What does celebrity mean in the 21st century? 2019 showed us that the definition is changing...
By: Linnea Crowther
30 days ago
It’s that time of year again, when we look back on the events and trends of the past 365 days and think about how they shaped our lives. Here at Legacy, the events we’re looking back on are the deaths of notable people in 2019.
No matter what else happens in a year, there will always be celebrity deaths. As Legacy’s senior obituary writer, I pay a lot of attention to these deaths, because when celebrities die, it’s my job to tell the stories of their lives. As the year goes by, I start seeing patterns in the notable deaths, and once we’ve officially turned the calendar to a new January, I like to share those patterns with our readers.
This year presented new challenges as I tried to identify which of the year's notable people who died could fairly be called "celebrities." As I worked on making my list, I found myself constantly questioning just what makes someone a celebrity. It's an evolving concept, and it kept me on my toes in 2019 as Legacy honored and categorized the major figures who died. Here's what I found as I dug into the list I ultimately made — and the statistics it revealed.
Have you ever heard that more people die in winter than in summer? It’s not just an old wives’ tale: This fact is reliably demonstrated by statistics. January is the month when the U.S. death rate is at its highest. That death rate begins to taper off as the weather gets warmer, hitting its low point in September before swinging back upward in the cooler months at the end of the year.
This is a highly predictable pattern. Aand since celebrities are just people, it stands to reason that the celebrity death rate should look a lot like the death rate for the rest of us. Yet 2019 was a year that skewed the usual curve.
Twenty-four percent of this year’s celebrity deaths happened in the first quarter of the year. Then, surprisingly, that number didn’t dip much in Q2, when 21% of this year’s celebrities died — and then, even more surprisingly, the number jumped way back up again in Q3, with an unusual 32% of the year’s celebrity deaths happening in the warmest months. Chilly Q4 was rather quiet, with just 23% of the year’s celebrity deaths happening in months which are often incredibly busy in our world.
(Note that, with the small sample size we have for this study — 75 widely known national celebrities by Legacy’s metrics died in 2019, compared to almost three million deaths in the U.S. total — just a few unusual numbers can visibly alter the year’s statistics.)
Actors died in the greatest numbers this year, comprising 33% of this year’s celebrity deaths, including older stars like Doris Day and Diahann Carroll and younger ones like Luke Perry and Kristoff St. John.
For the first time this year, we started tracking reality stars, encompassing TV reality shows as well as stars of YouTube and other online media that’s neither scripted nor journalism. Six percent of this year’s celebrity deaths were from this category, including “House Hunters” star Suzanne Whang, "The Curse of Oak Island" treasure hunter Dan Blankenship, and Jessi Combs of “Mythbusters,” and I suspect that number is likely to grow in the years to come.
One rock-solid pattern that has emerged over the nine years of this study is that, almost every year, roughly 25% of celebrity deaths are women. This has scarcely changed in a decade, and once again, in 2019, women represented 24% of the celebrities who died.
I’ve explained this before by noting that the celebrities who tend to be dying right now are in their 70s through 90s, for the most part. Although half of the population is female, these folks came by their celebrity decades ago, at a time when men had more opportunities for fame than women. Just think of how few famous athletes of the 20th century are women — and stars of classic rock, and authors of the 20th century literary canon, and politicians, and so on.
This percentage will certainly change in the years to come, as today’s women are achieving fame that was unavailable to their mothers and grandmothers. Maybe 15 years from now, we’ll see a percentage around 35%, and 50 years from now, it might be approaching 50%. But next year? It’ll probably be about 25% again.
The average life expectancy in the U.S. is 78.87. The celebrities in this year’s study died at an average age of 76.21, which is a little under the U.S. life expectancy and very similar to the nine-year average for my study, 76.4.
When you break the celebrities into categories, that’s when you start seeing average ages that are quite different from the U.S. life expectancy. What profession of celebrities do you think dies youngest on average? I’m going to bet you guessed musicians. That’s what I would have guessed.
In fact, musicians do die fairly young on average. But they’re not the youngest:
Average age at death:
A note on average ages: When I calculate these averages, I’m using the mean rather than the more common mode or median. That’s because this is a very small sample size each year, which can sometimes generate weird results using mode or median. In fact, it was hard to get a mode (the number that occurs most frequently in the set) this year — there were four each who died at 77, 79, 85, and 88. But the average age of this year’s celebrity deaths using the median is 79, which is right in line with the national life expectancy, and also not too significantly different from the mean.
Compiling the list of celebrity deaths was harder than ever this year. As I was looking back over the year’s notable death obituaries, I kept getting stuck on one person or another as I assessed whether they met our criteria for counting celebrities.
Grant Thompson, the YouTube star with more than 12 million subscribers — celebrity or not? We decided yes, because his work as the King of Random has been widely viewed by a big swath of the population via viral shares.
Peter Mayhew, the man who played Chewbacca in the “Star Wars” films — celebrity or not? That one got a big yes from the team, because even if you never would have recognized the actor’s face or name, he brought a major cultural figure to life and remained a vital part of the “Star Wars” community until his death.
Johanna Lindsey, author of more than 50 bestselling romance novels — celebrity or not? This one might seem to depend on whether you read romance novels, but to that big segment of readers, Lindsey was a queen. She was highly influential on the genre and extremely prolific, and her accomplishments got her onto the list.
José José, a singer who was iconic in the Latino music community for his romantic ballads — celebrity or not? His fame might not have transcended cultural boundaries like that of a major national celebrity such as Doris Day, but he was absolutely a household name for a significant minority. We decided yes, that gave him a spot on the celebrity list.
And who was Legacy’s most-viewed obituary of the year as well as our most-signed Guest Book? It was Beth Chapman, star of reality TV’s “Dog the Bounty Hunter.” Her fans absolutely loved her, and they got online to say so in larger numbers than the fans of anyone else who died in 2019 — a list that includes beloved fashion icon Gloria Vanderbilt, legendary American author Toni Morrison, and Sesame Street star Caroll “Big Bird” Spinney.
What we found ourselves discussing as we wrestled with these questions was what constitutes celebrity in an age of new media. Fifty years ago, entertainment media was much more concentrated. There were three television networks that offered the full extent of TV programming. Movie theaters showed a movie or two at a time, not 18, and most of those movies were made by the big studios. Music fans listened to the radio to hear the day’s hits.
Today, the TV landscape sprawls across the original networks, newer basic cable options, premium channels, and an ever-growing list of streaming networks. The Hollywood studio system broke down decades ago, and more movies are made by more filmmakers, some of whom create feature-length content exclusive to those TV streaming networks. Music lovers are listening to traditional radio less than ever — it’s been replaced by streaming services and YouTube and satellite radio’s niche stations and sites all over the internet that give budding artists a chance to share their music without a record contract.
So do those budding musical artists count as celebrities? What if millions of people have downloaded their music? What about the stars of TikTok? Have you even heard of TikTok, let alone know the names of its stars? If you’re under 20, they might be some of the most important people in your world. What about reality TV stars? Reality TV is consistently found in the top-viewed shows according to Nielsen ratings. Do the stars of those shows, watched by millions, count as celebrities the same way stars of scripted television do?
If your answer is that you’re not sure, welcome to my job. I don’t think it’s going to get any easier in 2020, or farther in the future, to compile these lists. But we’re going to keep doing it, just as we’re going to keep doing our best to remember the celebrities you love in a respectful and meaningful way. We know that, against all reason, it really hurts when someone you never knew — but really admired — dies. We’ll be here in 2020 to honor them.
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