The internet has rendered the cult of celebrity ubiquitous. Practically all those who have attained fame – and absolutely all of those seeking it – utilise the internet’s manifold networking sites in their campaign for global renown. More remarkably, celebrities not only communicate with their fans, they interact with one another via this unabashedly public means. Mostly, they send one another relatively innocuous messages: pop star Rihanna recently “tweeted” a picture of fellow diva Beyonce and gushed, ‘This pic could single handedly destroy the self esteem of an entire nation.’ These sycophantic exchanges between stars are, it seems, an effective means of communicating a sort of humility and – to take the cynical view – vicariously serve celebs well in their self-promotion.
Contrast this, however, with another, perhaps unexpected, phenomenon emerging from the celebrity online occupation. Twitter has become, for some celebrities, a battle ground. “Twitter wars,” as they have colloquially come to be known, are the public exchange of libellous accusations and moral high ground condescensions. Given the character limitation of 140, the attacks are necessarily pithy, and, though significantly wit-less, this repartee is reminiscent of the games of wit played in the past royal courts of Versailles, where challengers impressed the court by battling one another using weaponry of words alone. There is, then, some romantic root to this ostensibly shallow and ephemeral culture.
Given the novel catalyst the internet has proved in germinating and spreading the celebrity pandemic, is it fair – as many of us tend – to assume that this “cult” is a phenomena exclusively of today? The curious case of Oscar Wilde suggests not.
Early into his career as the figurehead of decadence and aestheticism, Wilde was asked by D’Olyly Carte (the founder of the eponymous opera company, but also an English “talent agent”), to headline a lecture tour of America. Having hitherto only enjoyed some exposure as a poet and playwright, Wilde’s notoriety stemmed from the popular regard for him as prime mover of the emergent culture of decadence. Indeed, in his remarkable biography of Wilde, Richard Ellmann records that ‘from the beginning it was understood that Wilde was to be paraded as a figure in English society and not only as a writer.’ The fascination lay in what Wilde represented, rather than the subject and substance of his discourse.
The lecture tour represents extraordinary and surprising parallels to the modern machine of celebrity. Tellingly, Wilde’s initial consideration in preparing for the tour was what to wear. The last consideration was, in fact, the lecture itself: Wilde didn’t write this until after he’d arrived in America. First, he commissioned his tailor to create an extraordinarily long green overcoat that hung down to his feet, the collar and cuffs of which were trimmed (as reporters greeting him observed) with seal or otter. The round cap he sported was also of this fur, and was described variously as being either turban or smoking cap. Hearing that Wilde had been observed emerging from the furrier’s wearing this “costume,” Whistler – painter, and regular verbal combatant of Wilde’s – wrote in an open letter to The World:
‘Oscar, - How dare you! What means this unseemly carnival in my Chelsea! Restore these things to Nathan, and never let me find you masquerading the streets in the combined costumes of a degraded Kossuth and Mr Mantalini!’
Incidentally, Whistler also requested of Wilde that, should he find himself sea-sick during the crossing, would he be so kind as to ‘throw up Burne-Jones’ (the contemporary Pre-Raphaelite artist). These banterous exchanges were generally conducted via open letters published in newspapers, and, as such, are not so far removed from the sparring that courses between twitter accounts today.
As the Arizona docked in New York on 2nd January 1882, reporters – as invasive as they are today – boarded the ship in their dozens before it had even cleared quarantine. They unrestrainedly detailed every perceptible aspect, from Wilde’s eccentric garb, witticisms, mellifluous and unusual mode of speaking, and general mystique. The image that he so carefully engineered and presented, successfully sold him as the very embodiment of his aesthetic creed. In Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Grey, Lord Henry Wotton says to Dorian: ‘life has been your art.’ The same could well be said of Wilde.
The lecture schedule itself was as intense as any modern day concert tour: he spent the whole year touring America, giving approximately 140 lectures. His notoriety flourished, not only in the U.S., but back in England too. In September, his mother wrote to him saying ‘You are still the talk of London – the cabmen ask me if I am anything to Oscar Wilde – the milkman has bought your picture! and in fact nothing seems celebrated in London but you. I think you will be mobbed when you come back by eager crowds and will be obliged to shelter in cabs.’
Wilde’s tour was, in terms of cultivating a public image and renown, a resonant success. And his means of achieving this were really not as far removed from modern day celebrity culture as one might presume. From the countless Wildean aphorisms, one seems here to be particularly pertinent: ‘The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.’ By rendering his appearance ever remarkable, and his discourse ever quotable, Wilde courted controversy in the public eye, guaranteeing himself as, at worst, a figure of ridicule, at best, an icon. Is the nature of today’s hyper self-promotion in cyber-land really so novel after all?