The Medial Portrayal of Celebrities via Tabloids and Social Media. The Portrayal of a True Celebrity Self

Bachelor Thesis, 2022

52 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Celebrities and their Relationship with Society and the News Media

3. Tabloids, Tabloidization and Gossip Culture

4.Social Media: A Shift in Power Dynamics

5. Social Media: The “Online Self”

6. The Portrayal of Two Different Realities

7. The Portrayal of a “True Celebrity Self”

8. Conclusion

9. Works Cited

List of Figures

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

1. Introduction

There are singers like Lady Gaga or Madonna, actors and actresses like Bradley Cooper or Charlize Theron, sportsmen like Cristiano Ronaldo or Tom Brady, as well as politicians like Barack Obama or Kamala Harris. Even though they all have different job titles and they all do very different things in the public eye, society probably can agree on one thing: They all can be called celebrities and are regarded as such. But what it is that makes these people famous and beloved celebrities, and why society is fascinated by them often seems to be unclear.

Undeniably, celebrities are omnipresent. They are on posters, on book covers and in form of toys on store shelfs, but most importantly, they are omnipresent in various kinds of media. They are in movies and on TV - maybe as participants in a reality show or when taking a seat next to a talk show host, they are covered in news stories of the press and are part of the social network. In fact, even though celebrities can, for example, be experienced on stage or on a soccer field, they mainly are experienced in the media. And the media play a very evident and crucial role with regards to the creation of a celebrity stigma around a certain person, and also with regards to how stars and celebrities are perceived. When consuming any kind of media portrayal about a certain celebrity, the media consumer feels as if he gets to know the certain celebrity. Whereas the interest in private aspects and the private lives of famous people has not always been present, it certainly is nowadays and celebrities’ audiences for some decades now do not only want to experience these people when they are on stage or appear in any other kind of public situation, they want to experience more. In this case, before the time of the internet and social media, one especially might have been lured by tabloid magazines lined up in supermarket shelves which promise intimate news and details of the rich and famous, a look behind the scenes and the possibility to venture into intimate spheres. However, in today’s internet age, it has become way more common to just click on certain websites and obtain celebrity news from them, or, in the age of social media, it has become even more common to follow certain celebrities on social media and to observe what they disclose about their lives.

But when comparing both, tabloid media’s portrayal and celebrities’ own portrayal via social media, it becomes evident that the portrayals of the one and the other often are very different from each other and it seems as if thoroughly there are two different realities mediated. But in what way do tabloid media and celebrities themselves via social media portray two different realities? And why is that?

In scope of this paper, tabloid- or more broadly news magazine online articles are compared to social media posts of the respective celebrities which the certain tabloid articles are about - both with reference and aligned to the certain same news issue, situation or matter. More specifically, the certain content or implied point of view of the respective article and post - meaning the respective narrative and in what way the certain article and social media post portrays the certain news matter or situation - are compared. Hereby, it is demonstrated how the respective two differently portrayed realities look like and if indeed the portrayed realities are thoroughly different.

As pointed out, with regards to the tabloid portrayal, specifically online tabloid articles are focused on. It will be explained why, with regards to the certain research questions of this paper, there even can be drawn generalized observations - valid for tabloids’ celebrity portrayals in general - out of specific analysis cases. With regards to the celebrities’ social media portrayal, the focus is especially on their portrayal via Instagram, which can be regarded as sufficient for the research goal of this thesis. Moreover, Instagram in general is considered as one of the main social media platforms for regular private celebrity content and hence, in this paper, a focus on this platform makes sense regarding the analysis. In this paper, it furthermore will be clarified why exactly it makes sense to draw a comparison between tabloid press articles and social media posts of the respective celebrities and why the certain portrayals often are very different or even contrasting to each other. Following that, in some regards, the two parties - tabloids and celebrities themselves - can be considered as in a counterpart position when it comes to their certain portrayals, which will be elaborated.

When consuming two different realities provided by two respective different sources, the media audience, which in this paper partially is one hypothetical homogenous audience that consumes both respective portrayals, consequently questions: Which of the two portrayals shows what really happened? What is the actual true narrative or treatise of the certain portrayed matter or story, and how did it really happen? Following these questions, with a more specific focus on the portrayed celebrity him- or herself instead of the portrayed story or matter involving him or her, it becomes interesting to know: Can one of the two respective portrayals even really show the certain celebrity person in her pure and complete private existence or are always fictional, filtered and staged elements involved?

From a realistic point of view, in fact, the latter question at first becomes redundant and void by itself because a “true celebrity self’ or more broadly a “true self’ and an untamed “innermost private self’ of any person in general cannot and does not even exist (Cf. Strohminger, Knobe and Newman 551). It is an unachievable fictional ideal or concept, it is “posited rather than observed” (560), and it is alterable and not constant. Such a “true self’ is an own respective idealized imagination of how one could be - or rather should be in accordance to evolve or maintain a positive attraction or impression on one’s social circle - as a human being is a social being. This concept of a “true self’ moreover is thoroughly featured by “radical subjectivity and unverifiability” (560). It “depends on the values of the observer” (560). So living out one’s “true self’ in this sense means to live out one’s self that totally aligns to an image - and as stated an ideal - of how one aspires to be. “What counts as part of the true self is subjective and strongly tied to what each individual person herself most prizes” (560). And what an individual person most prizes or her values always are a product of other people’s and society’s influences because a human being, as soon as born into this world, is constantly influenced and shaped by the surroundings it lives in. So a person’s “true nature” and “true self’ in this sense is omitted as soon as she is born (Cf. 558-560; cf. Baumeister 153).

But even though such a “true self’ or - with focus to specifically celebrities - “true celebrity self’ cannot and does not even exist, in some way it implicitly is (claimed to be) portrayed and also in some way is expected to be portrayed. This might sound contradictory at first but as elaborated in this paper, it actually is not.

2. Celebrities and their Relationship with Society and the News Media

Due to an “ongoing public significance of celebrity” (Elliott and Boyd 5), a focus on celebrities nowadays is quite plausible and more specific approaches which testify this observation are elaborated in the following paragraphs. In terms of an initial definition, the word “celebrity” - according to the Cambridge Dictionary - describes “someone who is famous, especially in the entertainment business” (Cambridge Dictionary: “celebrity”). Even though this definition can be regarded as a first solid basis for defining “celebrity” in this paper, there are several differences in societal thinking that must be taken into account when considering the question of...

“...what or who (even) is a celebrity?”

With regards to that, people often visualize glamorous Hollywood actors at award shows or pop stars on stage being cheered on by hysterical fans (Cf. Abidin 3). But at the same time people might picture in their heads so-called “It Girls” like Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian who simply are regarded as “famous for being famous” (Tench and Yeomans 622), or they might think of social media stars with millions of followers who regularly provide a variety of online content. But moreover, in a very different perspective, politicians as famous public figures might also be regarded as celebrities. A common point of these different approaches is that a celebrity is seen as “a well- recognized person who commands a high degree of public and media attention” (622), thus, the public and the media must play an important role when it comes to celebrities (Cf. 622; cf. Abidin 3).

However, the general understanding of celebrities is in constant change over time and the understanding nowadays vastly differs from the understanding of people living in the 1920s for example. Especially then, in the beginning of the golden age of the cinema and big movie stars, people regarded celebrities as part of an unreachable and admirable elite “to look up to” or as even god-like individuals (Cf. Rojek 10). Then and for the decades to come, individuals could possibly reach celebrity status only when they were attached to a certain outstanding “achievement, talent or position” (Abidin 4). But especially since the 2000s, this traditional perception of celebrities and its attachment to a strict exclusivity need to be reconsidered, for example with regards to a reality TV star: “It’s not a Hollywood star necessarily. It’s a hairdresser from Essex who’s been on television” (Abidin 4).

And furthermore, especially since the 2010s and with the rise of social media, internet stars - more commonly known as influencers - have challenged previous understandings of celebrities (Cf. Giles 19). So society’s perception on this issue differs from time to time - and from person to person.

Anne Jerslev and Mette Mortensen, however, have a very different approach and they support the argument that “’celebrity’ should be understood rather as a practice [...] than an essential ‘being’” (Jerslev and Mortensen 158). The construct or concept celebrity according to them is “an organic and ever-changing performative practice rather than a set of intrinsic personal characteristics or external labels” (158). Ellis Cashmore, in search for the societal meaning of the concept celebrity, thinks that “celebrities are (cultural) creations rather than people [and] they’re products of imaginations” (Cashmore (y) 2019 180). Hereby he means that celebrities are “celebrified” by people’s perceptions of qualities - whatever they might be - and people’s interest in these individuals “to the point where [these individuals] involve themselves in [the people’s] imagined lives” (180).

The term “celebrity” then can be approached from a more general, superficial understanding of celebrities as simply being famous and public individuals up to a more in-depth term of celebrities being people’s “products of imaginations” (180). At this point and until determined otherwise, in my paper celebrities are defined as famous people in the entertainment industry and public eye with many fans and followers and a large as well as constant media presence. A selective determination of “celebrity” is necessary because, as pointed out in the previous paragraphs, the term itself is very broad.

Even though the term “influencer,” as already stated, nowadays is connected to internet- and social media stars, in a broader sense it can be ascribed to celebrities in general since they all have “the capacity to influence the behavior or opinions of others” (105) and indeed do so. In view of this, the following paragraphs demonstrate...

“...why (to) focus on celebrities(?)”

As Ellis Cashmore states:

What we call culture serves as the context for everything we experience. [...] These experiences are mediated and modified for us by other people; mothers first [, then by] other people. [...] Those people are often never seen or spoken to directly. And yet their influence is overwhelming (180).

Therefore, celebrities shape our lives to a huge amount - may it be by their professional appearances, for example in a certain role in a certain movie, or by the actual person herself - and they can be regarded as idols of the individual - as earlier stated: people “to look up to” (Cf. Rojek 10). Not just in a way that a person might aspire to be as famous as a certain singer or actor and in such sense aspires to be like that person, but in a way that celebrities influence and shape their fans’ and society’s thinking with regards to nearly every aspect of their lives (Cf. Elliott and Boyd 4).

They arrange “our understanding of gender, sex, race, consumption, privacy, fame, [beauty] and even ourselves” (Cashmore 12), so basically celebrities - at least to a certain degree - shape a “celebrity consumer’s” character and personality. Whether it be conscious or subconscious, the celebrity consumer adapts the celebrified person’s thinking and behavior and “[s]elf-expression [then is just] an instrument of imitation in our era of celebrity worship” (Elliott 311). Thus, celebrities, with regards to society as a whole, can even be regarded as pioneers or reflections of how society will look like in the future (Cf. 311; cf. Cashmore 120).

However, at the same time celebrities can be regarded as products and representatives of the current state of society or its demands and desires. This makes sense regarding that a celebrity in the first place can only become “celebrified” if the way he or she embodies him- or herself or is embodied matches up to what society wants to see in a celebrity in a certain time (Cf. Abidin 5). It can be exemplified by Paris Hilton’s quick rise to stardom in the early 2000s: “[W]hen people sought endless novelty, bounteous glamor, lavishness in all areas of their lives and the arousal of their senses by whatever stimulant was ready-to-hand, Hilton was perfect” (Cashmore 109) and she gave American society what society wanted. But “Hilton didn’t [even] so much have [the certain quality society demanded for]; others endowed her with it” (Cashmore 110).

When regarding celebrities as pure entertainment, following the previous paragraphs, this cannot be regarded as sufficient for celebrities’ role in society. So when perceiving them as pioneers or reflections of future society, but at the same time as products of our current society, it is clarified that the relationship between the concept celebrity and society thoroughly is an interaction and the one influences the other and vice versa.

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Figure 1: Celebrity-Society Interaction

But celebrities and society or more specifically their certain audiences never or very rarely are in direct contact with each other. People generally in the first place become aware of celebrities via entertainment media when, for example, watching them act in movies or when listening to their songs. So this is what actually makes them or creates celebrities because it makes society being interested in these certain people - with regards to their entertainment output, but also with regards to the person behind the celebrity mask. Specifically the news media further utilize society’s interest and provide the stories, the information and the content about these certain people’s private lives, which then “frames celebrities as being worthy of our attention” (Abidin 4) and keeps society being interested (Cf. 4; cf. Cashmore 111). In other words, the news media turned celebrities “into a commodity, where the public is massaged to take interest in them continually” (Abidin 4). So prior to when celebrities have had their own platform to present themselves to their certain audiences with the rise of social media, “[c]elebrities didn’t so much tell [their] stories; they were [the] stories” (Cashmore 178) and the private celebrity person only “was told” by the the news media (Cf. Elliott and Boyd 14). This explains the relationship between...

...Celebrities and the News Media

According to the previous paragraph, the news media industry before the time of social media in general even solely created, generated and produced what society got to see of celebrities’ private lives. Then, every public image of a celebrity in fact to a high degree and with high probability developed out of the news media’s regular portrayal about this certain person and every characteristic and personality-based feature or quality one ascribes to a certain celebrity to large extent was before subliminally granted or attributed to this person and filtered by the news media (Cf. Johansson 356). To be more specific by “soft news media” - in this case meaning any kind of news media outlet that inter alia reports about celebrities and produces entertainment and celebrity stories (Cf. Biressi and Nunn 7).

So there was a very one-sided balance of power when it comes to portraying the private life and personality of a celebrity and soft news media in fact could create any narrative about the certain person who just had to accept the way she takes place in public. In this sense, the celebrity person - before being publicized by the news media - to a certain degree was nothing but a templet that devotes itself to being designed and colored by soft news media in this identified filter-and-modification process (Cf. Johansson 352-353). Considering this, a further definition of the concept celebrity can be drafted:

A celebrity is a constructed and mediated persona of a private person in the entertainment industry with many fans and followers that gains much attention due to its large and constant media and news media presence.

The media truly “had [and have] the [...] power to define our reality” (352) and in terms of this paper especially soft news media, to some degree, for long solely navigated how a media audience “consumes” a certain celebrity (Cf. 352; cf. Elliott and Boyd 21-22).

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Figure 2: Celebrity-Audience Relationship via Soft News Media - The Soft News Media Filter

The described filter-and-modification process can be best visualized and clarified when having a closer look at a specific situation. Comedian and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres faced much backlash and dismay in 2020 when she was accused by several guests and employees of her show of being rude, inconsiderate and in general unkind. These accusations especially were surprising with regards to DeGeneres because her general public image for many years has consisted of being funny, nice and generous, and as center of her brand she always even encouraged others to “be nice to each other” (Cf. Yandoli). However, those rumors and allegations soon became part of much media news coverage and this certain narrative of DeGeneres surprisingly being unkind was conveyed to media audiences (Cf. Torres; cf. Yandoli). The US-version of the “Insider” for example reported:

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Figure 3: “Why 2020 was the year of backlash against Ellen DeGeneres” (Insider)

Many soft news media, as mentioned, mediated this certain image and narrative to their audiences or readers - but not knowing if these accusations in fact are actually true. Nevertheless, they filtered and modified this certain narrative. In this case, soft news media did not actively generate this story which was initiated by “crew members and a guest on her show” (Torres), however, the news media are the acting power that produced and created this narrative for and to the public (Cf. Johansson 352). Even though there were valid or concrete sources for the news media in this case to create this certain narrative or story, in many cases celebrity news stories in fact do not stem from what could be called an actual valid or concrete origin - especially when focusing tabloid media. And the audience either way consumes the media’s often filtered or fictionalized portrayals of the celebrity (Cf. Bastos 220). Of course, as there are many different news media sources, realistically many different media portrayals cannot be unified under one big term as the one news media portrayal. However, as will be clarified in a following chapter, with regards to this paper and at this point specifically to demonstrate this filter-and-modification process of soft news media, such a generalization is useful and legitimate.

Regarding a more specific single event soft news media reported about, the certain filter-and-modification process of mediating one certain narrative to media consumers might be visualized even more effectively. Singer Jason Derulo in January 2022 attacked two men in a Las Vegas casino. As “TMZ” and other tabloid media reported, Derulo in the first place got upset because one of the two men yelled at him: “Usher, f*** you b****” (TMZ). Following this, many soft news media and especially the tabloid press conveyed that the reason for Derulo’s outrage would have been that he was mistaken for the certain other singer (Cf. TMZ; cf. Etienne and Jakiel).

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Figure 4: “Jason Derulo loses it in Vegas, fights guys ... Who Called Him Usher!!!” (TMZ) (1)

This narrative was projecting that Jason Derulo even hates Usher - up to the point that he even gets physically violent when being mistaken for him. However, up to now it is still unclear and there has not been expressed a clarifying statement if the singer really attacked the men because of his dislike of being mistaken for Usher or if he had other motifs. For example there might be a possibility that he attacked the men in order to even defend Usher who was verbally insulted with the words “f*** you b****” (TMZ). In this case, Derulo’s motif of course would not be a dislike of Usher, but actually sympathy for the other. However, as clarified, soft news media and tabloids like “TMZ” filtered the incident - that contains many different possible narratives of why it really happened - to this certain one narrative. And this portrayal can be true, partly true or even completely false, but no matter what, this certain narrative was conveyed to and consumed by the news media consumer. It thus shows how soft news media are in power of portraying celebrities and celebrity stories in any way they aspire to.

But from another perspective, with regards to this same filter-and-modification process and the power of the news media, at the same time celebrities’ mediated public images are created by society because soft news media in the end adjust their portrayals of celebrities and the narratives they present them in to what society demands for or reacts the strongest to (Cf. Abidin 4; cf. Johansson 353). Hereby, the previous explained perception of celebrities as products of society is demonstrated in overall. The “creation” of a mediated, publicly “celebrified” person in this case should be regarded as an interaction between the general media and society. (News) media actively produce and depict celebrities and embed them in a certain narrative, and the certain audiences or society in general recognize, adopt or accept a celebrity by simply being interested in them or more specifically in their depiction and the depicted stories. By doing this, in the described case, society already defines future celebrity portrayals produced by the news media because, as stated, the certain news media outlets adjust their portrayals to what resonates best with the audience (Cf. Cashmore 149; cf. Brown 260).

When focusing on celebrity coverage by soft news media, a focus on especially tabloid media and their specific characteristics makes sense since tabloids are geared to and are the emblem of celebrity coverage and thus demonstrate a big impact on how celebrities are depicted to society. Furthermore, especially tabloids maintain a dominant and very active role within the news media industry when it comes to the audience-adjusted filter-and-modification process of celebrity depiction (Cf. Eldridge II 1).

3. Tabloids, Tabloidization and Gossip Culture

Tabloid media content is described as “newspaper and [...] broadcast journalistic output that prioritizes entertainment [and] human interest [...] and which is usually presented as oppositional to ‘serious’ and socially responsible journalism” (Biressi and Nunn 7). And tabloid’sjournalistic output is purely regarded as “soft news” in contrast to “quality media’s” main focus on “hard news” which describes news coverage with regards to mainly political or economic news (Cf. 7; cf. Danesi 132).

Tabloids are attached with characteristic features like an often antagonistic, very sensationalist and exaggerated but at the same time somehow trivial coverage with regards to the people they are reporting about. They often portray celebrities in a very scandalous context and often are considered as “rude press.” This often as antagonistic perceived coverage of the tabloid press, their portrayals of celebrities which often conclude that the certain celebrity is depicted “in a bad light,” and the tabloids’ attributed “anti-celebrity-attitude” are resulting out of their certain primary goal to generate the highest possible profit of any kind (Cf. Conboy 2; cf. Biressi and Nunn 7-8).

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Figure 5: “Jason Derulo loses it in Vegas, fights guys ... Who Called Him Usher!!!” (TMZ) (2)

When regarding the certain narrative of singer Jason Derulo that was conveyed by “TMZ” for example, it enabled creating a lurid and sensationalist headline, which is a key task of many tabloid media to fulfill when focusing the following question: What provokes the strongest emotion like outrage or affection from the audience?

As stated before, tabloids or soft news media in general align their celebrity portrayals and often constructed stories to what society reacts the strongest to and a headline or a teaser text which provokes strong emotions on the certain audience - when focusing online journalism - entices the audience to read the whole article, generates high click ratings, and hereby in the end helps the certain news website to generate profit. So when depicting celebrities “in a bad light” and in a scandalous context, this often appears as lurid and creates the effect of the certain article being attractive for the reader to click on. This also explains the phenomenon of “clickbaiting” which in this sense is just a result out of tabloids’ goal to lure as many readers or media consumers as possible to click on their certain websites. So in this “greed for clicks,” tabloids even are described to often wholly fabricate lurid narratives - promoted in their headlines and teaser texts - to reach a high number of clicks, and the actual articles often do not contain the story that is promised through the certain headline (Cf. Conboy 1-2; cf. Eldridge II 7).

Tabloids and Quality Press

When differentiating tabloid media to the quality press in this context, the latter is said to much more uphold transparent standards in reporting. Also, when tabloids report about celebrities and hereby often create their very own narratives of what really happened anyway, the sources they refer to and their portrayals initially are, in many cases, just based on vague allegations as well as supposed “insiders” and subjective perceptions. “Quality media” and their journalistic output in contrast are referred to as much more fact-based and furthermore they are said to much more uphold the journalistic value of objectivity and objective reporting than tabloid media (Cf. Danesi 131-132; cf. Conboy 2). So when differentiating between tabloid media and the quality press, there can be said that tabloid media more function as story tellers for entertaining news with exaggerating, scandal-oriented and lurid elements to catch the readers’ interest on their media output whereas the quality press more promises fact-based reporting that strictly informs about the “actual important news.”

However, when focusing on single tabloid or “quality news” outlets, content-wise they cannot be separated into being purely one or the other since any kind of news outlet, especially with regards to modern online journalism, has to be regarded as being placed anywhere in between being a “True Tabloid” (Eldridge II 3) and a “Journal of Record” (3). And many or even most news media, due to an ongoing merging of different journalistic orientations with regards to content, cover hard news as well as soft news (Cf. 3, 9).

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Figure 6: Tabloid typology (Eldridge II, “Digital impacts on the tabloid sphere: Blurring and diffusion of a popular form and its power”)


Excerpt out of 52 pages


The Medial Portrayal of Celebrities via Tabloids and Social Media. The Portrayal of a True Celebrity Self
University of Frankfurt (Main)
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ISBN (Book)
American Studies, Media Studies, Cultural Studies, Social Studies, Celebrity Studies
Quote paper
Max Häussler (Author), 2022, The Medial Portrayal of Celebrities via Tabloids and Social Media. The Portrayal of a True Celebrity Self, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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