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Close up portrait photograph of Charles Dickens

Fandemonium: 10 biggest 'celebrities' from throughout history

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The public’s fascination with famous people didn’t just begin with The Beatles or Elvis Presley. Fandemonium can be traced back centuries to when the printing press first fed readers’ curiosity about admired and notorious personalities. Idol worshipping didn’t start with Instagram but was evident during the Roman Empire’s love for violent gladiators who became as rich as any of today’s movie stars or football icons.

Here are 10 historical celebrities who would’ve surely been plastered all over social media had it existed during their time.

1. Porphyrius: The Charioteer

The star of chariot racing would send spectators into a frenzy as he entertained with his death-defying heroics. In 520 CE, during a dispute between rival teams, fans demanded the 62-year-old come out of retirement. An honorary son of Rome, Porphyrius’ name was praised in poems and immortalised in bronze statues throughout the city.

However, the celebrity charioteer lost some of his popularity because of revelations of his dark past as a soldier. He was known to have taken part in a violent anti-Semitic attack on Jews in Antioch destroying a synagogue.

2. Emperor Commodus: Sadistic emperor who loved the crowds

Ruling from 176 to 192 CE, Emperor Commodus was obsessed with celebrity. He became so jealous of the acclaim given to gladiators that he sought similar fame himself. As he strode into the Colosseum soaking up the cheers of spectators, the shameless emperor cheated the rules of the game by mutilating defenceless animals and hacking at human amputees who were armed only with sponges.

Even the blood-thirsty spectators recognised a cowardly despot when they saw one. The public’s displeasure went some way to contributing to his assassination.

3. Will Kemp: Shakespeare’s favourite clown

During Shakespeare’s ascension to stardom during the late-sixteenth century, actor Will Kemp was a well-beloved performer in the bard's early plays. Kemp had enthralled audiences as part of the ‘Lord Chamberlain’s Men’ theatre repertory and in turn, picked up legions of fans.

In 1600 he embarked on his ‘Nine Day Wonder’, a PR stunt to raise cash by Morris-dancing from London to Norwich. Despite his fame, he died in poverty in 1603.

4. Nell Gwyn: King Charles II's mistress

Famous for being King Charles II’s mistress, the actress clambered to dizzying heights from the lowest rung on the social ladder. Nell’s talent was less admired than her bust, but there is no denying her sexual power both on stage and off.

The commoner, who became a faux aristocracy, was later seen as a national security threat by pamphleteers due to her relationship with the king. She epitomised celebrity in that she was both treasured and despised, frequently written about, and painted by famous artists.

5. Marie Antoinette: Tragic French queen and victim of the French Revolution

The Austrian-born Marie was a child bride at 14 to Louis XIV in 1774. She was treated with contempt until she began having children. It was a short stretch to gaining notoriety through gossip about her sex life that revolved around scandals, from orgies to lesbianism.

Antoinette’s mystique, known for her extravagant tastes in expensive clothes and jewellery, at first made her a trendsetter but soon lost its allure as she and her ill-fated husband approached a bloody end at the guillotine.

6. Master Betty: Child star of Vaudeville

William West Betty was just 11 years old when he became a Vaudeville star in 1803 and spawned the term ‘Betty Mania’. Betty, from Ireland, benefited when theatres re-opened after the turmoil of the Irish Rebellion. It is difficult to comprehend how a child could have such an impact but as one critic quipped ‘it’s easy to be the number one attraction when you’re the only attraction’.

The public’s excitement to see the boy act was helped by his savvy father’s promotional tactics to sell the child prodigy. Riots and violence outside theatres often marred Betty’s star attraction, while in reality his lack of acting training soon disappointed discerning crowds who had bought into the hype.

7. Charles Dickens: The first author to fight piracy

In 1837, Charles Dickens’ debut novel The Pickwick Papers propelled him into literary stardom which also saw bootleg copies of his novels being sold. His fame made him vast earnings through tours, notably in America. Updated laws in the UK allowed Dickens to sue his plagiarist enemies and win, despite having to pay court costs because the defendants filed for bankruptcy.

Dickens’ celebrity saw his stage readings sell out throughout Britain and America, earning him £1,000 per week and guaranteeing a life saved from poverty. But the exhausting tours, which earned him £30m in today’s money, physically broke the man.

8. Mary Seacole: British-Jamaican nurse and businesswoman

It took a decade after her death for Victorian society to finally recognise the achievements of British-Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole, now an icon of Black history. Born in 1805, Seacole faced overt racism on her travels before sailing out to the Crimea and setting up a general store called the ‘British Hotel’.

At the hotel, she entertained and cooked for soldiers while also caring for the lightly wounded. Her kindness earned her the name ‘Mother Seacole’. Bankrupted by the war, Seacole’s fame led to fundraising campaigns in London to put her back on her feet.

9. Oscar Wilde: Maverick wit and dandy

By the time the 27-year-old arrived in America in 1882 to undertake his first tour, Oscar Wilde had only one play to his name. He earned his reputation as a caustic wit and flamboyantly dressed dandy. Wilde captivated American audiences with his bon mots and androgynous looks. The tour was a PR stunt that made him a celebrity.

Soon after the height of Wilde’s fame with his play The Importance of Being Earnest, his social status and career was trampled after he sued for ‘criminal libel’. After details of his sexual liaisons with men were revealed, he was himself accused of gross indecency and sentenced to two years of hard labour. He died in self-exile in Paris in 1900 aged 46.

10. Clara Bow: The Silent Screen’s ‘It’ girl

In the early days of Hollywood, Clara Bow was simply known as the ‘It Girl’, a phrase still used today to describe glamorous women living privileged lives. Bow’s image on screen was a playful chameleon making her the ‘Flapper girl’ of the Jazz Age and the biggest movie star of the 20s.

Bow’s tendency to make enemies and her wild off-screen antics; drinking, gambling, and alleged homewrecking, eventually damaged her star status, and by 1933, at just 32 years old, she retired to a ranch.