The Function of Pagan Celebrity

Teo Bishop —  June 28, 2013 — 14 Comments

When I met Cher, I was surprised at the narrowness of her face. It’s a strange observation to make, I suppose. She was tall, with a very small frame. Clearly there was something dynamic about her, but it’s difficult to discern whether or not I was observing an echo of observations I’d made about the Cher I’d seen on television, in videos, or in movies. Standing before someone who for all of my life has been a celebrity icon, I couldn’t help but notice the trace of something completely unlike what had been displayed in media; something quite ordinary. For a brief moment, peering out at me from beneath the vivacious wig and extravagant outfit, was a simple, 67 year old woman. That person was not someone I’d ever seen before, and someone that few people ever have the chance to meet or know.

She was the person who created Cher.

Cher and I on the runway - TWH

Celebrity is a series of illusions.

I know this, firsthand, to be true.

In my professional life as a musician and songwriter I’ve had occasion to work with or for a number of high profile people in the entertainment industry. I’ve written for Cher, Kelly Clarkson, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, and a host of others. I’ve seen some of them in the most unglamorous of situations, and I’ve been reminded again and again that the thing that people see is not necessarily the thing that is.

These illusions are necessary and functional. To talk about the illusion so overtly is, in a way, a betrayal of code (the industry may not be pagan by nature, but there is plenty of oath-bound information being passed back and forth). But I think that there are a growing number of people who find little to no function in upholding the illusion of celebrity, or the consumer culture which feeds upon it.

One need only look to voices within our own community to see this perspective being articulated. John Michael Greer, Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America writes in The Druidry Handbook,

“Many people in the modern industrial world go through life with their bodies surrounded by a cocoon of technology and their minds flooded with perpetual chatter from the media. Living and working in climate-controlled buildings, with artificial lighting to see by, commercial music to hear, synthetic scents to smell, chemically flavored foods to taste, and a completely manufactured environment to touch, it’s no wonder so many modern people are deluded into thinking of nature as an unnecessary luxury, and fail to notice that their glittering artificial world depends, moment by moment, on vast inputs of materials and energy wrenched from their places in the cycles of the living Earth.”

[emphasis mine]

While Greer may not be talking specifically about celebrities, he is speaking about the manufactured experiences of comfort, enjoyment, and sensory pleasures which the illusion of celebrity helps to facilitate. The products and by-products of the entertainment industry are, in many cases, tools of distraction. We might seek out entertainment to distract us from our jobs, our relationships, or our living situations, and the entertainment we consume may also lead us to a disconnection from the “grown” or “birthed” world around us (as apposed to the “designed” and “produced” world of consumer culture).

Celebrity culture is to authentic human experience what silk flowers are to spring. The beauty you see is constructed, and only an approximation of the real.

But we like looking at pretty things. Silk arrangements can be breathtaking. So can celebrities. The point isn’t that there is no aesthetic value in what is produced by celebrity culture, but rather that there is good reason to be mindful that what you are seeing was something constructed for you to see — deliberately, calculatively, and for profit.

The images, narratives, and creative works of celebrity culture can be functional in other ways besides surface-level entertainment. The people we lift up can serve as role models, examples of right (or sometimes very wrong) behavior, and most often they are blank canvases on which we quite liberally project our own biases, insecurities, hopes, prejudices, and desires. Celebrity culture produces a series of high-profile mirrors, each of which offers you a reflection of some aspect of yourself. Whether or not you choose to gaze into the looking glass as it hangs on your (Facebook) wall, you cannot deny the influence of this machinery.

What then are we to think about Pagan celebrity?

Do the mechanics of illusion function in the same way in our sub-culture?

media-thorn-5-lg

T Thorn Coyle captivated me from the moment I first saw her. She has that thing that celebrities have. When she looks at you, you feel as though she is really seeing you. She is very much in her body, too, which is something else she has in common with many of the celebrities I’ve met. She understands her flesh, and she isn’t bashful about it. She owns her space. She commands attention. She has presence.

Thorn was one of the first Pagan celebrities I met face-to-face. She was also one of the first Pagan celebrities who connected with the less public side of my life, offering me insight, advice, and direction during a time when I needed it. In that moment, it was the real connecting with the real. The currency of celebrity did not matter.

I don’t know why Thorn started out as a celebrity figure for me. I can’t quite place it. I was inoculated for celebrity at a very young age, but somehow I got the Thorn bug. Maybe it’s the way that she speaks so clearly about harnessing one’s will, or using one’s own power to affect change in their life. She’s a self-professed magic worker, and that sense of sovereignty is so attractive to me. Self-possession and self-direction have always been challenges for me. Thorn displays through her own example (or at least the example that she offers us to see) some aspect of myself that I would like to develop.

Then that’s it — that’s why. Thorn served, at first, as a Pagan celebrity who demonstrated how one person could be embodied, aware, relentless, compassionate and thoughtful. She demonstrated behaviors that I wished to emulate. She was a person I could imagine modeling myself after.

That is a function of celebrity.

Do the celebrities of Pagan culture serve that function in a different way than celebrities of the mainstream entertainment culture? Do we hold up people for the same reason, or for different ones? Are the expectations we might place on — say — the members of One Direction, a teen boy band, different than ones we would place on Ivo Dominguez Jr.?

What is the standard of realness for Pagan celebrities, and how does that differ from entertainment celebrities? Are we more permissive of the artificial when we consume the products of mainstream consumer culture than when we buy the books of our Pagan authors? Do we expect Pagan celebrities to be more real, or more authentic than other celebrities?

What is the function of Pagan celebrity?

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Teo Bishop

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Teo Bishop is a contemplative, a bard, and the author of Bishop in the Grove.
  • Vincent Russo

    Oh, what a wonderful post. I’m sharing it! :-)

  • Anna H.

    Such an important topic. You articulate the value of celebrity quite well – as people who hold up an example of what we each want to be, and serve as inspiration to the rest of us. However, as with so many things in our culture, we sure do have a way of going to extremes and mucking it up. As someone who has been a minor biggish fish in my very small pond, I’m aware of the dangers of the illusion of the perfect priestess/perfect oruest and what havoc it can wreak in one’s relationships (including relationship with self).

    As far as our celebrity culture – when I see the obscene gobs of money being spent on publishing content about celebrities, especially the ones who are “famous for being famous” without having actually accomplished anything – and all the good that could be done with those resources – words fail.

  • http://www.walkofthefallen.com Labrys

    I think this is a valuable topic for conversation because it addresses some expectations that I consider troublesome. I’ve never been much of a celebrity hound; never even having any sort of actor/singer “crush” even in my youth because I always knew the cloak of celebrity was masking the real individual. It was making that real person a means to fame’s end, in a manner of speaking. Replacing a person with an image, no matter how carefully crafted, always seemed to be an especially profane thing to do. And I often fear that unless the thus artistically manipulated person is very grounded in selfhood….as is Thorn Coyle, that the process itself can be destructive, and sometimes deadly TO the celebrity cloak’s wearer beneath.

    I would rather see the elements of those cloaks as mirrors of our own desires, mirrors that tell us more about ourselves than about the person so draped with our own needs and hopes.

  • kenofken

    I do see all of the same celebrity dynamics in the pagan community as in Hollywood, but written much smaller. Because we don’t have the same scope or dollars, even our biggest celebrities are still accessible to us. I think I was introduced to half of them this past week at PSG. I saw some of the same posturing where people trip over each other to show they’re on a first-name basis with this or that one, but of course there weren’t the bodyguards and velvet ropes and absurd attitudes as we associate with the larger celebrity world, and I hope we can keep it that way as long as possible. I think what we have might better be considered “public figures” rather than celebrities. The prominence of pagan public figures, the ones who matter over time, arises from their accomplishments and strength of personality.

    True celebrity culture is manufactured from the word go, and it’s a very sick and destructive dynamic for all involved. Fandom becomes this unhealthy messianic obsession with the celebrity, and a sort of vampiric hunger for that person to feed the yawning empty space within their own spirits. The celebrity in turn, has their ego fed to the point they assume godlike self-importance, and yet they are usually the most miserable empty people around. Everybody is feeding off of each other and starving at the end of it all. There’s a part of me that hopes paganism stays marginal, hungry, or at least doesn’t succeed in the ways the big religions did. We’re still at the scope that we’re more like a very large family or tribe, and our family knows us well enough that it doesn’t pay to “put on airs” around them.

  • http://blog.dianarajchel.com Diana Rajchel

    what a juicy question! Pagan celebrity is interesting first, because we still determine our celebs in books before looks. It’s also much more consciously conferred. In mainstream celebrity the selection of talent has become a corporate package – by the time that person becomes world famous the autonomy involved in recognizing or not recognizing that person has been removed by the entertainment industry. In Pagan celebrity there’s not only much more autonomy on the audience’s side, those who were made press celebrities in the 70s are not remembered by bottom of Gen X and millennials – our projections onto our celebrities are based on emotion and meaning (or interpretation therof) rather than on image. Years ago I watched a documentary on how the silver screen era execs created celebrity as we know it – they modeled their actors as Greek gods and apparently the first few screaming fans were paid for that gig. It is all an engineered project but it is based on a natural capacity for emotional connection.

  • Bari

    I dunno. I’ve been a priestess, workshop and ritual leader in the Bay Area pagan community for nearly 20 years, and I’ve seen quite a lot of so-called pagan celebrities rise and fall. I don’t really know how to recognize so-called “pagan celebrity” anymore. Sure, old-timers like Starhawk, Margot Adler, and Diana Paxson who have quite a few books out and international reputations I can recognize. But I’ve met lots of really fantastic ritualists who really aren’t known outside of a small circle (in part b/c they haven’t bothered to or haven’t wanted to do the work of situating themselves as a “celebrity”), and I’ve certainly met or attended workshops and rituals of popular workshop leaders and writers that have left me scratching my head and wondering why this person ended up being a “big deal”. I understand and respect the idea of looking to our own communities to find teachers and role models, and I honestly wish we had a stronger culture in the broader pagan community of supporting and respecting our elders. But an “elder” and a “pagan celebrity” are unfortunately often two completely different things. I know some folks who are both; many folks who are either one or the other. And I’ve far too often seen folks using the cache of pagan celebrity to puff up their own egos. It’s complicated stuff, for sure.

  • Lyssa Heartsong

    For me, that standard of “realness”–tricky word, there!–comes in the relationship where the work shines through the worker in whatever art they are producing, be it teaching, writing, music, etc. Sometimes we get to see them in more levels of participation in this process, sometimes not, like when you get to see celebrities off the stage or teachers outside the teaching circle or ritual space. I think that when any artist or teacher is working hard just to keep up the image of their identity, crafted or otherwise, then they are losing the interplay between that and their chosen work which makes the work vital, living, and open to others. (And I think this makes it more difficult for us to interact with their work, which may be a part of why things lose potency and relevancy.)

    If we’re just in consumer mode with this process, we’ll take it and and there’s only so far we can go with art. We can just keep that up and take it into ourselves. That endless loop of consumerism leads ultimately to stagnation and damage, because nothing is returned from what we take in. Same with whatever we are taught. I think one of the functions of a good pagan celebrity is to be that teacher/artist that encourages the deep interaction and relationship with the work they are presenting, be it an inspiration to develop those same behaviors in yourself *for* yourself, or give your own back to the world in your own particular capacity.

  • Sandy

    I’m
    wondering how the underlying reason for celebrity plays into the
    equation. Both Cher and Thorn gained celebrity from doing their work in
    the world, but Cher’s work is entertainment, where as Thorn’s work is
    teaching. Within Paganism, I have seen celebrity
    happen to those who, like Thorn, teach publicly and write books, and I
    have also seen celebrity come to those who’s work is more about
    blogging. I have seen, in recent years, a specific path to Pagan
    celebrity that some folks seem to walk with the goal being the
    attainment of celebrity. I would think that all these things would make a
    difference in how a person wears celebrity (and how celebrity wears a
    person), how it can be used, and how we experience the celebrity in
    question.

  • Charles Cosimano

    Celebrity can be good or bad for a person, depending upon what they use it for, in other words, are they having fun with it. Of course there is the obvious downside, like the time 20 years when a friend took me to a sort of psychic fair and I was having fun being all anonymous and listening to the speakers. Then she went to the organizers sitting at their table and asked them if they had ever heard of me. The said they had and they loved my books, very wise of them.

    Well, next thing I know, I have all the presenters standing around me, basking in some sort of reflective glory and I was terribly embarrassed by the whole thing. Finally, I had to say, “Look, you have these people who paid to hear you, not see you gathering around me.”

  • Leanne Pemburn

    This really is a fascinating line of thought. Thorn is a celebrity, in the smaller and more manageable Pagan pond, Cher’s celebrity is orders of magnitude larger and perhaps consequently less real, in the broader world, especially TV. I suspect that living in a village by comparison, it is incumbent on Pagan celebs to “keep it real”, given that there are fewer degrees of separation between Pagan celebs and Pagans in general. Given that celebs in the Pagan world are celebrated mostly for their teachings, and their contributions, it follows that they have the tools to keep said celebrity from eating them alive. They use the image they have created to draw people in to the teachings they have to share. I like to think that Pagans, and maybe any smaller subset, set a higher standard, though it would be easy enough to be famous for being famous here, also.

    (a personal aside: Cher holds a special place in my heart, as my appearance has been compared to hers for years. It still kind of freaks me out on many levels)

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    Celebrity is a kind of iconography, isn’t it?

    It takes a person and remakes them into a symbol. People will then be inspired by that symbol; inspired to be more like it or to distance themselves from it.

    In this way, truth is not such an important thing as what is presented.

    Some people take a perverse delight in seeing these icons fall, not for a specific dislike of the individual but because it heartens them to see that no one can fully live up to the standards presented, not even the person presenting them.

  • Cath

    I couldn’t care less about Cher, as I left “celebrity awe” behind with my childhood; but I feel grateful and privileged to be able to interact with Thorn, because she is a highly skilled wise teacher who is blazing the trail for those of us who come after her. To me that’s not “celebrity” even if it might look that way to an outside observer. I feel a certain amount of awe at her skills, but I also feel confident that one day I will have the same level of ability in my own skills… maybe that makes her more like a college professor, teaching a PhD program?

  • http://www.stonecirclepress.com/ Pegi Eyers

    The Cult of Celebrity has been created by a corrupt capitalist system that stimulates consumer spending by manipulating your need for ritual and emotional bonding, and actually becomes a substitute for an authentic spiritual life. The glorification of the artist or visionary as some kind of superhuman being is as toxic to the celebrities themselves as it is to their followers. In pre-industrial societies all people expressed and all were valued for their expression – the modern hierarchy of celebrity worship is dysfunctional and nothing more than a hegemonic reinforcement of capitalism.
    http://www.stonecirclepress.com

  • Conor O’Bryan Warren

    Celebrity is a combination of luck and skill (having the successes that make you known) and having a ‘stage presence’. You can see that ‘presence’ or ‘soundness’ that you were talking about in actors who aren’t famous as long as they’ve been doing their thing for a while. It is a very unconscious thing, but they get more comfortable in their own body, in their space and with others, their movements are precise and deliberate (at least in public). I think it is just a thing that comes with presenting one’s self on stage in front of strangers.
    Hell, I just got done doing my first professional show and I’ve started to develop like this. People have noted it, I’ve even had strangers ask ‘Are you an actor? You act like an actor.’ Not derisively of course, actors just, well act, differently in very subtle ways in public. In private, as far as I know, I’m the same as I ever was. Musicians do this too, and so do singers I have noticed. It is a self-confidence that may be arrogant or humble but is secure nonetheless

    I don’t like Thorn’s work personally, doesn’t click with me. However, she VERY clearly has a presence, at least she does in photos, and if a person knows how to work a camera I’d imagine she knows how to work a room. (Though the knowing is more. . .intuitive isn’t it?)

    Oh, Pagan celebrities will continue for certain, there is no stopping it.

    (and you, dear Teo, are next)