WAGs and WAFs – Tulisa and the hierarchies of contemporary celebrity culture

Written by Kim. Posted in News

Tulisa

Picture: Tony Rossetti

X-Factor judge and singer Tulisa was in the press last month for her response to comments made by fellow judge Louis Walsh about her ‘WAG’ status. On a recent live show, Louis called Tulisa ‘Mrs WAG’, referring to media reports of her relationship with footballer Danny Simpson. In a quick and defensive riposte, Tulisa replied: ‘Excuse me? You mean I’m a WAF! It means: “Was Already Famous”’. In this post, Kim takes a look underneath the meanings of WAG and WAF and examines Tulisa’s position within wider debates about contemporary fame.

For those unfamiliar with this now prolific acronym, the WAG entered common parlance in the early 2000s, referring to the ‘wives and girlfriends of footballers’ . Building on the interest in the real WAGs, from 2002-2006 ITV aired the popular TV drama Footballers Wives, a dramatized account of the lives and loves of footballers and their spouses.

WAGs have come to occupy a central place in contemporary celebrity culture and in public discourse about its effects on young people. While WAGs were praised and paraded in a campaign from the Learning and Skills Council to encourage young people to take up A-levels as the ‘gold standard’ post-compulsory educational qualifications, they have also been called upon to represent all that is talentless, vulgar and problematic about contemporary celebrity. Indeed, WAGs have frequently been cited as ‘poor’ role models for young women.  For example, teachers union ATL spoke out about the deleterious influence of WAGs on girls’ disruptive behaviour in the classroom while, the president of the Girls’ Schools Association spoke of parents’ concerns about their daughters’ aspirations for WAG lifestyles:

Parents are trying to inculcate in their daughters a strong work ethic and principles, and anything which leads them to believe marrying somebody or becoming somebody’s girlfriend is what their aim in life should be demeans them and diminishes them … If they believe that having cosmetic surgery, hair extensions and a good handbag will bag them a footballer and therefore fulfill their career aspirations, then they need better career aspirations … I think it is the whole celebrity culture. You see wives and girlfriends who are famous because of their situation, not necessarily their skill and talent.

My intention here is not to debate whether or not WAGs are ‘good role models’, nor to analyse the nature or merit of Tulisa’s growing celebrity. Rather I want to think about how the WAG comes to feature in contemporary discourses about the relationship between celebrity, merit and aspiration, and to say something about Tulisa’s positioning through these discourses.

In his analysis of contemporary forms of celebrity, Chris Rojek (2001) distinguishes between three different types of celebrity:

  • Achieved (celebrity derived from the perceived accomplishments of individuals)
  • Ascribed (celebrity via lineage, typically blood-line)
  • Attributed (largely the result of the concentrated representation of an individual as noteworthy or exceptional by cultural intermediaries, including ‘one hit wonders’, ‘mistresses’ and reality TV stars’)

Such groupings are, within contemporary celebrity culture, increasingly unhelpful: routes to fame and mediated spaces in which different celebrities proliferate are fuzzy, where those traditionally deemed to hold ‘achieved’ celebrity status such as Olympic athletes now frequently move into the space of Reality TV, associated with ‘attributed’ celebrity – an issue I have discussed elsewhere.

More so, we must ask what wider purpose such categorization serves – not just within the academic field of celebrity studies but also in wider public discourse about the nature of contemporary fame. As Su Holmes and Diane Negra have illustrated, it is almost always female celebrities who get called upon as evidence of a ‘crisis’ of celebrity in which contemporary fame has been evacuated of talent and hard work.  The derision of attributed celebrity is thus highly gendered, locating ‘improper’ celebrity within a plethora of female celebrities: WAGs, glamour models, celebrity chavs. By definition, WAGscelebrity status is defined by their role as significant other to a talented, and so legitimately famous, male footballer. This form of female celebrity is often read as a failure of ambition.  As we have previously argued:

WAGs are seen to be unable to display evidence of acceptable labour by which to legitimise their status and worth, thereby playing a central role in the demarcation of proper and improper selfhood and fame … their fame is constructed as accidental, improper, achieved not through labour (hard work, education, training or the application of talent and ability) but through luck, manipulation or proximity to other celebrities. They represent the undeserving and the undesirable.

Tulisa’s defense of her status as a WAF and not a WAG illuminates how celebrities are variously positioned (and position themselves) through these hierarchies. Tulisa’s talent and success prior to the X-Factor (or relationships with footballers) – as a singer in an incredibly popular group N-Dubz and as a solo artist (for example, hear her meet the ridiculously high notes on the song ‘Titanium’) – seem to disappear under the title ‘Mrs WAG’.

This isn’t the first time that Tulisa has been positioned at the bottom of a celebrity hierarchy that is both gendered and classed. Louis Walsh as well as the tabloid press have also proclaimed Tulisa a ‘chav in a tracksuit’, the Daily Mail running an article  in which the paper places photos of Tulisa in a pink tracksuit next to images of ‘ASBO champion’ Vicky Pollard of Little Britain – a character commonly called upon as part of a wider vilification of working class ‘chav scum’, as Imogen Tyler has shown.

In our previous work, we have shown that young people’s performances of aspirations reveal an acute awareness of these wider hierarchies which mark out some aspirations as good and ‘proper’ and others as bad and tasteless. While some young people reproduce these hierarchies as a form of what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called ‘distinction’, others embrace those celebrities deemed ‘improper’ and worthless, refusing the forms of judgment that position the celebrity chav as valueless, for example recognizing and praising the ways that working-class celebrities like Jade Goody have ‘made it against the odds’.

Tulisa has also refused judgment, and not just from accusations of ‘WAG’ status. Last year, a long-term ex-boyfriend leaked a private video of the couple having sex without her permission – an act which ultimately saw a high court tribunal demand a formal public apology from her ex-boyfriend. In an age where sex tapes have become a regular feature of contemporary celebrity culture, the release of the tape was met by responses ranging from cynicism (‘it’s just a PR stunt’) to blatant misogyny and public cruelty (with various articles and blogs branding her a slut), through to class-hatred towards her supposedly ‘tacky’ and classless actions.

After it’s release, Tulisa posted a video on YouTube to ‘set the record straight’ about the video, speaking of her utter betrayal and her refusing to be shamed by others (including the media) because of her ex-boyfriend’s actions. At the end of video post, Tulisa says something quite profound:

For anyone that wants to judge the situation, I just want to say … When you judge someone, it doesn’t define the person that you’re judging, it defines you.

When I hear this, I always think of a quote from Pierre Bourdieu which illuminates how judgements of taste are far from innocent. Rather, these judgements operate to position ourselves and others within wider social hierarchies:

Taste classifies and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects classified by the classification distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar.

In my view, Tulisa isn’t merely a ‘WAG’ or ‘WAF’, but perhaps something of a feminist and a pretty good sociologist.

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