Understanding media: The celebrity in the text
Understanding media: The celebrity in the text

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Understanding media: The celebrity in the text

4 The celebrity persona and the celebrity text

It has been emphasised that we can only know stars through media texts (Dyer, 1998) and this can be extended to seeing celebrities themselves as texts, though for celebrities of any longevity we would certainly have to consider them as large, complex and modulating ones. This section will look at how we might go about reading such a text. There is a distinction between the ‘real’ person and a persona presented in the public arena. One pervasive feature of the ‘large celebrity text’ is the many ways in which it attempts to bridge the divide between the ‘real’ person and a persona presented in the public arena. The glimpses of the ‘private’ life in individual secondary texts from carefully managed sources ostensibly offer audiences access to the ‘real’ person behind the celebrity. A large celebrity text is composed of many core and secondary texts ranging across media and genres, modulating over time and across countries as aspects of the person and the persona change. To demonstrate this we will examine the long celebrity career of singer Kylie Minogue, who began as a child actor in 1980.

The core texts which underpin Kylie Minogue's celebrity include: her role as the mechanic Charlene in the TV programme Neighbours; her many number one pop songs including ‘I should be so lucky’ from her time with the Stock-Aitken-Waterman music production company in the late 1980s and ‘Spinning around’ of 2000 plus the various tours, videos and television appearances in which she sings them; the albums, such as Kylie (the biggest-selling album in the UK in 1988); her appearances at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parties following her shift to a more disco style, resulting in a significant gay following; recordings and live appearances with Nick Cave; her films (including The Delinquents (1989), Streetfighter (1994) and Moulin Rouge (2001)); and the ‘Love Kylie’ underwear line. Although she is based in England, where most of her music originates, Kylie's career began in Australia and her acting roles have been filmed there. At the end of 2002 she made news with the announcement that she had leapt from 40th to 25th on the UK list of most popular chart stars of all time.

Since many secondary texts are produced in the process of selling each of the core ones and there are significant numbers of additional ones following the celebrity through their public and private life, the quantity of secondary texts available for a celebrity of any longevity (such as Kylie Minogue) is very considerable indeed. Stories about her private life surround and exceed her varied acting and musical performances, and we can draw on some of these to consider both changes over time and how core and secondary texts interact. Brian Walsh, the principal initial publicist for Neighbours (Australia, Grundy, 1985 to present), outlined how in the late 1980s the (real-life) romance between Kylie and fellow Neighbours actor Jason Donovan was concealed for four years until following a series of hints, it could be revealed to the maximum benefit of the programme's ratings (Turner et al., 2000, pp. 103–4). This was unlike her subsequent relationships, for example with INXS rock star Michael Hutchence, or with James Gooding who published an exposé of their relationship in the British tabloids in 2003. By the 1990s, speculations about celebrities’ love lives were media staples, although Kylie actually receives more coverage on other issues. Most notably her battle with breast cancer in 2005.

A constant theme of the secondary texts is her diminutive size. This was capitalised on when she launched the two-seater StreetKa at the Paris Motor Show in 2002 (see Figure 4 below), where Kylie personified its urban manoeuvrability.

Kylie Minogue advertises the StreetKa
Courtesy of Ford Motor Company UK
Figure 4: Kylie Minogue advertises the StreetKa

Fashion is another theme, since despite her height, she is persistently used in fashion shoots and on magazine covers. She has been significant in the growth of the symbiosis between fashion designers and entertainers with celebrities sitting in the front row of fashion shows and designers dressing celebrities for awards shows (see Figure 5). Her launch of an underwear line followed logically from this development and the 2000 shift in her image to emphasise her bottom.

Activity 7

Spend a few minutes looking at the four album covers in Figure 5 below: Kylie, her 1988 debut, and Kylie Minogue from 1994 after her break with Stock-Aitken-Waterman; then Fever (2001) and Body Language (2003). How do the images show the shifts in Kylie's career mentioned earlier? To what extent do the last two exemplify the pin-up pose outlined by Hess in Reading 1?

Some of Kylie Minogue's album covers. Kylie,1988; Body Language, 2003; Kylie Minogue,1994; Fever, 2001
(a): Cover artwork of ‘Kylie’ by Kylie Minogue used by permission of Pete Waterman Ltd; (b): Cover artwork for ‘Fever’ and ‘Body Language’ by Kylie Minogue used by permission of EMI Records;(c) Cover artwork for ‘Kylie Minogue’ used by permission of BMG UK & Ireland Ltd; (d): Cover artwork for ‘Fever’ and ‘Body Language’ by Kylie Minogue used by permission of EMI Records.
Figure 5: Some of Kylie Minogue's album covers – (a) Kylie (1988); (b) Body Language (2003); (c) Kylie Minogue (1994); (d) Fever (2001)

Recalling the previous discussion of social type, we can plot a trajectory of Kylie's persona over the period that she has been a celebrity. She has moved from the teenage, suburban Australian ordinariness of the Neighbours period into the brainless, breathless Australian of her early years as a young singer in the UK, where the first album cover shows simply a head and shoulders shot with big hair. There is the arrival of sexiness through her liaison with Michael Hutchence and the transmutation into gay diva, which starts about the time of Kylie Minogue (1994) – a dramatic visual change with her occupying little of the frame, apparently crawling towards camera. The final two shots have moved to detailing the full body, with Kylie almost contorted into the inviting poses of the pin-up, simultaneously revealing and concealing. The present persona of a savvy, sexy woman with agency must be mapped from other parts of her celebrity text onto these, cued by the exaggeration in the poses: alone they are insufficiently anchored to let us read her as a person in control.

Together the images and the stories about Kylie Minogue not only serve to indicate that personae can modulate (especially when as here, the person grows to adulthood in public), but also demonstrate the intersection of celebrity and changing social values. Actor and singer Judy Garland also had a considerable gay following (see Dyer 1987, Chapter 3) – an example in Hall's terms (1980) of an oppositional reading of the representations of Garland. In contrast to Kylie's public enjoyment of her gay audience, it was not possible during the 1950s and early 1960s, when homosexual activities were illegal, for any such audience to be acknowledged by the star in her publicity.

The large celebrity text of Kylie Minogue demonstrates how media coverage of a celebrity career not only intersects with social change brought about by gay liberation, but also by feminism and an increase in the prominence of commodity culture. The move to a more commoditised feminism, sometimes called post-feminism (see for example, Kim, 2001) has been particularly important. As far as media representation is concerned, no longer is being sexy and interested in clothes an indication of being incapable of independent decision-making or professional advancement. Instead, there is a heightened valuation of fashion as an industry and as a component of lifestyle decisions. Newspapers carry larger fashion sections or supplements than has previously been the case and do not do so as part of the (devalued) ‘women's pages’. Magazines devoted to male fashion have proliferated (see Nixon, 1996) and in both of these the presence of celebrities is substantial. The major media change in the last thirty years has been the considerable increase in the sheer number of celebrities being given media attention, and the almost equally substantial increase in the proportion of commodity promotion that involves celebrities, whether or not these involve their core texts.


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