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Britney Spears shows how celebrity works


When you hear the name Britney Spears, there is a definite image or impression which comes to mind.

Which image or impression that is depends entirely on who you are, what age you are, and of what types of media you regularly partake.

Your impression might be great singer, cute young thing, the queen of pop (music or Pepsi), or no-talent media creation, depending on where you fall in the age, gender and skepticism spectrum. To say that most adults don’t take her seriously as a genuine musical talent would be an understatement.

With that in mind, imagine the surprise around the country last week when Forbes magazine named Spears as the nation’s top celebrity. The magazine annually rates the country’s top 100 celebrities for fame and clout, and has determined that this year it is none other than the 20-year-old Louisiana native. Money earned is unquestionably the most valid way to measure someone’s celebrity -- how much the public is willing to pay to be entertained by that person. By that measure, Spears is down the list, only the 25th leading money earner among those measured by Forbes. (Though most of us would like to try to scrape by on her $39.2 million in earnings in the past year.)

But Forbes claims “the measure of celebrity entails much more -- media mentions and Web buzz and other touchstones of fleeting fame. Thus our Power 100 list combines earnings with media exposure to calculate the relative status of a vast array of stars.”

And it is exposure (wink wink) that has propelled Spears to the top of the Forbes rankings. Through the companies that handle her media empire, Britney Spears saturates the media. Her 10.5 magazine cover stories were tops among all celebrities, as were her 997,000 web hits over the past year. It’s not clear whether those hits are all to her official web site only. If that is so, then one would have to imagine that hits to all sites with references or images of Britney would be exponentially greater than what Forbes counted. The Alta Vista search engine locates over 920,000 sites when one does a search for the name Britney Spears. And anyone who has a free e-mail account on the Internet knows that much of the unsolicited “spam” that flows in to those mailboxes is Britney-related.

It’s important to note that the word “celebrity” implies only renown or fame, not that a person is necessarily the best or most talented at what he or she does. However, there are some on the Forbes list who are unquestionably the best at what they do. Golfer Tiger Woods, ranked second behind Britney, is tied for fourth on the celebrity earnings list at $69 million in the past year, and there is little question that he is far and away the best golfer of this era and perhaps all eras. Movie Director Steven Spielberg is third on the money earnings list at $100 million and third on the overall list. He has directed several of the classic movies of all time, and deserves a high position.

Some people have celebrity for reasons other than being entertaining. Bill Clinton, despite being out of office two years, is still on the list in the relatively lofty position of number 18. His income last year was estimated at $25 million, so anyone who gave money to the Clinton Legal Defense Fund may want to ask for a refund. He’s not scouring bank accounts looking for his next penny, or his next million, for that matter. He’s using your money to pay his legal bills and building his own financial stockpile in the meantime.

The primary reason he ranked so highly was the more than 2,500 radio and television stories which featured him in some way last year. Consider that was more than five times more than Michael Jordan, which is somewhat staggering to fathom. The only person on the list with more radio and television stories done on him or her was Rudy Giuliani, for obvious reasons.

The Forbes list is not a measure of talent or contributions to society. It’s a measure of how good someone is at marketing himself or herself. Sometimes talent makes that happen naturally. And sometimes it takes a skilled set of media-savvy handlers. In Britney’s case, it is every bit as much the latter as the former.

She is one of the classic examples of the American dream, and at age 20 she has created a financial empire greater than 99.9 percent of us can fathom or will ever come close to. But is it because of that voice, those lyrics and those dance steps?

They help.

This column was written June 23, 2002, and published in several print publications across the country.

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