Famous for Fourteen Minutes by Chris Green
You will be familiar with Andy Warhol’s aphorism from the nineteen-sixties that in the future, everyone would be world-famous for fifteen minutes. A bold statement for sure, but with the spread of celebrity culture that has since ensued, you might be tempted to say, quite a prophetic one. But for those of you who are pedantic, his prediction, if you wish to call it that, is not completely accurate. Last year, the polymath Herschel Box calculated that, in fact, fame lasts just fourteen minutes. Everyone is now famous for a mere fourteen minutes.
Along with the escalation of global communication technology, one of the key factors involved in the shorter period of fame must be the rapid increase in the world’s population over the last half-century. With his life tragically cut short, Andy could not have known that the human race would breed at such a rate. He himself, of course, was not a breeder.
But let us turn one more to Box’s thesis. He further suggests that in a year or so, the period will come down to thirteen minutes and within two or three decades could fall to as low as ten or even eight minutes. In 2050, everyone will probably only be famous for eight minutes. Imagine that. Just eight minutes, or allowing for mathematical error, possibly only seven minutes. Extrapolating these figures, eventually, everyone will become famous for just fifteen seconds. Blink and you will miss it.
Understandably, there is a great deal of competition to become famous, and it seems some people will stop at nothing to get noticed. Osama bin Laden flew planes into the Twin Towers, Fred West buried bodies under the concrete, and Michael Schumacher crashed fast cars. Harold Shipman murdered his patients, Kurt Cobain put a bullet in his head, and Gwyneth Paltrow marketed vagina-scented candles. George Michael was so determined to get his fifteen minutes of fame that he had several attempts. He went Outside, he crashed cars, and finally, he took a permanent vacation.
While you yourself may not hanker after your fourteen minutes of fame, you might well know someone who does. Once you start looking, there are plenty of wannabe celebrities around. Take the case of Ricky Stainton, an old acquaintance of mine. A victim of the burgeoning celebrity culture, Ricky was keen to grab his moment in the sun. He had a need for everyone to be aware of who he was. He realised that he either had to come up with something world-shatteringly innovative or something singularly shocking. As he was not especially creative, he suspected the first option was a long shot. He understood the second option would require him to be daring, and it would need to be something that had terrible consequences. But it needed to be something that did not need any special talent. Charisma, yes, but not talent. He decided that Ricky Stainton was not a name that would get him noticed, so he changed it to Rick Satan. Not a big change, but one he felt would give him a greater chance to make an impact.
Ricky photo-bombed celebrities all over the country in his Rick Satan sweatshirt, to piggyback on their fame, but to no avail. He was punched once or twice by angry subjects or their minders, but for all his efforts, this was the only attention his efforts received. He parachuted into Wembley Stadium on Cup Final day dressed as Lucifer, but this was also met with disinterest. For the large part, the crowd saw it as part of the half-time entertainment. It triggered little more than a few photos on Instagram and nothing more than a passing mention on Twitter. It received no mention in the press or on the news. His drive down the Mall towards Buckingham Palace in a tank also went unnoticed. He had picked the wrong day. There were no crowds that day. The Queen was hosting a function at Windsor Castle. His stunt of sitting in the public gallery of the House of Commons, dressed as an alien, did not get so much as a sideways glance. It was clearly becoming harder to shock people. Harder to impress people. Harder to get them to notice you in a crowd. Competition for fourteen minutes of fame was fierce.
You may have gathered by now that Ricky was a bit of a fruitcake. Eminent psychologists have been suggesting for some time that the obsessive pursuit of fame might be linked to mental illness. It is an entirely different driving force to ambition. It goes way beyond healthy striving to succeed. It becomes an all-consuming compulsion. Yet there are millions like Ricky, whose only goal in life is to be admitted into the prestigious fourteen-minute club.
So what are the benefits of membership of the club? Like the magician’s rabbit, you will appear from out of nowhere. People will look at you in wonder. They will bow down before you. You will look down from on high. You will be Jesus’s son. You will be the people’s messiah. For fourteen minutes, you will be the world’s salvation, their escape, their ecstasy. You will be the people’s orgasm. They will come over you. You will be their cocaine hit. Their euphoric escape from their everyday strife. At least, these are some of the ways you might interpret your lofty position.
What are the drawbacks? You will realise almost immediately you arrive wherever it is that the clock is ticking. Like the effects of the nose-candy, your high will be short-lived. You will be quickly forgotten. It will be downhill from here, and it will seem a long way down. Wannabes will say there is a has-been. They will laugh at you. You will realise fame was an illusion. You will sink into depression. You may even take your own life.
Andy was aware of the transient nature of fame, which was how he came to coin the now-familiar phrase. He was aware too that mass communication would be the driver behind celebrity culture. Herschel Box was on hand latterly to do the sums. Ricky Stainton, who, in case you were wondering, was someone I came across once in a queue and by no means a close acquaintance, was merely seduced by the allure of the fame machine. You could well have your own Ricky Stainton in your neighbourhood. With seven hundred and twenty people becoming famous every week, who knows? Your Ricky might even achieve his fourteen minutes of fame.
People, of course, used to be famous for much longer. Think Beethoven – two hundred years and counting, Shakespeare – five hundred years, Michelangelo – six hundred years, Jesus – two thousand years plus, Adam and Eve – pretty much forever. Warhol himself has been famous for sixty years. If you became famous, the wisdom has always been that you stayed famous. You made it into the encyclopedia. Are those days gone? Wikipedia doesn’t quite do it. Will we need to become accustomed to two or more levels of fame? Perhaps we might think of them as fame, fame plus and fame plus plus.
But this debate can wait for another day. I’ve just had an email update from the Herschel Box site. It’s down to thirteen minutes.
Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All rights reserved