Published on May 17, 2012 | by Shawna Warmington-Brown


Happy birthday, Mr President

Barack Obama and his wife Michelle

The Obamas are not only considered a power-couple in the political world, but also in the celebrity world. [Tolga Akmen]

On one legendary night in New York’s Madison Square Gardens, 50 years ago, then President John F. Kennedy and approximately 17,000 people gathered together for the Democratic Party fundraiser and to engage in his pre-birthday celebrations.

It was here that the little ditty we all have all come to know so well, Happy Birthday Mr. President, made its official debut.

Jaws dropped, history was made and Marilyn Monroe simultaneously solidified her place in American pop-culture, as she purred the lyrics on stage, dressed in a flesh-coloured gown that left little to the imagination.

With the 50th anniversary of this iconic performance approaching, this moment has more resonance now than ever before. This occasion was also notable for being a major event in which the worlds of politics, celebrity, glamour and power merged on a grand scale.

As well as Marilyn, other famous faces of the day such as Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee were also in attendance, showing that perhaps these worlds were not quite so separate at all.

Much like US President Barack Obama, Kennedy’s status blurred the line between politics and celebrity, with his charm being as much a talking point as his political prowess. The two terms are so often linked nowadays, they have almost become interchangeable.

A flurry of celebrity heavyweights such as Robert De Niro, Tom Hanks and Al Pacino jumped on the Obama campaign bandwagon, generating immense media and public interest in the run up to the election.  Celebrities toured university campuses and made impassioned speeches on his behalf, imploring American citizens to vote for a man who was like no other President that had come before.

Celebrity presidents

“Politicians clearly love to be associated with celebrities, presumably in the hope that some of their glitz and glamour will improve their public image.” – William Raban
Obama was even famously mocked in the past for being a ‘celebrity president.’ That may not be too far from the truth. Which other political leader would you see shaking a tail feather on the The Ellen Degeneres Show, or crooning a few surprisingly harmonious lines from Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together at a fundraising event and actually getting away with it?

Now that takes some serious skill, but he was not the first politician to understand the benefits of celebrity endorsements – particularly through the medium of television as a way to boost their public profile.

Filmmaker and London College of Communication lecturer, William Raban, commented: “Politicians clearly love to be associated with celebrities, presumably in the hope that some of their glitz and glamour will improve their public image.”

He continued: “Tony Blair is a good example. Look how he courted rock stars during and after his 1997 election victory. New Labour understood this very well, using everything from the Young British Artists to Beefeaters and Britpop as a marketing strategy.”

With the rise of the ‘celebrity president,’ another equally implausible phenomenon was born; the ‘celebrity politician.’

Take good old Arnie for instance; former bodybuilding, gun toting, one man killing machine Arnie. Who would have imagined that Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Terminator himself, would become the 38th Governor of California?

Sure, he was not exactly taken seriously – at least in the beginning – but the pure fact that a star with no real background in politics could reach such a position helped to reaffirm the surreal relationship between politics and celebrity.

Maybe the jump from stardom into government is not quite as big a leap as it would seem. Celebrities are skilled in using the medium of television and are great at attracting media coverage.

As the culture of celebrity glorification remains strong and the lines between Hollywood and Washington become increasingly blurred, there is much media interest when the line is fully crossed. Additionally, due to their popularity and wealth, fundraising becomes a non-issue.

Celebrity activists

Further still, from this celebrity and politics combination, a new subgenre appears to have emerged, the ‘political celebrity’ or ‘celebrity activist,’ as they are more graciously known.

Yes, that interesting hybrid seems to attract more negative than positive press coverage. Bob Geldof and Bono and their tireless charity work in Africa, George Clooney and his recent arrest while protesting outside the Sudanese embassy in Washington, Sean Penn and his vocal stand against the war in Iraq – the list is endless.

Stars are all too willing to air their opinions on social issues to anyone within a ten-mile radius willing to listen. While celebrities involving themselves in politics can walk a fine line between pioneering and disastrous, the potentially positive outcome surely outweighs all else.

With this however, another question is then raised; should only certain types of celebrities be allowed to have a political opinion?

The turn of the millennium saw the birth of Big Brother and with it, the disposable celebrity – that is, the men and women whose fame will almost certainly vanish as quickly and mysteriously as it came.

Are we really supposed to take that The Only Way is Essex extra with the terrible hair-extensions seriously when asked their opinion on the state of the economy? Furthermore, do we even care?

Music and politics have also been known to go hand-in-hand, though there is usually an antiestablishment message rooted somewhere in the lyrics. Take The Sex Pistols and their 1977 song God Save the Queen, which was not so much a patriotic anthem as it was a colossal one-fingered salute to the monarchy.

“[Monroe] knew how she would be portrayed. She dressed in a certain way and talked in a certain way. She was quite a sexual being if you will.” – Afua Adom

So what is the link between glamour and power? Debatably one cannot be obtained without the other. Certainly some of the most fascinating public figures of our time had both.

Marilyn Monroe was arguably such a figure. This was due in large part to her hyper-sexualised image, which was exacerbated by the media, but also encouraged by her. Is it true then that celebrities are just as responsible, or if not more so than the media in constructing their image?

Afua Adom, celebrity writer and features editor of Pridemagazine explains: “The media and the person who wants to be a celebrity are 50/50 in creating a celebrity image. People who want to be celebrities sell themselves to the media and the media take this opportunity to talk about them and what they do. They paint how they want a person to look to the public.”

“In the case of Marilyn Monroe, she knew how she would be portrayed. She dressed in a certain way and talked in a certain way. She was quite a sexual being if you will. The media picked up on this and ran with it,” she added. Perhaps some of the best examples to use in relation to the correlation of glamour and power are the original WAGs: the so called First Ladies of football.

Celebrity and politics

Marylin Monroe

Marilyn Monroe’s image was based largely upon sex appeal. [Sasha065@Flickr]

Just as celebrity and politics have intertwined, so too have the contrasting worlds of politics and glamour. Michelle Obama and former French President, Nicolas Sarkozy’s wife, Carla Bruni, are now equally as known for their sophisticated style as they are for anything their husband’s have achieved.

Why is this? Perhaps our generation is tired of looking up to vacuous media personalities with nothing to offer except the labels on their clothes. Could it be that intelligent women in respectable positions are giving the Victoria Beckhams of the world a run for their money? Times surely have changed.

It is easy to see that the reason politics, celebrity and glamour have become so co-existent is due to the media.

“The form of fame that we have today – celebrity – is entirely intertwined with the media,” says Milly Williamson, Senior Lecturer in Film and TV studies at Brunel University and researcher in the field of celebrity culture.

With politicians, actors, actresses and the like continuing to dip their fingers into the different sections of the media pie, this trend shows no sign of slowing down. Besides, is there really any harm in celebrities involving themselves into politics as long as it draws attention to a particular cause, and for women in positions of power to be reminded every now and again that they are actually pretty hot too?

As long as Kim Kardashian does not go running for office anytime soon, it is pretty safe to say we can all continue to sleep soundly at night.

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