The first modern celebrity was born 175 years ago

by Sharon Marcus – June 26, 2019


How Sarah Bernhardt mastered her craft, dominated the media, and wrote the playbook for the famous people who came after her.

Priests gave sermons denouncing her. Monarchs gave her jewelry. Stalkers threatened to throw acid on her while she performed. Men ended up in asylums, convinced she had promised to marry them. Fans serenaded her under hotel windows, made shrines to her in their tiny lodgings, and held vigils outside her Paris apartment while she lay dying. The press reported on her every move: her weight, her earnings, her pets, her hobbies. When she didn’t like what they wrote, she sued them or demanded that editors publish letters presenting her side of the story.

She was Sarah Bernhardt, born in Paris in 1844, as well-known in her lifetime as Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, or Lady Gaga in theirs. Today it may seem inconceivable that a stage actor could attain this level of fame, but in the 19th century — before film, before radio, before the internet — theater was the only game in town. Rich and poor alike attended live performances several times a week. London, New York, and Paris drew up to 18 million theatergoers a year. Small towns had theaters too, and the biggest stars traveled to them; one of Bernhardt’s many US tours included a stop in Muskogee, Oklahoma.

Today, an Italian rapper can have 3 million Twitter followers and still be someone most people have never heard of. Sarah Bernhardt, by contrast, was a household name around the world, even among those who never actually saw her perform. Tens of millions of people read about her in the cheap newspapers published in morning and evening editions to keep up with information flowing rapidly through newly installed telegraph cables. Even more saw her photographs reproduced in magazines and displayed in shop windows. Anyone who wanted their own image of her could order several cheaply through the mail.

Because almost everyone had read about Bernhardt or seen a picture of her, thousands of people flocked to see her when she came to town. And she came to almost every town, using new forms of transportation born, like she was, in the middle of the 19th century. Steamships took her to Australia and the Americas for tours that often lasted a year; railways took her to dozens of towns in each country she visited. In her 60s and 70s, Bernhardt performed in arenas, music halls, and circus tents, drawing the same kinds of loyal fans that aging rockers like the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen do today. When she died in 1923, the news made headlines around the world, generating enough obituaries and tributes to fill oversize scrapbooks, the analog precursors of today’s Tumblr sites.

Today, Bernhardt is no longer a household name. But after spending a decade researching how media, stars, and the public have interacted over the past 200 years, I have come to see her as the godmother of modern celebrity. Famous people have always existed, but Bernhardt made celebrity modern by understanding that stars exercise power in relation to equally powerful publics and media.

Bernhardt became a superstar by flaunting her agency — her intelligence, her ambition, her artistic vision, her independence — and by using that agency to cow journalists and wow the public. When Muhammad Ali told journalists to eat their words after winning a bout they thought he would lose; when Marilyn Monroe defeated a studio head by making headlines performing for 100,000 US troops; when Rihanna sent Snapchat stock prices diving with a single Instagram story — they were all, likely without knowing it, following a playbook Bernhardt invented.

Offstage and on, Bernhardt demonstrated the star’s power over herself, over her audiences, over the media, and over a society whose norms she openly defied.

Originally published on The Highlight by Vox. Read full article here.