It's Travis' Turn: The pernicious nature of fame

The following is an opinion column written by an Echo Press editorial staff member. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the Echo Press.

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Back in the 1990s, when "The Simpsons" was actually funny, there was an episode where a pair of celebrities move to Springfield. They are befriended by Homer, who before long blabs about their presence in town, resulting in a sea of people gathering outside their house.

One of the people is holding a sign that says three words: "You complete us."

This is a perfect illustration of a growing problem, namely, the adoration of fame and the people who have it.

Fame, as we see it now, is a relatively new phenomenon. Being that mechanized printing was only introduced in Europe in the 15th century, one assumes that fame was a very regional thing, traveling by letters and word of mouth.

The printing press enabled information to be distributed in a much wider area, so now worldwide fame, or at least fame in a wider area than before, was possible.


However, it wasn't until the 19th century that the modern notion of celebrity came to the fore. Articles name various people as the first real celebrity, usually a general or a member of some royal family, but others point to another person, Sarah Bernhardt.

Born in 1844, died in 1923, Bernhardt was an actress who achieved a level of popularity that approached the ridiculous.

Case in point: I recently heard a story about a production in which Bernhardt played Joan of Arc. The curtain opened, and there she was, sitting on the stage with her back to the audience, The Great Bernhardt.

"What is your name?" asked a member of the religious tribunal that was questioning her.

"Joan," she answered.

"Where are you from?" asked another tribunal member.

"Domrémy-la-Pucelle," she answered.

"How old are you?" asked a third man.


It was here that Sarah Bernhardt, then in her sixties, overweight, with an actual wooden leg, turned to the audience and said with a completely straight face, "Eighteen."

Instead of laughing her off the stage, which they had every right to do, the audience applauded long and loud, ready to accept literally anything from her just to get a crumb of that notoriety.

Gradually, celebrity has become even more ridiculous. Newspaper readership increased, and thus more people became famous, but at this point it was usually because they had done something noteworthy. Yes, there were people who had something unusual happen to them or were suffering from some exotic disease, but generally speaking, if you wanted to become well-known, you had to have accomplished something.

Today, of course, fame is the endgame in itself, not achievement. Thanks to people like the Kardashians, we know that fame, or at least celebrity, is not a meritocracy. You can do absolutely nothing and as long as cameras are being pointed at you, you have the chance of becoming known by people throughout the world.

But you don't need a professional TV crew — you can video yourself and post it to YouTube, where inane content is the order of the day. Trying a new food? Video it. Hearing a song for the first time? Video it. Wrapping gifts? (I swear to God this is true.) Video it.

What is the point of all this material? Simply, people want to be known. Yet when they come to the end of their lives, I wonder if they will feel this was time well-spent. If you live 80 years and all you've got to show for it is some footage of yourself wrapping gifts, I would wager you might want a do-over. Even if you don't, you have to understand that being well-known is not going to save you.

For all the applause she received, Sarah Bernhardt did not live forever.

Personally, I'd rather take anonymity.

Opinion by Travis Gulbrandson
Travis Gulbrandson covers several beats, including Osakis School Board and Osakis City Council, along with the Brandon-Evansville School Board. His focus will also be on crime and court news.
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