Political Superstars: Celebrity Activism and Political Celebrities Part II

4: Politicians become celebrities

It may be natural to see the development towards politicians achieving celebrity status as part of the medialisation of politics (cf. above). In a world where politicians constantly have to fight hard for the attention of the media and people, it makes sense for both the media and politicians to approach celebrity culture. For the media, it will be easier to create cases that they assume will be broad-based, and for politicians, the status of a celebrity means that it will be easier to face their message.

The United States is a leading example of a country where politicians achieve celebrity status. The American political system has a very strong focus on candidates instead of parties. This leads to a natural tendency towards strong personification of politics. Such a system facilitates candidates who can take advantage of their status as celebrities. Many have pointed to television as an important partial explanation for John F. Kennedy winning the US presidential election against Richard Nixon in 1960. Kennedy’s personality and appearance did so much better on television than Nixon’s, many have claimed. Those who watched the debate on television voted Kennedy the winner; those who heard it on the radio thought Nixon had won.

Although this way of acting has originated and been cultivated in the United States, it has also gained a foothold in European countries. Leaders such as Tony Blair and David Cameron, Angela Merkel and Gerhard Schröder, Silvio Berlusconi and Nicolas Sarkozy with his singer wife Carla Bruni are examples of politicians who have acted as international super-celebrities. They have shaped their own performance carefully with emphasis on PR strategies – albeit in very different ways.

In Norway, too, politicians participate in contexts where the private and the public are erased. When Jonas Gahr Støre was interviewed in Dagbladet in 2008, it was with childhood photos and reflections on winter and skiing – a lot of space was devoted to life outside politics. The Norwegian election campaign in 2013 contained several examples of private and celebrity-related elements gaining a large place in the discussion of politicians. The home-at-home report in Prime Minister-designate Erna Solberg’s popular home – devoid of Danish design furniture – received a lot of attention early in the election campaign. The report drew a picture of a different Conservative politician – one that most people could identify with. This is a good example of how important the person has also become in Norwegian politics.

Politicians also took over reality TV, with TV 2’s cabin reality «Valgcamp». SV’s party secretary was asked why Minister for Development Aid Heikki Holmås had agreed to participate in the program. She replied that “it is a smart thing to do to reach young voters”. When asked if she thought this was the political variant of the popular music program Every Time We Meet, she replied: “Is there something wrong with that? And if we can get equally good ratings, it will be a success. ” These perspectives and examples show how getting attention becomes the most important premise / condition for politicians and parties. Information about the policy itself sometimes comes second.

5: Rock star politics

Politicians who achieve celebrity status and celebrities such as movie stars and musicians who get involved politically are not a new phenomenon. The phenomenon can also take many different forms.

The simplest, and perhaps most common, form of celebrity participation in politics is statements of support , what Americans call endorsements . Celebrities then actively go out and support a politician’s ambitions to be elected. This has long been important in the United States, but we also see it in Norway. The celebrities’ entry into politics can, however, go beyond what is about statements of support.

According to VAULTEDWATCHES, the UN organization UNICEF (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Children) was out early to use movie stars to get attention about its work. The well-known comedian Danny Kaye became the first of UNICEF ‘s eventually many international and regional ambassadors. Both Ole Gunnar Solskjær, Johan Olav Koss, Katy Perry, and David Beckham have all had different roles as such ambassadors .

The celebrities have also become involved in more independent ways, both outside and within established organizations. Bob Geldof and Bono have long been committed to both the starving in Africa and global justice. Angelina Jolie has been very active and visible as a UNHCR Ambassador (UNHCR), especially related to Sudan.

Such activism fronted by celebrities can lead to increased awareness of important issues in the international community. Attention can sometimes also contribute to increased resources for a cause, such as when fundraising campaigns or support concerts are arranged. This can be very important for issues that might otherwise never reach an international agenda. However, we can ask what legitimacy the commitment has and whether the solutions to the problems are the right ones. Celebrity activists have been heavily criticized for (Franklin Cudjoe) using “rock star economics (…) they trumpet a completely erroneous belief that poverty, famine and corruption can be fought with development aid, debt relief and other policies that have already failed in Africa”.

6: What does celebrity politics mean for politics?

The increased importance of being visible in a media landscape characterized by a lack of attention and an abundance of information gives celebrity status an advantage when it comes to capturing the attention of the public. We can say that the price of attention is increasing, and that celebrity status is something that makes it easier to penetrate.

Researcher Darrell West has pointed out both the positive and negative aspects of the fusion of entertainment and politics. This development can be positive because celebrities can help bring new perspectives into the agenda and in the exchange of words. Others believe that it is largely positive with more entertainment elements and stronger personalities in politics. This replaces the fact that people previously identified more strongly with the parties and therefore now need other identification objects. An increased focus on well-known and clear personalities can fill the void after the parties have largely disappeared as identification points.

But such a merger can also downplay the political content in favor of the more superficial aspects of celebrity and popular culture. Others also claim that it can go so far as to make people bored when the focus is on people and not politics. Then people lose confidence both in the political system and in the politicians themselves.

Those who defend a fusion of politics and celebrity seem more pragmatic than the more critical voices are. Many will nevertheless see it as a goal in the dissemination of politics to bring out ideological content, political clarity and what political alternatives exist. This way, people can relate to political issues and not just to the celebrities who front them – whether they are political celebrities or celebrity activists. It is difficult to see convincing arguments that the celebrityization of politics and the politicization of certain celebrities has actually led to such dissemination. There, the critical voices seem to be right.

7: Celebrity and international politics

Increased celebrity engagement where only a few international politicians achieve super-celebrity status can have both positive and negative effects on international politics. It can also have consequences for how one can solve major, global challenges such as the climate issue.

  • Can increase global commitment to issues far more than individual countries can
  • Can create attention where politicians do not power or dare
  • Celebrity presence can make it more attractive to support a cause
  • Matters that are far away geographically can end up in the back game in a national political context; International celebrities can make the matter easier on the media agenda


  • Commitment created by celebrities can be short-lived – cases lose attention before it takes effect
  • International conflicts or problems can be presented as one-dimensional or simplified – the commitment can in the worst case lead to a deterioration
  • Celebrity engagement can have a tendency to choose “media-friendly” issues, cases or conflicts. Other, and perhaps more important, questions may become even more invisible
  • Celebrities lack legitimacy to some degree – the case or conflict may lose credibility in public opinion
  • A few international celebrity politicians get a lot of attention – the international agenda is dominated by a few people

Political Superstars 2

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