Groban, like many others across the United States, was working from home. The coronavirus pandemic and the social-distancing restrictions imposed in most states to limit its spread had radically reshaped nearly all aspects of day-to-day life — including how musicians, actors, athletes and other celebrities connected with their fans. Groban was able to share this very informal moment with his audience thanks in part to alumna Christina Medina, vice president of artist relations for Billboard Magazine, who booked him for the new series. 

“During this time, musicians who can express their vulnerability are more likely to reach an audience in a way that other entertainers might have a more difficult time doing,” said Medina, who graduated in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in communication. “With their music, they are able to uplift and inspire hope.” 

Social-distancing measures have led not only musicians like Groban, but celebrities across the entertainment industry, to find new ways to persist in the public eye by providing even more intimate glimpses into their everyday lives. Following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed by police in Minneapolis on May 25, many of these stars, such as Star Wars actor John Boyega, have used their platforms for a different kind of exposure: They have joined protesters at demonstrations around the world and called upon their fan bases to demand racial justice.

Such a breadth of efforts begs the question: What is the nature of celebrity itself?

“Celebrity is the perfect lens by which to explore a lot of complex issues that permeate business and politics,” said Clinical Professor of Communication Chris Smith, whose research focuses on the relationship between economic forces and social formations. “Entertainment is media writ large.”

Smith points out that while the study of entertainment and celebrity might on the surface appear frivolous to some, it provides a critical field for deep cultural inquiry. He, like Medina, is among USC Annenberg’s alumni, faculty and students who are shaping and communicating the stories of celebrity and investigating their deeper significance as they seek to understand how celebrity culture drives social engagement from across every 
aspect of the body politic. 

Shaping the Study and Story of Celebrity

USC Annenberg’s intentional, scholarly approach to the discussion of entertainment and celebrity started 20 years ago when the then-dean, Geoffrey Cowan, asked Marty Kaplan, an associate dean at the time, to put together an entertainment curriculum for the school. Entertainment was taking over every realm of society, Kaplan explained. “We added entertainment as undergraduate and graduate tracks, and a universitywide minor, and created 11 new courses,” said Kaplan, who holds the Norman Lear Chair in Entertainment, Media and Society. “It turned out to be the most popular of the minors and of the tracks, indicating there was a demand from students to learn more about it if they wanted a career in it.” 

Since then, scores of students have enrolled in the courses that span communication, journalism and public relations. This Spring, there were eight courses across these disciplines with either entertainment or celebrity in the course title.

Smith has taught courses on celebrity since 2008, first as part of the communication management master’s program and then later at the undergraduate level. “I teach students to not chase trends, but instead to think about the enduring ways that people form identities around cultural phenomena,” he said. “We are able to travel into their worlds beyond the USC campus, and they in turn are brought into our spaces and our classrooms to have these critical conversations.”

These perspectives stuck with Kirstin Benson, who took Smith’s entertainment course before she graduated in 2009 with a master’s in communication management. Benson, now vice president of global entertainment at Getty Images, reflects on her part in another important cultural conversation.

On June 1, 2015, Caitlyn Jenner posted her first tweet: “I’m so happy after such a long struggle to be living my true self. Welcome to the world Caitlyn. Can’t wait for you to get to know her/me.”

Jenner, the famed Olympic decathlon champion, came out as a transgender woman across traditional and social media. But she didn’t do it alone. Benson, then editor-in-chief at WhoSay, a creative marketing agency for celebrities, was part of the launch team that devised the strategies and messaging needed to introduce Caitlyn Jenner to the world. 

“Stories are most powerful when they’re being told by the person who lived them,” said Benson, who also earned a bachelor’s degree in 2008 in communication and theater. “I spent hours with Caitlyn to help her craft a narrative that would resonate with audiences while leading the conversation around her journey toward becoming a woman in a positive way.”

After it was leaked that Vanity Fair would feature a cover with Jenner as a woman, the initial plan had to be fast-tracked. Benson was tasked with launching Jenner’s Twitter handle, which itself broke a world record: the fastest-growing Twitter account of all time, reaching one million followers in four hours and three minutes. The next step, Benson said, was determining how to control the narrative moving forward.

This ability to craft stories about celebrity and entertainment is also the focus of Mary Murphy’s courses. For the past six years, Murphy, associate professor of professional practice, has taught three courses in entertainment reporting each semester. Like many USC Annenberg faculty, she brings a wealth of personal experience to her instruction, having worked for the Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Tonight and Esquire, among others, as a producer and reporter. 

“I’m able to share my background covering Hollywood and politics around the globe with my students,” she said. “I show them how cultural trends first bubble up in the world of celebrity as a way to help them understand its impact culturally, politically and globally.” 

Being in Los Angeles, Murphy says, also allows USC Annenberg to engage with Hollywood as an extension of the classroom. Murphy has brought many culturally relevant celebrity guests to campus to interview in her classes, giving students the chance to meet and network with those working in the business. Some of her guests have included actors Kerry Washington, Lisa Kudrow and Will Arnett, as well as TV personality Brad Goreski and YouTube phenom and singer Troye Sivan.

The Pressure of Tech and Economics of Brand 

Murphy remembers the moment when the world of entertainment and celebrity reporting started to move away from primarily traditional platforms into social media. It was 2011, and she was interviewing Ashton Kutcher, who had just taken over for Charlie Sheen on the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men. Kutcher told her that if he didn’t like what she wrote, he could go on Twitter and tell his side of the story, Murphy recalled. Kutcher had been on Twitter since 2009 and had millions of followers.

Nearly a decade later, social media isn’t just where mainstream celebrities go to tell their stories. “It’s where new celebrities (and their brands) are made,” said Katie Durko, who earned her bachelor’s in public relations in 2010. “It’s no longer the vision of a celebrity being that person you just saw in a movie or TV show.”

Durko co-founded Edit Media Group, a digital marketing agency that works with a variety of celebrity clientele. She believes that as celebrities aim to connect more deeply with the public, they are looking less toward partnerships with brands, and more toward creating their own. 

“On social, people are really looking to cut through the bullshit,” Durko said. “They see ownership as more authentic than some of the brand partnerships that celebrities are doing.”

Shay Mitchell, an actress who starred in Pretty Little Liars, hired Durko to help launch her new luggage line, BÉIS. Mitchell’s vision was to offer something missing in the marketplace: style and affordability. Durko and her team worked to shape the brand’s creative look, voice and tone that would play out across social media.

For Durko, the development of content authentic for each specific platform is critical. For example, as part of the social media strategy, viewers could watch Mitchell choosing fabrics on Instagram for a new luggage line — something they wouldn’t find if they went on BÉIS’ site. “Celebrities are really spending the time,” Durko said. “It’s not like their ‘name’ is just being thrown on a product. They are fully invested.” 

Chris Smith, who also runs the interdisciplinary program Media, Economics & Entrepreneurship — M{2e} — studies this new “investor” class of celebrity. “Celebrity is a kind of capital, and there are endless opportunities to allocate those resources in the marketplace of products and ideas,” he said. “This is what economists refer to as ‘the superstar effect,’ and if you are on that pinnacle like Gwyneth Paltrow and LeBron James, the world is your oyster.”  

Celebrity as Activist

While the economic impact of celebrity can be traced back to actresses like Elizabeth Taylor, one of the first stars to market off of her fame, the idea of celebrities having a responsibility to leverage that fame and their financial resources for the greater good is relatively new. 

Smith references alumna Sophia Bush, who earned a bachelor’s in journalism in 2020, as a strong example of the socially responsible celebrity. “Sophia’s popularity as an actress has fueled her activism and ability to convert that entertainment following into a following for her point of view and thought leadership,” Smith said.

From the ongoing coronavirus pandemic to the protests against police violence, he points out that celebrities’ actions (and inactions) in response to these crises are increasingly under a microscope.

Benson, for example, highlighted artists who have donated their time and money over the last few months as an example of “doing it right.” Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Rihanna and Pink have donated millions of dollars to coronavirus-related relief funds. Lady Gaga arranged the “One World: Together at Home” virtual concert with more than 60 musicians that raised over $127 million.

“Something as small as these Billboard home performance sessions have brought in close to $80,000 since March,” Medina said. “The donations have gone to charities, organizations and nonprofits that not only help those impacted by the pandemic, but also support Black and brown causes and communities.”

When protests started in late May in response to the killing of Floyd, Medina noted that Billboard recognized an even more urgent need to amplify the voices of those experiencing inequities. “This is what’s happening in our community and it has to stop for good. Period,” she said.

On June 2, Billboard joined music executives Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang’s #TheShowMustBePaused campaign, which called for a day-long shutdown “to hold the industry at large, including major corporations and their partners who benefit from the efforts, struggles and successes of Black people, accountable.” Billboard reported on the event extensively, and Medina helped book Thomas and Agyemang for their June 13 cover, also arranging for an in-depth profile.

Smith adds that many celebrities are also choosing to move beyond hashtags to position themselves alongside protesters. “If they are out there, truly on the front line with tear gas flying and National Guard on the march, that’s a profound statement of solidarity and risk-taking,” Smith said as part of an interview on June 4 with Good Morning America (GMA).

ABC News correspondent and alumna Adrienne Bankert, who reported the GMA segment, added that today’s protests recall an earlier era of activism, when celebrities like Sammy Davis, Jr. and Aretha Franklin helped finance the civil rights movement. 

“Celebrities had a very legitimizing impact on the movement in the ’60s,” Smith said. “They brokered the acceptance of the movement for more mainstream white Americans.”

Not all the light being shed on celebrities, however, is positive. Some are being called out for inaction and insensitivity. Celebrities who are tone-deaf to what is happening in the world are struggling right now for relevance, Benson said. 

“During this time of crisis, the very thing that fascinates us most about celebrities during ‘normal’ times — their opulent, aspirational lifestyles — has only made us hyperaware of what we don’t have,” she said. “The global pandemic is shining a bright light on the class divide.”

As for what happens once restrictions ease, both Smith and Benson believe that celebrities will remain relevant.

“I think the longstanding trend of celebrities being a focal point within modern civilization is not going to change,” Smith said. “I think we’re fascinated by particular people for various reasons, and that fascination will not end.” 

Benson agrees, but also hopes some things will change for the better. 

“The public’s current anger toward the more tone-deaf celebrities will dissipate, and the cult of celebrity will return,” she said. “But the lessons in humility that celebrities learn will stick long after.”