Celebrity culture might appear to be a curse of the modern age, but – like Tom Cruise in the new Top Gun sequel – it’s much older than it looks. For every modern star story there’s a surprising, often centuries-old precedent. A hundred years before Kim Kardashian was queen of the PR stunt, for example, Sarah Bernhardt claimed that crown.
The recent beef between Kardashian and Taylor Swift – or the spat between American rappers Cardi B and Nicki Minaj – is but a pale imitation of Bernhardt’s violent feud with her one-time best friend. And anyone who was surprised when Gary Lineker became the face of crisps would do well to remember W G Grace, once the world’s most famous sportsman – and the face (and beard) of mustard.
NOW: Kim Kardashian’s 72-day marriage
THEN: Sarah Bernhardt’s coffin selfie
It is estimated that a million Parisians witnessed Sarah Bernhardt’s funeral procession in 1923. Such was her promotional genius that she was nicknamed Sarah “Barnum”, after the great showman; the novelist Henry James called her “the muse of the newspaper”. She wore a stuffed bat on her head; she covered herself in jewels and she filled her house with dangerous pets, including a boa constrictor, monkeys and a pair of short-lived alligators (one died from drinking too much champagne; the other Bernhardt shot after it ate her dog). But big cats were her true passion – her menagerie also included lions, tigers, cheetahs and leopards – and her house guests were frequently terrified by the muscular, sharp-toothed beasts on the prowl.
Bernhardt complained that she was abused by the press but, in truth, she toyed with them, just as one of her pet cheetahs might torment a rabbit. She knew the power of gossip and hired press agents, such as Edward Jarrett, to spread gothic stories of her playing croquet with human skulls and allegedly keeping the skeleton of a man who’d killed himself after she refused to marry him. But perhaps her biggest PR stunt was issuing a photograph of herself asleep in a coffin in 1882, holding flowers, looking like the Bride of Dracula. It was a huge bestseller.
NOW: Cardi B punching Nicki Minaj with a shoe
THEN: Sarah Bernhardt whipping Marie Colombier
Sarah Bernhardt’s unexpected nemesis was her former bestie Marie Colombier, a less successful actress who used her pen much like an assassin wields a knife. She was a devastatingly caustic writer, who wrote a scabrous roman-à-clef about Bernhardt. Colombier was rude and deeply anti-Semitic, and went straight for the jugular. She alleged Bernhardt was greedy and self-obsessed, and had continued the family business by pimping out her own sisters as teenage escorts; she said she was sex-crazed but physically incapable of having an orgasm. Colombier also alluded to Bernhardt’s son, Maurice, being the result of various brothel sessions with random punters: “When you sit down on a bundle of thorns, you can’t tell which one of them is pricking you.”
By the time the book came out, Maurice was an adult and Bernhardt was dating the playwright Jean Richepin. All three of them stormed Colombier’s apartment to claim their vengeance, Bernhardt flailing a leather whip which she used to slash her former friend’s face. The avenging trio then trashed the place. The story spread like wildfire across France and America, with the Police Gazette carrying a cartoon of a black-clad, whip-wielding Bernhardt.
NOW Jessica Simpson taking flak for post-pregnancy weight gain
THEN Lady Hamilton being fat-shamed
Trolling is a nasty by-product of the internet’s democratisation; it’s so much easier now to directly send abuse to celebrities without having to go through their representatives. But, sadly, cruel jibes have long been directed towards stars, particularly famous women whose bodies and private lives were frequently attacked.
In 1782, rose to success as an elegant actress whose gimmick was playing mothers on stage, either while heavily pregnant or alongside her real children. Though beloved as the national matriarch, Siddons’s multiple pregnancies gradually changed her body until satirical cartoons savagely depicted her with plump limbs and triple chin. Her critics also spluttered in disgust when she played young characters, saying her body had been ruined by middle age.
The same fat-shaming mockery applied to Emma Hamilton, famed mistress of Lord Nelson, whose body was judged to have been monstrously engorged with post-pregnancy weight. What once was considered to be bountifully sexy became laughably disgusting in the eyes of her haters. By contrast, at the end of the 19th century, France’s Sarah Bernhardt was deemed to be skeletally thin. One joke went: “When she gets in the bath, the level of the water goes down!”
Celebrities weren’t just attacked for their looks; their love lives and the state of their mental health were also considered fair game. In 1797, London thrilled to the shock marriage of Mary Wells, a talented actress and impressionist noted for her uncanny mockery of other celebrities. But she was also widely gossiped about as someone who was mentally unwell, with even King George III – himself suffering a similar condition – calling her “mad”. Wells had been through the ringer when it came to men; she’d been ditched at the altar by her first love, who ran off with the bridesmaid, then was cruelly gaslighted and abandoned by her posh lover, and the father of her three children, Edward Topham.
In 1797, things got even more dramatic. She was hurled into debtor’s jail where she met and quickly married a Moorish Jew called Joseph Haim Sumbel, a charismatic diplomat banged up for refusing to explain how he came across some jewels. A mysterious foreigner with dodgy diamonds and a penniless, eccentric beauty? It was a perfect match for gossips, with great press attention given to their exotic wedding clothes and her rapid conversion to Judaism. But satirists also made anti-Semitic digs at Sumbel and accused Wells of being rampantly sex obsessed. The stories were frequently hostile and snide.
The marriage quickly turned nasty. Sumbel was a jealous, abusive husband who ripped an earring through Wells’s lobe in a violent rage. She accused him of attempted murder. He accused her of fraud. These accusations were traded in the press until, as she noted in her later memoirs: “I now found, for the first time in my life, the difference betwixt celebrity and notoriety”. Sumbel eventually left the country, and Mary kept his surname to use on the cover of that autobiography, in which she discussed her various romantic disasters. The book sold well, but at great cost – she’d spent years with a target on her back.
NOW: Taylor Swift’s obsessive superfans
THEN: Frances Maria Kelly
Like the proverbial tree toppling in the forest, celebrity needs an audience if it’s to make a sound. But the process of becoming a star – what Chaucer called being stellified – creates an unbalanced relationship, in which a committed fan can know the celebrity’s name, their favourite books, their past lovers, their tattoos, while the celebrity knows nothing of the fan.
Such delusions of intimacy can graduate from innocent obsession to full-blown stalking, as a beautiful young actress called Frances Maria Kelly discovered, on February 17 1816, when she was performing on stage at Drury Lane. A man in the sixth row stood up, pulled out a pistol, aimed it at her, and fired. Luckily, the bullet whizzed past her body and slammed into the scenery. Before he could reload, the crowd bundled him to the floor. What had Kelly done to deserve such violence?
In court, the would-be assassin, a young man named George Barnett, testified that she knew exactly why he’d done it. It turned out he had written her an angry letter: “Years ago I was your admirer; but always met with disappointment… I think my good intentions towards you have been more trifled than any of my cotemporaries [sic]. My claim to your person is therefore greater which determines me to demand your hand, or in other words to make you my wife. You will either consent to this, or accept my challenge. I will attend you at any hour you please, on Wednesday, or before. I have witnessed your dexterity of firing a gun; but suppose a pistol will better suit you, as being much lighter.”
Another victim of obsessive superfans was Vesta Tilley (1864-1952), who performed songs in male drag. In Liverpool, she was followed around by a mentally unwell man who was adamant they were married. He’d linger mute at the stage door every night, jiggling his cardboard sandwich board which declared Vesta Tilley Is My Wife.
One night, one of Tilley’s waggish friends beckoned him to meet the celebrity in the bar. By now Tilley had removed her wig, make-up, and male costume, and looked like an elegant lady instead of a cheeky chappie. The friend made the formal introductions, to which the man shouted: “That person Vesta Tilley? Whom are you trying to fool? Do you think I don’t know my own wife!”
And spare a thought for Shirley Temple’s family, who found themselves living as round-the-clock guardians to a global phenomenon. Not only was she surrounded in public by screaming hordes, who rushed forward to touch her bouncing curls, but soon their Santa Monica home became a tourist hotspot, with her father saying: “People came swarming down here like a cloud of locusts.” Off went the Temples to a Beverly Hills mansion, to live behind a sturdy high fence. Shirley had a pistol-carrying bodyguard at all times, a camera monitoring her bedroom, and a direct line to the police.
The threat to the star became imminently real two years after her breakthrough, in May 1936, when her father received a letter in the post instructing him to airdrop $25,000 over a farm in Nebraska, or “Shirley will encounter dire results”. Three months later, the would-be extortionist was arrested. He was only 16, and protested he’d done it on a whim after watching a movie with a kidnapping plotline.
In 1940, when Temple was 12 (though studio PR claimed she was younger, to prolong her cutesy career), a woman stood up in the theatre and pointed a gun at her. Two law enforcement agents leapt into action and disarmed her. This would-be assassin hungered for tragic vengeance: her baby had died at the same time as Temple had supposedly been born, and she felt her child’s life had been snatched away to bring Temple into the world. It’s a bleakly poetic metaphor that the studio’s PR lie, designed to keep Shirley young, nearly caused her to stop ageing entirely.
NOW Hugh Jackman as beefed-up Wolverine
THEN Eugen Sandow
In the early 2000s, personal trainers began noticing a common request from their male customers – they wanted to look like Brad Pitt in Fight Club: lean, toned, smooth, and with abs on which you could grate cheddar. In the years since, Hollywood has bemuscled its heroes even further, with Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine character having gone from dude-in-decent-shape (2000) to a rippling, chest-expanded beefcake with throbbing veins (2014). We might argue such body fetishism began in the Eighties, when Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bulging torso launched him to superstardom as Conan the Barbarian, but in fact Arnie had taken his inspiration from the previous century.
In the 1890s, Friedrich Wilhelm Müller, a Prussian immigrant to Britain with more ridges, bumps, and lumps on his magnificent physique than an Ordnance Survey map of the Yorkshire Dales, found fame as a strongman under the new name of Eugen Sandow. In a career-making early performance, he turned up dressed in a formal suit with a dainty monocle perched over one eye, like a mustachioed Fred Astaire, and issued a challenge to two strongmen. The crowd jeered this upper-class twit, only for Sandow to literally rip off his clothes to reveal a Herculean torso. The mockery turned to gasps of awe. A star was born.
Over the next few years, Sandow’s act became increasingly sophisticated. One manoeuvre involved him supporting a board on his back across which a horse and rider would then walk. But my personal favourite was Sandow strapping on a grand piano and then having eight musicians playing on top of it while he went for a saunter across the stage. You just don’t see that sort of thing on telly these days.
His power was astonishing, but he was crucially different from other strongmen, such as “Goliath”, who were huge man-mountains of wobbly flesh. In the late 19th century, being fat was commonly a sign of wealth and health. People could buy books like 1878’s How to Be Plump, or, Talks on Physiological Feeding that began with the question: “How shall I get fleshy?” To be large like the famous American railroad tycoon “Diamond” Jim Brady – a notorious glutton, described by the restaurateur George Rector as “the best 25 customers I ever had!” – was aspirational.
But Sandow changed that. He didn’t have an ounce of fat on him. Instead, he was a master technician who could move with graceful agility and execute perfect somersaults while holding massive weights in each hand. A Harvard anatomist was fascinated by his ability to flex individual abs on command, as if they were piano keys being played by an invisible ghost. What’s more, his skeletal structure was found to be totally average. He wasn’t a natural colossus in his bones: his beefcake bod was simply a product of the relentless pumping of iron. He’s now known as the father of the bodybuilding industry, and – for better or worse – he is ultimately responsible for Arnie.
NOW Gary Lineker and Walkers crisps
THEN W G Grace and Colman’s mustard
By the 1890s, the cricketer W G Grace was the world’s most famous sportsman. His magnificent beard, which didn’t so much quilt his face as hang off his ears and swing beneath his neck like a sloth from a tree, was so iconic that fans would rush anyone who looked a bit like him.
He became the face of Colman’s mustard, batting proudly on their tins with the line: “Colman’s Mustard Heads the Field”. He was also ambassador for Goodfellow’s Coca Water, a stimulant marketed as a remedy for fever, alcoholic tremors and vomiting. The irony was that Grace, who had been claimed as a teetotal champion, was secretly a big drinker.
Grace is the earliest example I’ve encountered of an athlete flogging sports equipment to a public willing to be seduced into thinking athletic glory is theirs if they just buy the right stuff. In 1888, he got involved with a firm developing a “Magic Bat” to sell to cricket-mad wannabes. It could have made a fortune, but two years later, before the Magic Bat was even released, Grace cheerfully endorsed a rival company which sold a bat with an inbuilt spring for better balance. (As business geniuses go, I’m not sure Grace would’ve made it to week two of The Apprentice.)
Extracted from Dead Famous by Greg Jenner (W&N, £18.99)