debbie millman

Friday, April 06, 2007

Paris is Kerning

Way before Paris, Lindsay and Britney, prior to Madonna, Cher and Barbra, previous to Marilyn, Lana and Rita, even before May and Bettie, there was Lillie Langtry. Lillie Langtry (née Emilie Charlotte Le Breton) was an English actress born in 1853. But Lillie wasn’t famous for her superb skills as a thespian; rather she was famous simply for being famous. An ambitious young country girl, Lille Langtry orchestrated her rise to prominence by having her portrait painted by the artists John Millias and Whistler and then advertising her fabulousness on postcards sold for a penny. In short, Lillie Langtry was the world’s first celebrity.

While the 20th century did not invent the cult of celebrity, this was the era in which fame was elevated to the status of an industry. Nowadays, all those either famous (or seeking fame) have a regimen of publicists, paparazzi, agents, lawyers and bodyguards ready to emblazon their image on the cover of tabloids, reality television, You Tube and shows such as Entertainment Tonight. Celebrities are not famous for their dramatic talent or musical ability or sports acumen or their capacity to make large sums of money. Celebrities now are famous just for being famous.

For as long as I can remember I have had an intense fascination with a type of celebrity. My first serious crush was on The Brady Bunch’s Marcia Brady: I spent hours pouring through Tiger Beat for every morsel I could muster out of the magazine—what she wore, who she was dating, even what product she used to wash her hair. After Marcia, I became entranced with Karen Carpenter, followed by Olivia Newton John, then Laura Nyro, Patti Smith, Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones. By the time I fell under the spell of Stevie Nicks, my pattern of infatuation was set: I studied the album cover art with the precision of a biologist, memorized all the the lyrics of songs they sang, and took on the eerily obsessive habit of trying to imitate each performers personal style. In other words, when I was bewitched by Joni, I donned fringy vests and choker necklaces made of seashells, when I was besotted by Laura, I stopped shaving my legs, and when I was spell bound by Stevie, I wore long gauzy shawls and platform boots. Somehow I believed that if I imitated the visual personas of these artists, I too, could become an artist, complete with their flair, savoir-faire, popularity, success and charm.

In his book “Celebrity and Power,” David Marshall writes "celebrity is a way in which meaning can be housed and categorized into something that provides a source and origin for meaning. Whatever thoughts, feelings and intuitions people may have, particularly about what may constitute the good life can be arranged under appropriate celebrity 'headings', each labeled with a celebrity face.” So it is not really surprising that an impressionable teenager searching for style would attempt to emulate celebrity heroes, whether it be the way they dress or sing or even behave.

I believe that this fracturing of identity, so to speak, is in some ways part of our human nature, as we experiment with who we are and what we want to become. But the constant widening of the gulf between achievement and popular adulation leaves us hooked on a literal play by play of celebrities famous for simply being famous. Why do we need such drama and spectacle? The sturm and drang of Britney and Lindsay and Jen and Angelina pale in comparison to those who truly achieve: scientists and physicists and neurologists and poets.

According to Michael Gellert in his book “The Fate of America: An Inquiry Into National Character,” “Like the cults of prosperity and motion and speed, the cult of celebrity is diffused throughout American culture. The objects of its glorification are not heroic ideals…or godlike abilities, but people. All the same, celebrity is a cult of height because it is connected with status. And the most valued thing in America after prosperity is status. The ultimate version of the good life is to be rich and famous. Fame or celebrity is status publicly celebrated.”

Perhaps we publicly celebrate those who haven’t achieved very much as a projection of how we wish we could be treated for also being ordinary or untalented. After all, as I attempted to mimic my beloved childhood superstars, I think what I was really trying to do was shorten the distance between how I privately felt about myself and how the world publicly felt about these appointed luminaries.

Several years after my foray into the fashion foibles of Fleetwood Mac, I (along with most of the rest of the galaxy) became mesmerized by the phenomena of a new breed of celebrity in the unapologetically ambitious form of Madonna. While the young girls of the world sported rubber bracelets and rhinestone Boy Toy belts, I hesitated with this new look, primarily because I didn’t think I could pull it off. But when Madonna cut and curled her hair and starred opposite Warren Beatty in the movie Dick Tracy, I made my move. With naturally curly ringlets, I crossed my fingers as I tried to morph into a Madonna-esque movie vixen. I debuted my new uber-bleached blonde hairdo, complete with fire engine red lipstick and matching nail polish at my cousins wedding to little or no fanfare until my then 8-year-old cousin Ben beckoned me over to the table where he and his young friends were sitting. He looked at me intently and motioned me closer. Then he leaned over and boldly whispered into my ear: “I know who you are.” I looked at him in confusion. “What do you mean?” I responded. “Of course you know who I am!” “No,” he insisted with a smarty pants tone in his voice, “I know who you reaaallllly are.” I looked at him beseechingly, fearful that he didn’t know how or why his mother and I were family. I tried to explain how we were related, but he brushed my words aside and impatiently denounced my identity. “You can’t fool me," he declared. "I know who you are. You’re not my cousin Debbie. You are... Breathless Mahoney.”

And with that, I laughed as I realized that rather than appropriating the appearance of the world’s most fabulous superstar, I had taken on the persona of a colorful albeit popular, two-dimensional animated cartoon character.


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Location: new york city, United States

Debbie Millman has worked in the design business for over 25 years. She is President of the design division at Sterling Brands. She has been there for nearly 15 years and in that time she has worked on the redesign of global brands for Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, Campbell’s, Colgate, Nestle and Hasbro. Prior to Sterling, she was a Senior Vice President at Interbrand and a Marketing Director at Frankfurt Balkind. Debbie is President of the AIGA, the largest professional association for design. She is a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at and Brand New and Chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2005, she began hosting the first weekly radio talk show about design on the Internet. The show is titled “Design Matters with Debbie Millman” and it is now featured on In addition to “Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design,” (HOW Books, 2009, she is the author of "How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer" (Allworth Press, 2007) and “The Essential Principles of Graphic Design” (Rotovision, 2008).

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