Quick Study: Sharon Marcus

Inspired by Celebrity, Pure Beauty—and a Cat
Photo by Tony RinaldoPhoto by Tony Rinaldo

Sharon Marcus, the Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and cofounder of the online magazine Public Books, specializes in 19th-century British and French culture. At Radcliffe, where she was the 2017–2018 Elizabeth S. and Richard M. Cashin Fellow, Marcus completed a book that argues that modern celebrity is the result of dramatically unpredictable interactions among the public, the media, and celebrities themselves. 

Who are your heroes?
Artists, especially singers and dancers, who make the difficult seem easy: Ella Fitzgerald, Margot Fonteyn, Fred Astaire. 

Best personality trait? 

Who is your muse? 
I recently read that John Milton, while writing his epic poem Paradise Lost, was visited every night by an angel named Urania who dictated the next day’s lines to him. But my muse is my cat.

Tell us your favorite memory.
When I was about six years old, my father went for a walk after a big snowstorm and came home with a gorgeous branch of red berries encased in ice. We kept it in the freezer for months. It was my first experience of pure beauty.

Describe yourself in six words or fewer. 
I really like to eat.

What is your most treasured possession? 
I’m not that attached to my possessions, but if my house were on fire, after saving living beings, I’d make sure to rescue my passport and my backup drive.

What inspires you? 
Every oppressed person who has ever spoken out against injustice.

Name a pet peeve. 
Being asked to name only one pet peeve—I have so many!

Were your life to become a motion picture, who would portray you? 
A casting agent once told me she saw me as Rhea Perlman’s younger sister. But for my dream biopic: Lea Michele for the younger me, Anjelica Huston for the older me.

Where in the world would you like to spend a month?
Australia, New Zealand, Japan.

What is your greatest triumph so far? 
Teaching myself to swim.

Whose tunes do you enjoy? 
Tune-Yards, Joanna Newsom, Fiona Apple, Katy Perry, Adele, Beck, Prince, Joni Mitchell, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Mozart operas, and anything sung by Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Aretha Franklin, or Nina Simone.

What is your fantasy career? 
Being a literature professor.

How do you define celebrity? 
Anyone known to more people than can possibly know one another.

What is the most challenging aspect of being a Radcliffe fellow?
Challenge implies difficulty, but this has been the easiest, most delightful year. The only challenge is taking full advantage of all the support, stimulation, and time the fellowship so generously offers.

What would most people be surprised to find out about the origins of modern celebrity culture? 
Almost everything you think the Internet or Hollywood invented existed in the 19th century: celebrity chefs, interactive communications with fans, star-studded benefit concerts to help victims of diseases and natural disasters. Things move farther faster now, but little about today’s celebrity culture is genuinely new. 

During your fellowship talk, you asked audience members to help with your research by answering questions about celebrity. What did you learn from their answers? 
I learned that audience members at Radcliffe talks are a remarkably diverse group. I asked people to name five figures who come to mind as celebrities, and the answers ranged from orchestra conductors to scientists to politicians to pop singers.

I also learned that when people respond anonymously, they are less dismissive of celebrity. Most of the audience members reported feeling neutral about celebrity or quite interested in it. But when I did a Reddit Ask Me Anything on celebrity a few years ago, in a setting where the site’s users see everyone’s questions and comments, the participants quickly converged around very negative views of celebrities.

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