For some time now, I frequent my favourite gossip blogs and I barely recognize some of the people they feature. It’s likely a combination of things: I’m getting old, reality shows have taken over the world and the status of the ‘movie star’ from the eighties and nineties is really dying off. This got me thinking about what it means to be a celebrity. In some cases it is earned. Look at the actor Chris Pratt. He had the biggest hits of the summer last year with Guardians of the Galaxy and The Lego Movie. I’m dying to see him in the latest Jurassic Park adventure this summer. But before that he was the chubby, likable guy on a network tv show. He worked his way up to the movies. In other cases, like the Duggars (sorry if I offend anyone here), their children have literally taken over social media with pregnancies and courting rituals. I have maybe watched their show twice and all I could feel was deep compassion for Michelle Duggar’s uterus.
True ‘A’ Level celebrity is a long road. Whether it starts with a sex tape like Kim Kardashian or a soap opera like Julianne Moore, it’s these celebrities that are in it for the long haul. They have the best connections, wear designer clothes, live in multiple postal codes that would make you drool and have all the trappings that go along with fame.
That got me thinking that true celebrities are not all that different from the ton. The Upper Ten Thousand was the premiere society of England. Celebrities (and I mean true celebrities, not someone on the Bachelor Pad) number about the same. They live similar life styles. Insulated, pampered, high visibility and inhabit a world that most cannot imagine.
Just like blogs, entertainment shows and weekly gossip magazines; the ton is a frequent setting for historical romance novels. It’s almost strange to read a book that doesn’t feature a Lady or an Earl or someone who lives in Mayfair. So I set out to see what the similarities and differences were between the ton and modern day celebrities were. Let’s start with definitions from trusty Wikipedia:
The ton is a term commonly used to refer to Britain’s high society during the late Regency and reign of George IV, and later. During the eighteenth century, it was borrowed from the French word meaning “taste” or “the highest style” and is pronounced the same way as tone ([tɔ̃] in French). The full phrase is le bon ton, meaning good manners or “in the fashionable mode” – characteristics held as ideal by the British beau monde. (Wikipedia)
Celebrity is fame and public attention in the media, usually applied to a person, or group of people (celebrity couple, family etc.), or occasionally, to animals or fictional entities. Celebrity status is often associated with wealth (commonly referred to as fame and fortune) and fame can often provide opportunities to make money.
Successful careers in sports and entertainment are commonly associated with celebrity status. People may also become celebrities due to media attention for their lifestyle, wealth, or actions, or for their connection to a famous person. (Wikipedia)
Who is part of the Ton?
Ton society was intensely class-conscious and the social hierarchy was incredibly rigid. Birth, wealth, titles, and other factors determined class standing:
Artisans & Trades people
Members of the ton came from the aristocracy, the gentry, and of course, royalty and monarch(s). Though some wealthier members of the middle classes might possibly have married into the lower ranks of the gentry, such unions would not have been completely accepted by the elite ton. Social positions could be altered or determined by income, houses, speech, clothing, or even manners. Climbing the social ladder could take generations, particularly into the aristocracy who did not readily accept those of inferior birth into their ranks. (Wikipedia)
Who is part of current celebrity?
Well, unlike the strict ton, you don’t have to be born wealthy or into a celebrity family. Many actors will tell you of failed auditions and waiting tables until their big break. It doesn’t hurt however to be a legacy of a celebrity. Look at Dakota Johnson. She was the breakaway star of Fifty Shades of Grey. I highly doubt she was waiting tables while doing small roles in Hollywood productions while waiting for the movie that would make her a star. Her co-star Jamie Dornan, struggled for years to establish himself as a ‘working actor’ and like many actors found success in his thirties.
Celebrity today also encompasses sports. A-Rod, Derek Jeter, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, Serena and Venus Williams all have a high level of celebrity. When you have a marriage between a sports celebrity and a singer, like David Beckham and Posh, it all but guarantees that the world’s eyes will be watching. When celebrity athletes endorse a product, shoes or sports drinks, it is a certainty that that product will sell well.
Then we have the D-List celebrities. They seem to capture their fair share of the headlines these days. The reality star phenomenon has taken over traditional celebrity culture. Is it low brow? I don’t know, but they seem to have a toe hold in the economy of the celebrity. The fact that I know all about the Kardashian clan and their exploits tells me that people are intensely interested in what happens behind the doors of celebrities.
Perks of Being in the Ton:
Fashion, etiquette, manners, social customs, and many other aspects of social life were all dictated by the ton. The ton’s generally acknowledged leaders were the Lady Patronesses of Almack’s who, during the Regency, included Lady Jersey, Lady Sefton, Lady Cowper, Lady Castlereagh, and Mrs. Drummond Burrell. As London’s most exclusive mixed-sex social club, Almack’s represented the best and wealthiest among the ton. The conventions of ton life were highly structured and complex, and difficult for anyone born outside of the highest circles to fully understand. Social acceptance was crucial and based primarily, but not exclusively, on birth and family. Acceptable social behaviours were different for men and women; these behaviours were based on an intricate system validated primarily by the patronesses of Almack’s, who determined who could be admitted to the club’s functions. Some of these behaviours were flexible – they adapted slightly with the fashions of each season, but they always reflected the current modes of manners, fashion, and propriety.
The privileged members of the ton could pursue an opulent, extravagant life of indulgence. But there were often double standards for its members. The flexibility of social rules was unofficially determined by an individual’s status, wealth, or family connections. Royalty were forgiven for almost any transgression. Scandalous activities such as having illegitimate children or conducting extra-marital affairs would incite gossip, but were often overlooked for members of the aristocracy. However, such conduct among the gentry could destroy an entire family’s social aspirations. (Wikipedia)
Perks of Being a Celeb:
Doesn’t seem all that different from being a member of the ton, does it? When Miley Cyrus sports a shaved head, we see it all over Instagram and twitter and the red carpet. Like members of the ton, celebrities influence the fashions we wear, the clothing lines we covet and the cars we drive. The ‘it’ hotspot will have lines wrapping around the building as a celebrity dj’s for the evening, while the VIP’s saunter in and don’t pay for a thing.
While we don’t have an Almack’s now, the closest thing could be the Met Ball. Vogue’s Anna Wintour is like the modern day patroness of the ball. She chooses who attends and who gets the best connections. She’s like Lady Jersey. Remember the hubbub when she banned Kim Kardashian one year and then invited her back when she looked like a pregnant grandma sofa? Or not allowing Kate Upton to attend unless she paid for her own ticket? I think almost nothing shows the class divide amongst celebrities like this ball. Top designers and top celebrities, unknown designers or those on their way down paired with the lesser known or disliked celebrities.
Some things are still the same however. Behaviour for men is still different from women. With the insurgence of ‘slut-shaming’ and ‘fat-shaming’, it is women who are the recipients, rarely men. Leonardo DiCaprio with his Pussy Posse is welcomed just about anywhere and while Tina Fey and Amy Poehler may be the only ones willing to call him on it, his behaviour has spawned tv shows like Entourage. Women however, regardless of how bright their star are not given the same freedom as men. Look at Lindsay Lohan (not that I don’t think she has issues she needs to deal with, firstly being reality), she has quite the reputation for drinking, sleeping around, bad behaviour and spending money. Reverse that into a male equivalent and you’ve got Justin Beiber.
While the direct cut from the ton could be life altering, for a modern day celebrity they have the opportunity to do a few things. They can grovel for forgiveness from the masses, like Kristen Stewart after cheating on Robert Pattinson. They can reinvent themselves into something else. Motherhood is the best for wild, out of control celebrities to show the world they have changed –see Rebecca Gayheart. Or they can fade away into obscurity. Living life like a normal person is quite the change from being in the limelight. Kevin Bacon recently admitted that he altered his appearance through prosthetic for a day to see what it was like NOT being recognized. He admitted that it was not as pleasant being ‘normal’.
Social Life of the Ton:
The Season was the name given to the months between late January and early July. It officially began when Parliament re-opened in London and was an endless parade of social entertainments – balls, theatre parties, dances, masquerades, military reviews, and many other social pleasures to be enjoyed by the ton. Families with marriageable children used the Season to present their children to the ton in hopes of arranging profitable marriages. For this reason, the Season has also been referred to as the “Marriage Mart” by notable Brits such as Lord Byron. For marriageable girls, the Season was an intense period of social networking in which any misstep or breach of social etiquette could spread through gossip circles at Almack’s like wildfire and have potentially ruinous effects on her marriage and social prospects within the ton. (Wikipedia)
Social Life of the Celebrity:
First thing that comes to mind is Awards season. From the Golden Globes to the Oscars to the lesser events like Peoples Choice Awards, this is where celebrities come to be seen. Just like with the ton, the bigger the star, the better the choices. Tom Ford is not going to be dressing a Victoria Secret model, but Gwyneth Paltrow – no problem. Visibility is key to celebrities. They need to be noticed, to be papped and seen doing things that make them seem important.
Gone, for the most part, are the days of arranged marriages like the ton. However there are still quite a few unions that raise eyebrows – hiding a closeted star, an open marriage or a marriage to further careers. So while, Hollywood isn’t exactly the Marriage Mart, a rendezvous with a celebrity that ends nine months later with a baby is a ticket to celebrity and a pay cheque.
While the ton would hide away in the country outside of the Season, thanks to the never ending reaches of the paparazzi, there is no down time for celebrities. Many have proven that you can go off the grid if you chose to; others like Britney Spears and Jennifer Garner make Starbucks into an opportunity to be seen.
Then and Now:
Fox Hunt vs Skydiving
Ball vs Nightclub
Polo vs Polo
Dinner party vs Hottest new restaurant
Attending House of Lords vs Speaking at Congress or UN or Charity event
Driving the latest phaeton vs Owning a million dollar luxury car
Travelling by private coach vs Travelling by private plane
Clothing custom made vs Clothing by the best designers
French chef vs Juice cleanses and 800 calories a day diet
So I hope I have made a case for how modern day celebrity is like the Upper Ten Thousand that we love to read about in historical romance novels. While some of their strict rules are not in providence any longer, many of the customs are alive and well. While the average person in Regency England had little time to worry about the ton as they were too busy trying to survive, today we gobble up juicy tidbits and morsels about their lives. A scandal then has just as much interest today from our modern celebrities. So while the times were different, there are still great commonalities between the two.