Young people’s celebrities: a tentative top 12

Written by Heather. Posted in News

We’re now about half way through the group interviews with young people aged 14 to 17. When we finish next term we will have talked to about 150 people across six schools in London, the South West and the North West of England. All school names used are pseudonyms. From these data we are going to select 12 celebrities to explore as case studies – delving into the discourses of aspiration that feature in talk about them. In a recent meeting we came up with this list of 12 based on the first half of the interviews…

Tom Daley

Tom’s claim to fame is diving – he’s not the only UK Olympian to get name-checked by our participants. Mo Farah, Louis Smith, Mary King and Jessica Ennis have both come up, and looking internationally, so has Usain Bolt. But these people didn’t generate much energy in the discussion. Tom attracted talk mainly in Hardy College, a South West rural school, as a site of female heterosexual desire and male distaste and jealousy. His LMFAO lipsync video and  his habit of putting socks down his trunks was controversial. The White British sportsman was also adored by a few young women in Jordan and Pendleton Academies in West London and the North West of England respectively. One girl was convinced and disappointed that he had come out on Twitter as gay, though all we’ve been able to dig up is seemingly endless speculation on his sexuality.

Mike Tyson

Mike is the second sportsman to make into our 12 and as a 46 year-old African American is very different from Tom. Famous for his phenomenal boxing career as well as for being convicted of rape and of biting off Evander Holyfield’s ear in the ring, he now lives a sober, vegan life and devotes much of his spare time to tending pigeons. Mike was one of a few older sports stars to attract interest from our participants (others who stood out were David Beckham and Michael Jordan) but he perhaps best captures the tensions in young people’s moral discourses about celebrity, and their desire for “good role models”, for his sporting achievements are inspirational but he has frequently found himself in the news for “the wrong reasons”.

Emma Watson

Emma, who plays Hermione Grainger in the Harry Potter movies, is more of an old-fashioned star than a contemporary celebrity in that her movies are the basis of her fame with gossip taking a backseat (though Watson has also featured in numerous fashion campaigns for luxury british brand Burberry). She came up in all four groups in rural Hardy College but in none of the other schools (apart from a brief reference to “the Harry Potter stars” in one Pendleton group). In Hardy, she was universally liked, subject to male heterosexual desire and female career fantasies – who wouldn’t want to be in the Harry Potter films? Englishness seemed to be more important in the all-White groups in Hardy than the more ethnically diverse groups in Jordan and Pendleton Academies.  So this might partly explain her popularity but also age seems to be important across the schools and these young people have grown up with Emma. In choosing our top 12 it’s difficult to find a balance between celebs who attract a lot of attention but only in one school and those celebs whose appeal is broader but more diffuse. Emma’s made the cut partly because we’re also trying to get a gender balance and there were far fewer female than male celebrities mentioned.

Will Smith

Will is the second actor and film star to make the cut and the second of three African American men. He came up at all three schools. One group of boys at Hardy College identified him as their ideal celebrity; at Pendleton Academy a group of sixth-formers referred to him and his wife Jada as ‘the Smiths';  at Jordan, one group mentioned not just Will but his two daughers Jaden and Willow Smith (with the latter being labelled the only untalented member of the Smith household). Will is known not just for his films but also for his music and his eponymous breakthrough role in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air which is rerun daily on TV.

Nicki Minaj

Nicki Minaj is one of three musicians in our case studies. At Jordan Academy, the Caribbean American rapper provoked mixed reactions, with both her music and dancing coming in for some criticism. Minaj was reportedly the first female musician to have seven singles in the US Billboard Hot 100 at the same time. Nicki Minaj is known for being particularly popular among tween girls (younger than the students in our sample), with nine-year old Sophia Grace Brownlee and five-year old Rosie McClelland becoming celebrities themselves after their performance of Minaj’s hit song Super Bass on YouTube went viral.

Barack Obama

Politicians were not much liked by the young people to whom we spoke. One group felt that politicians (along with royalty) were well-known figures but not celebrities, although they admitted the blurring of these categories in Conservative MP Nadine Dorries’ recent appearance on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. Barack Obama – and Boris Johnson – seemed to escape the negativity attached to other politicians.

Keith Lemon

Keith Lemon is unique among the twelve in not being a ‘real’ person. He is one of the comic alter-egos of Leigh Francis and he fronts the ITV2 panel game Celebrity Juice. However, those who enjoyed Keith’s comedy showed little interest and sometimes little awareness of Leigh. He was more well liked by boys than by girls and was mentioned in both Pendleton and Jordan Academies. Other comedians also came up across the groups including Ellen Degeneres, Frankie Boyle and Russell Howard who was particularly popular in Hardy College. However, we chose Keith because of the intensity of the interest expressed in him by a few participants, because of how he plays with reality/fantasy and because his character is someone on the fringes of celebrity culture.

Bill Gates

Bill Gates, the Microsoft boss and global technological entrepreneur, came up among young people in Pendleton and Jordan Academies. He was liked both for his hard-working business background and his charity work. We chose to include him in this top 12 for both these reasons and especially because of how he typifies young people’s desires for celebrities to do something inspirational and to use their status to support good causes. We are interested in these moral discourses around celebrity and how they value some people and ways of being over others.

Katie Price

Katie Price started life as glamour model Jordan and via Reality TV and business acumen has built herself an alternative career. She has always been a controversial figure in UK celebrity culture and she remained so for many of the participants in our study. In one memorable discussion in Jordan Academy four young people argued about whether or not Katie Price was a bad mother, with two young women and one young man defending her against this accusation, and asking about the responsibilities of the fathers of her children and mentioning her work on disability as a mother of a child who is blind, has difficulties walking and is on the autistic spectrum.

Kim Kardashian

Kim Kardashian is a US Reality TV star who found celebrity through a show based around the life of her family, The Kardashians. She was liked by some but generally the most hated of her siblings and several times was compared unfavourably to her sister Chloe.

Justin Bieber

Justin Bieber is a Canadian musician who was discovered via YouTube. He got mentioned in every group and was an almost universal hate figure, with the exception of a few Year 10 students at Pendleton Academy. One Direction, the UK boy band who became famous via X Factor, also attracted a great deal of haters but there was a little more love for them from some of the girls in each school we went to and from one boy at Hardy College who said he’d been forced to like them.

Miley Cyrus

Like One Direction, Miley Cyrus was a “Marmite celebrity” – you either love her or hate her. She came up in all three schools with a few fans but more people questioning her talent and her motivations (doing things for money rather than for their own sake).  Miley has an interesting relationship to fame being the daughter of country singer Billy Ray Cyrus with whom she starred in hit Disney TV comedy show Hannah Montana. Miley’s character on that show has a double life as an average teenage schoolgirl Miley Stewart by day and an international popstar Hannah Montana by night.


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  • Kids’ pop culture canon? | Tyler Bickford


    […] perhaps, the UK-based research team at included boxer Mike Tyson in their tentative list of the Top 12 celebrities from their interviews with young people in the UK. I know scandal kept Tyson in the public eye long […]


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