An African friend asked me recently “What did Kim Kardashian DO?”.

“Nothing” I said.

“Then why is she so famous?”.

How I cherish his innocence.

The exchange made me want to go back and watched Clive James’ masterful documentary Fame in the 20th Century, but I discovered alas it is not available on DVD and never will be. However, James himself has adapted the material on his own website, here is a sample of the sort of incisive, witty observations he makes:

When the century started, famous people were still required, as of old, to do something first and then get famous for it later. As the century progressed, people who became famous for what they did got more famous just for being famous. Elizabeth Taylor has been famous long enough to exemplify the transition from one state of fame to the other. When she started off, she was famous for being a screen star. In her first big role, in National Velvet, when she was still really a child, her heart-shaped face caught the breath of all who saw the movie – and the whole family saw it, usually twice. Her violet eyes looked as it they had been specifically invented to test the possibilities of colour film. When she grew up and appeared as the young bride of the title in Father of the Bride, she had the ideal figure to go with the face – perfectly judged, not too much, but the camera couldn’t get enough. Even then, some said she was more beautiful than talented. But even if she was just beautiful she could be described as doing something. Today she is famous for being Elizabeth Taylor. She gets married, usually to someone unsuitable. She gets married again, probably to someone more unsuitable. She champions a cause. She brings out a new fragrance. She is very busy – far too busy to make movies. The thing she got famous for is far in the past. Only the fame remains, but it is more attention-getting than ever. It has a life of its own.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.