The Business of Fame: 1920-2020

Oprah, the Kardashians, & Microcelebrities

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The Business of Fame

When I was at TPG, I was asked to give a speech at the firm’s 25th Anniversary Conference. I was told to choose a topic that the firm’s partners wouldn’t know much about. This is the first paragraph of my speech:

Last year, there was a 10-year-old company that did more in revenue than Airbnb, Zscaler, and E.l.f. Cosmetics combined [three TPG Growth portfolio companies]. With six cable TV shows, the company reaches 10 million weekly viewers. In the past two years, the company released two new cosmetics businesses that have already grossed over half a billion in sales. The company has Sephora’s top-selling fragrance and over two dozen licensing deals on clothing, mobile phones, and candy. It has a combined social media following of 1.4 billion. Here is that company.

I clicked a button and showed this image:

Kardashian family home PICTURED: The dreamy $12m mansion | Kardashian  jenner, Kardashian family, Kardashian style

That “company” was the Kardashian empire, which had used the Internet and social media to redefine fame.

This piece is both a sequel to and prequel to my piece OnlyFans and the Evolution of the Influencer. This piece is about how successive technologies have made celebrities more accessible to their fans, while also enabling more people to achieve fame and influence. There’s (a lot) more on the Kardashians below. But before diving in, a few words on why this matters.

Even if you don’t follow the Kardashians—even if you dismiss them as “famous for being famous”—you should appreciate how they’ve used social media to shape culture. More broadly, you should appreciate how technology reflects, magnifies, and influences culture.

The show Black Mirror—about the dark side of technology—got its name from how our screens look when we turn them off: they’re black mirrors, reflecting our faces back at us. Technology is also a two-way mirror: the Internet reflects our society, and increasingly our society reflects the Internet. This fact is best captured by how we engage with celebrities—the people at the center of media who most shape culture.

In the startup and venture capital world, “media” has become something of a bad word. But there are two reasons that digital media is underrated in entrepreneurship and venture investing:

  1. First, digital media enjoys the zero marginal costs of both software and content. Each incremental user to join Facebook, TikTok, or YouTube costs nothing. And when that user shares a piece of content, that content can reach a theoretically infinite number of people at zero cost. Some people would argue that these companies aren’t media companies, but tech companies. The reality is that they’re both: digital media today encompasses the platforms through which we communicate and share content.

  2. Second, media is culture. One study showed that people are more likely to vote for a female president after watching a TV show with a female president. Another study showed that Will & Grace was largely responsible for changing public views on gay marriage. Media crystallizes our opinions about the world.

The first part of this piece centers on four past technologies through the lens of four celebrities:

The Past & Present of Fame:

Movies and Greta Garbo

TV and Oprah Winfrey

Instagram and Kim Kardashian

TikTok and Charli D’Amelio

The second part focuses on how the business of celebrity will change going forward.

The Future of Fame:

New Celebrities: Digital Influencers

New Discovery: Digital Trading Cards & Influencer Investing

New Technologies: Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, & Livestreaming

New Business Models: Subscription & Micropayments

Each era’s prevailing technology shaped that era’s view of fame. And future technologies will shape future views of fame, which will create ripple effects through culture.

Digital media is only now beginning to adapt to the Internet, figuring out how to capture the value that it creates. Media is a powerful tool, and celebrities are often the ones who wield it.

The Past & Present of Fame

Greta Garbo and the Silver Screen

Film was the technology that created the first global celebrities.

Hollywood’s Golden Age had many stars: Bette Davis, Grace Kelly, Katharine Hepburn. But Greta Garbo best embodied the era’s concept of celebrity.

Greta Garbo was elusive. She was mysterious. Variety writes: “In a career of only 15 years, Garbo gave fans her acting talent but nothing of herself—no details of her life, never addressing rumors or speculation.”

MGM executives discovered Garbo in Europe and brought her to Los Angeles, sculpting her into the Hollywood mold: they got her to learn English, lose weight, straighten her hair, and get her teeth fixed. Everything about Garbo was manufactured by MGM. Garbo, like many stars in her era, was a vessel.

As a medium, film magnified Garbo’s aura of mystery. In movie theaters, film stars like Garbo appeared on 30-foot screens—literally larger than life. They played characters, meaning that the entire nature of their jobs was to be inauthentic.

In her heyday, Garbo was as famous as Lady Gaga or Beyoncé is today. Yet her appeal was that she was more an abstraction than real person. The film star of the early- and mid-20th Century was alluring because she was unattainable.

Oprah, TV, and Her Self-Made Empire

Television marked a massive shift from film. With film, audiences needed to drive to movie theaters—theaters were a destination and going to the movies was an event. Television dissolved the boundaries between home and entertainment.

For an hour each day, Oprah Winfrey was in your living room. For an hour each day, Oprah became a member of your family.

A recent episode of the podcast Acquired chronicles Oprah’s beginnings. (The episode is worth listening to in full, as is the podcast series Making Oprah by WBEZ Chicago. Oprah’s story is nothing short of incredible.)

Acquired shares a conversation that took place between Oprah and her first producer when he greenlit her talk show:

Oprah: You know I’m black?

Producer: Yeah, I can see that.

Oprah: You know I’m overweight?

Producer: So are many Americans.

So are many Americans. Where Greta Garbo was elusive, Oprah was relatable. Her producer later told her: “You are America—that’s the whole point.” This made TV a natural medium for Oprah. Oprah was playing herself; TV amplified her authenticity.

Oprah’s first show revealed how different her fame would be from celebrities of the film era. Here’s her opening monologue:

I’m Oprah Winfrey and welcome to the first national Oprah Winfrey Show! There has been so much hoopla about this premiere show that it’s enough to give a girl hives. I mean I’ve got them right now under my armpits…Now, I don't have a lot of problems in my life. I have to tell you, things are going pretty good for me right now, but two things have bugged me for years. The first, my thighs. The second, my love life.

In her first 30 seconds on air, Oprah told the audience that she had hives under her armpits and that she fretted about the size of her thighs. Immediately, Oprah was deeply personal and approachable.

Her show was an overnight success. It shot to #1 and within a year, an estimated 50% of Chicago residents watched Oprah.

TV gave Oprah a recurring presence in her viewers’ lives. While a film star might make one movie a year, Oprah averaged 182 episodes per season.

Over 25 seasons of The Oprah Winfrey Show (4,561 episodes!), Oprah expanded her influence. Selection to Oprah’s Book Club catapulted a book to the top of the bestseller lists. Oprah’s inclusion of Ugg Boots on her “Favorite Things” list jumpstarted their popularity. Two economists calculated that Oprah’s endorsement of Barack Obama netted him 1,015,559 votes—enough to seize the Democratic nomination from Hillary Clinton.

In many ways, Oprah was the first influencer. As Acquired points out, Oprah’s famous “You get a car!” moment was an early form of native advertising. Oprah didn’t pay for the 276 cars that she gave away—Pontiac did. The stunt was brilliant marketing that foreshadowed the coming wave of social media influencers.

Most crucially, Oprah seized control of her empire: in the mid-80s, she shrewdly negotiated ownership rights over her show. Largely because of that single move, Oprah became the wealthiest black woman in the world and the 10th-richest self-made woman.

Celebrities like Garbo had been vessels for fame, with little control over their influence. Producers were the real power brokers. Oprah used television to gain a global fanbase, and then she used that fanbase as leverage to become her own producer. She became the power broker and the star.


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Kapitalism: Kim Kardashian & Social Media

The Kardashians took Oprah’s playbook and applied it to the Internet.

Almost poetically, Keeping Up With the Kardashians aired just four months after the iPhone was released. The rise of the Kardashians coincided with the rise of the smartphone. And it turned out, Oprah’s playbook worked even better on social media. The zero marginal costs of Internet platforms and digital content made it possible to reach far greater scale.

While Oprah put out 182 episodes each season, Kim Kardashian has averaged 660 in-feed posts per year since joining Instagram.

A recurring theme as technology has changed celebrity is that content output goes up and production value goes down. The production value of a Kardashian social media post is orders of magnitude lower than the production value of an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show. This allows digital influencers like the Kardashians to release content at a faster pace, a continuation of the trend started by the shift from film to TV.

The Kardashians’ true brilliance came in monetizing their content in every way imaginable. Led by matriarch Kris Jenner—who actually trademarked the term “momager”—the family invented the career “social media influencer”.

Some of my favorite examples of how the Kardashians cashed in on social media fame:

Kim created an app called Kimoji that is literally just emojis of Kim. When it was released, more than 9,000 people per second were downloading the app. At that time, Kim was making about $1 million a minute. The app ended up crashing the App Store.

Kim Kardashian Money GIF - KimKardashian Money Spend - Discover & Share GIFs

Kim is also an executive producer of Keeping up with the Kardashians, has a top-selling fragrance, a kids clothing line, and a make-up business that did $100 million in revenue in its first year. She once held her birthday party at the Tao nightclub in Vegas, and the club paid her $500,000 just to show up to her own party.

Kim even turned her Instagram selfies into a book called Selfish, which sold 125,000 copies.

Kim Kardashian's selfie book, Selfish, sells just 32,000 copies in 3 months  | Daily Mail Online

Kylie Jenner, for her part, is the most-followed person on Snapchat and has eight of the 20 most-liked Instagram posts (40%). She makes $1 million per sponsored post and her beauty brand, Kylie Cosmetics, did close to $400 million of revenue in its first year.

While Oprah eventually became her own producer, she first had to gain leverage by building an enormous fanbase. The Internet, meanwhile, immediately merged star and producer. The star was her own producer. The producer was her own star. And, crucially, this was as true for your average person as it was for a Kardashian.

A long tail of influencers began to amass followings and then monetize those followings. I was one of them. Over several years, I posted #sponsored content on Instagram:

Because Instagram began as a literal filtered version of reality, people tended to share only the highlight reels of their lives. In this way, social media was initially a step back from TV in its authenticity. (This was compounded by the fact that this was many people’s first brush with fame. Not everyone can get their own TV show; with social media, anyone can have a shot at being a celebrity.)

The performative nature of early social media has caused me to take a more arms-length relationship with social media. I’ve recognized this sentiment in my Millennial peers: a certain skepticism and distrust with social media.

But there’s a younger generation that doesn’t feel this way. This generation innately shares more authentically and openly on social media. This generation’s members are true digital natives (hey, that’s the name of this newsletter!) and are embodied by TikTok.

Charli D’Amelio and TikTok

Despite their social media prowess, the Kardashians still needed a TV show to jumpstart their fame. Charli D’Amelio only needed a smartphone and the TikTok app.

In the summer of 2019, D’Amelio was a 15-year-old teenager living in suburban Connecticut. She downloaded TikTok and posted her first video. Less than 12 months later, she became the most-followed person on TikTok with ~40 million followers (she has 91 million today).

TikTok’s algorithmic feed is meritocratic, letting the best content win. Democratizing discovery meant that savvy creators could hustle their way to the top.

In the music industry, for example, Lil Nas X used a growth hacking playbook to promote his single “Old Town Road”. In January 2019, Lil Nas X was a college dropout sleeping on his sister’s couch, with a negative balance in his bank account. Five months later, he’d broken Mariah Carey’s record for the most consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Asked about his rise, Lil Nas X says:

A lot of people like to say “A kid accidentally got lucky”. No. This was no accident.

Lil Nas X carefully planned and executed his rise. He made the “Old Town Road” chorus 30 seconds long, because a stream is recorded after 30 seconds of listening. He made the song short—1 minute and 53 seconds—so that it would rack up more streams. He created memes and planted them across Twitter, Reddit, and TikTok.

Lil Nas X responds in the best way to 'homophobic' rant by fellow rapper

Even 20 years ago, the Internet hadn’t disrupted fame. In 2000, Britney Spears was being molded by her label and parents in the same way that Greta Garbo was molded by MGM a century ago. Both were conduits for the real power brokers. Lil Nas X is Britney’s polar opposite, controlling his own image and ensuring his own success.

Using Internet platforms and their own savvy, stars like Charli D’Amelio and Lil Nas X circumvented the old paths to fame and took control of their careers.

The Future of Fame

New Celebrities: Digital Characters

In OnlyFans and the Evolution of the Influencer, I wrote that I’m skeptical of digital celebrities like those created by the company Brud. Computer-created influencers seem at odds with the trend toward more authentic, relatable influencers.

But after listening to Brud CEO Tyler McFedries on Reid Hoffman’s Masters of Scale podcast, I’m coming around to the concept. McFedries had a great line:

Jennifer Lawrence has charisma but she doesn’t speak Mandarin.

His point is that Brud can create digital characters who are infinitely more scalable and globally appealing. A digital celebrity could theoretically produce unlimited content for unlimited languages and cultures: she could produce a dozen Instagram photos, release a feature-length film, and give six interviews—all in a single day.

Just because something is artificial doesn’t mean that it isn’t authentic. Brud’s characters are carefully constructed to have clear values, beliefs, and personalities. Brud’s Miquela can voice her support for Black Lives Matter; Brud’s Lawko can post about Pride Month:

Some of pop culture’s most influential figures aren’t “real”. If characters from Marvel, Pixar, and Star Wars can shape our culture, why can’t characters built for social media? Aren’t Brud’s creations just a modern version of George Lucas’ or Stan Lee’s, built for newer technologies?

New Discovery: Digital Trading Cards

Today, the first fan of Taylor Swift is treated the same as the most recent fan. Long-time, dedicated fans get the same level of access and treatment as everyone else. Over the next decade, that will change.

Scout is a pre-seed and unannounced startup allowing fans to buy virtual trading cards of their favorite creators. An up-and-coming creator can issue a limited number of trading cards—say 100 cards for $100 each. Fans purchase those cards and unlock new levels of access: a weekly livestream with the creator, exclusive merchandise, backstage passes at the next concert. Those fans evangelize the creator to friends and their trading cards appreciate in value as the creator’s fanbase grows. Each of the 100 limited cards may soon be worth $1,000, then $10,000. New cards can be issued to unlock ever-greater levels of access.

Shouldn’t Taylor Swift’s earliest fans—who helped her first gain traction—share in her success? The startup Pando provides income pooling among communities. Patreon Capital provides microloans to creators. It’s not hard to imagine digital tools that help early fans invest in the creators they most believe in. Or to imagine tools that help networks of creators cross-promote and share in each other’s financial upside.

New Tech: VR / AR & Livestreaming

People crave authentic connections with famous people. Each successive technology over the past century has led to a more personal connection with celebrities, and this trend will continue with virtual reality, augmented reality, and livestreaming.

Teooh is a startup enabling a virtual office, with coworkers mingling through avatars:

It’s easy to imagine this concept extending to celebrities and their fans, particularly as VR and AR become more lifelike. Fans will attend virtual reality concerts, or invite augmented reality avatars of their favorite celebrities into their homes.

Livestreaming is another example in the trend toward authentic connections. Livestreaming has moved beyond gaming, and it’s becoming natural to “hang out” with your favorite online celebrities over livestream. One of the more bizarre pastimes is “social eating”, in which celebrities eat and chat with followers.

Here’s a screenshot of the popular eating livestreamer Reckful, who earns $20,000 a month in donations alone:

Reckful - 6 sub sandwiches (DansGame) - YouTube

Livestreaming will be normalized as a way to spend your Friday night. a16z writes:

For millions of people today, watching and conversing with their favorite lifestyle streamer is much more engaging than passively watching Netflix.

In the future, friends will gather together to “hang out” with celebrities. New technologies will completely dissolve the line between virtual and in-person, so that your favorite celebrity becomes just another member of your friend group.

New Business Models

Traditionally, celebrities (and media more broadly) made money through advertising. In the Internet’s early innings, this remained true. Just as Oprah ran commercials and became the face of Weight Watchers, Kim Kardashian and her family hawked products on Instagram.

Led by Gen Z, sponsorships are becoming less contrived and more authentic. David Dobrik has made his SeatGeek representative a recurring character in his skits. He owns his commerciality and even taps it as a source for humor.

But the more interesting development in the business of celebrity is the shift away from advertising.

The next generation of celebrities will make money through a combination of subscription and micropayments. Fans will pay recurring revenue to support and gain access to their favorite celebrities, but will pay additional money for à la carte items.

Advertising captures the same value from everyone and fails to unlock incremental value from the deepest layers of fans. Subscription + à la carte models better monetize superfans. OnlyFans is an example here. The monthly subscription to OnlyFans only unlocks certain content. Subscribers need to pay more to access even more premium content (certain photos or videos, for example, or personal messaging).

This model will extend naturally to new mediums like VR / AR and livestreaming. A fan may pay a $10 monthly fee to access a livestreamer’s content, but add a $3 micropayment to get their question answered during a live Q&A.

In the past, celebrities rented out their time. Today’s celebrities are entrepreneurs, owners, and producers. This means that they better capture the value they create.

Final Thoughts: Microcelebrities

There will likely never again be a celebrity as famous as Oprah. Oprah had the stage to herself before the noise of the Internet.

By transforming both the discovery of celebrities and the ability to become one yourself (two related developments), the Internet created more celebrities with more aggregate influence, but lower average influence. If PewDiePie’s YouTube subscriber base were a country, it would have more people than France or Ethiopia. Yet few non-gamers know anything about PewDiePie. Last week’s piece was about Internet niches. There will be more niche celebrities, but fewer celebrities who can cut across niches.

Fame is being broken down to its most atomic level, with “microcelebrities” emerging in each microcommunity. Everyone can be a celebrity.

The rise of “microcelebrities” and the proliferation of online content means that connections become deeper. We feel new levels of affinity for digitally-native stars—we feel that we grew up with them and that we’re privy to the most intimate parts of their lives. Business models are evolving to help the next generation of celebrities better mine value from their biggest fans.

Younger generations expect this future. “Online creator” is now the most desired career path for 75% of kids. (For reference, “doctor” ranks highest for 13% of kids.) To older generations, this may seem like a sign of the apocalypse. (Don’t worry—there will still be doctors.) What older generations miss is that being an online creator is already natural to today’s youth—it’s what they do all day, every day. Some will just do it well enough to earn a living.


Sources & Additional Reading

If you’re interested in how the Internet has changed our conception of fame, I recommend checking out the below pieces:


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