• The Paris Hilton effect on Africa’s development

    Posted July 12, 2007 By in Books/Magazines, Business, Charity, Events, Fashion, Film/Television, General, Politics, Technology, Travel With | 3 Comments

    Paris Hilton Vanity Fair africaWe live in a celebrity-powered society. I don’t like it, but it’s the truth. Whoever said everyone will get their 15 minutes of fame, was way off. It seems like the expiration date on fame is being extended longer and longer. Fame in itself is not a bad thing, however, the individualism, it comes with in today’s society is another story. With all the reality show mania and with reputable organizations paying talentless people like Paris Hilton ridiculous amounts of money for an appearance, the American culture of celebrity and individualism is playing an even bigger role in how and where money is spent in business. But if this the nature of the world we live in, where do Africans, and our culture of community and modesty, fit in?

    Certainly all African’s are not so modest. However, our definition of celebrity and entitlement is definitely different from the West. Many would argue that the American definition of celebrity is based on fantasy while the African definition is based on reality. Where western celebrities are celebrated apart from the community, African celebrities are celebrated for their effect within the community. Is either definition right or wrong? Who knows, but when one dominates the other in global influence, a problem arises.

    What does this have to do with business, money and Africa’s opportunities? Everything, I would say. One of the biggest problems Africans have with getting their stories told particularly in the media is that we still do not really understand how western media works. Take the picture of Paris Hilton to the left. Paris Hilton who represents, the epitome of America’s celebrity culture – and hence influence – holds a Vanity Fair Africa issue with Oprah – another more talented and influential American celebrity – on the cover. While the whole scene was definitely staged by Paris’ pr reps, it’s a classic example of the role celebrity plays in American culture. Follow me for a moment. Bono campaigns for more money to go to African aid. He recruits Oprah Winfrey, among others, to draw attention to the cause. Bono then sells the the idea to the Vanity Fair editors who stand to have multiple celebrities in one issue (celebrity faces sell glossies, especially fashion ones) and the issue is produced. Paris Hilton, then picks up the issue in her attempt to clean up her post-jail image, and in turn further sells Bono’s Africa campaign to insecure suburban teen-aged girls everywhere. Suburban American families, (with disposable income) then put money into Bono’s Africa campaign. This is the power of celebrity in American economics. While we Africans argue merit and talent, Bono continues to play the celebrity game to influence the flow of money. Many of us argue there should have been more Africans on Vanity Fair’s covers, but while Wole Soyinka is a talented man with accolades to boot, he has no influence over the people spending the money, and so he is regulated to a group feature towards the end of the magazine.

    Further evidence of the power of celebrity, can be seen in the media coverage of the recent TEDGlobal conference in Tanzania. In her excellent piece about the event, Jennifer Brea, writes about the circumstances surrounding Bono’s heckling of Andrew Mwenda. The fact that Bono can have so much power as to bump George Ayittey‘s presentation of his perspective, heckle another presenter AND practically be the only one of 50 or so presenters over the 4 day African conference covered widely in the press illustrates the power of celebrity. The same issue about the difference between western and African celebrity was raised on the Africa media blog, with a reader asking

    “Given the advances in technology that now allow citizens of any country to directly access the popular culture of another country (e.g. music, films, art), why do people living in the global north continue to receive more information about situations in Africa from the few Western celebrities “caring about Africa” than from the many African ones trying to push the same message? (Why do people seem to be more influenced by their similiarity with the source than the source’s actual level of expertise/connection with the cause?)”.

    To this Melissa Wall of the Africa Media blog answered, “The West or North dominates global media structures and flow (much research has documented this). More specifically, reporters often have to go with the easiest-to-access sources. A Western celebrity with an entourage of handlers and PR flaks is a lot of easier to get a juicy quote from. Enlarging the Rolex is difficult.”. It all boils down to familiarity, which translates to celebrity which in-turn motivates spending. So if we Africans want access to the money which brings the opportunities we need, we have to do a better job of understanding the power of celebrity from the western perspective. As important as talent is – and it IS important – celebrity trumps talent. Sad but true.

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  • I just had a chance to read your post. Your idea that celebrity is defined differently in Africa makes sense, and I find your idea that “African celebrities are celebrated for their effect within the community” intriguing — you’ve given me more to think about here. Thanks!

  • Thanks for stopping by Melissa. I really enjoy reading your insights on Africa and the media.

  • Hi,am Mildred and I hapened to read your article.What was written is very true and I hope to encourage you to keep it up.Help from American celebs like Paris Hilton,Angelina Jolie,Madonna…do not speak well of AFRICANS.We may be a poor continent but we dont need help from such people.