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Arts And Culture

Is Anyone Famous Anymore?

This is "Louise" on ABC's 'Claim To Fame.'
ABC/Maarten de Boer

The person in the photo above is a contestant going by the name “Louise” on a reality television show. She is there undercover. Sure, she’s told her competitors two truths and a lie about herself. Sure, there are clues to who she is on a mysterious wall. But no one is trying to figure out who she is per se. They are trying to figure out to whom she is related.

This game is a reality show on ABC called Claim To Fame, which premiered last week after The Bachelorette. I watched it because I have terrible taste. But then all week, I thought about it. Desperately, I tried to bully friends into watching it with me. My friends are smarter than me and refused, so now all of you must suffer.

The show is light and funny, but it’s also meta in the way so many forms of art try to be, and fail. It’s a show about being famous, with people possessing close proximity to fame, that has almost no chance at making anyone famous at all and in fact emphasizes how difficult it is to be truly famous in 2022.

The way the game works is 20 people are placed in a house. They are each related to someone famous. Every week, a contestant is voted “the Guesser,” and they can pick any of their peers (except for those immune) and bring them up onto the stage and guess their celebrity relative. If they guess right, that person goes home. If they guess wrong, they are the one who must leave! Last person standing wins $100,000.

Maybe you are looking at the photo at the top of this blog and saying, “That girl is clearly related to Simone Biles.” Maybe you are saying, “That girl is Simone Biles! They have the same face!” Or maybe, it’s possible, you think it would be reasonable for someone to look at this photo, know that this person had a famous relative, and not be able to recognize that she’s related to Simone Biles.

My editor Barry, for example, thought it completely reasonable that an American person might not know what Simone Biles looks like, and therefore be unable to identify this “Louise” as Simone’s real-life sister Adria Biles.

This immediately sent me into a tailspin. It is borderline unfathomable to me that anyone in this country would not know who Simone Biles is. I cannot imagine a world in which someone saw Simone on the street and didn’t immediately think, “Wow, there goes four-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles.”

Barry’s argument, which I agree is factual, was that only about 12 million Americans watched the Olympics. Only 6.8 million people (some of whom probably aren’t even Americans!) follow Simone on Instagram. And there are 330 million Americans. Therefore, lots of people might not know who Simone Biles is. By math, I argued back, this would mean that Tom Brady is also not famous. He only has 12 million followers on Instagram.

Because I naively brought this conversation to a public Slack channel in the hopes of discovering an angle for this blog, people immediately began telling on themselves. Barry said he didn’t think most people could pick Tom Brady out of a lineup. Sabrina immediately made his argument by saying they couldn’t pick Tom Brady out of a lineup! Kathryn said that one of her friends saw a Tom Brady evolution collage once and thought it was a hockey team!

This, in combination with a scene in last night’s episode of Claim To Fame, has set me reeling.

One of the girls in the bottom two was named Pepper. Pepper has lost every game so far, and does not know who anyone’s family is. She did not recognize Simone Biles’s sister the first week (proving Barry’s point). Last night, Pepper was ready to guess against Brett Favre’s daughter. She had plenty of reason to: Brett Favre’s daughter said that she was the daughter of a famous athlete, and there were a lot of cheese clues on the wall, and one of the clues in the game that episode was astroturf. Pepper did not figure this out on her own. Other members of the house guided her to this answer to suit their own motives.

But then! Just before the guessing portion of the program, the country music relative (who I personally believe to be related to Jason Aldean) pulled Pepper aside. With deep seriousness in his Southern twang he said something like, “I’m a Georgia boy, and that’s why I know that Brett Favre played for the Atlanta Falcons.”

This worked like a charm. Instead of sending home Brittany Favre, Pepper—now riddled with doubt about who Brett Favre is and played for—sent home Zendaya’s cousin Michael, who was annoying everyone anyway.

What’s so unintentionally interesting about this show is how diluted it makes “fame” as a concept appear. Here’s a list of the celebrities I think have relatives on the show: Chuck Norris, Zendaya, Simone Biles, Whoopi Goldberg, Jason Aldean, Tiffany Haddish, Laverne Cox, and Keke Palmer. There are three celebrity relatives (including Pepper!) that I don’t have a single idea about yet. But even from that list, you can see how broad the circles of fame are. The contestants are mainly related to musicians, actors, and athletes, but those famous people are from multiple generations and at multiple levels of fame. How is anyone who doesn’t listen to country music supposed to know who Jason Aldean is? Are 22-year-olds expected to know who Brett Favre is, and be able to identify someone who may or may not be his daughter? It’s a hard game: for me the viewer and for the contestants.

I consume more celebrity news than is probably healthy. I watch TikTok. I listen to Who? Weekly multiple times per week, and still there are three people on Claim To Fame who, even with the clues, I cannot figure out. Perhaps this is another byproduct of the collapse of mass culture and the infiltration of apps into our lives. Maybe this is just me getting older. But it seems like almost every day now, someone I am close to with similar interests references someone I have never heard of, and when I go to look them up, they have 2 million Instagram followers.

As fame becomes more accessible and more specialized, it also becomes watered down. Maybe we don’t have such a thing as broad celebrity anymore. I’m not sure that that’s a bad thing, necessarily, but this show, where people related to famous people seek their own slice of fame, just amplifies that as more and more people become famous, fewer and fewer people rise to the status of actual fame.

But what future does that put us in? Without celebrities, what famous people will we have in common? Joe Biden? I’d rather memorize the names, biographies, and siblings of 4,000 celebrities than live in that world.