AskDefine | Define superstar

Dictionary Definition

superstar n : someone who is dazzlingly skilled in any field [syn: ace, adept, champion, sensation, maven, mavin, virtuoso, genius, hotshot, star, whiz, whizz, wizard, wiz]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. Someone who has accumulated a vast amount of fame and wealth.

Related terms

Extensive Definition

The origin of the term in the context of celebrity is uncertain, but a similar expression is attested in The Cricketers of my Time, a famous cricket book by John Nyren about the Hambledon Club. Writing in 1832, Nyren described the outstanding 18th century batsman John Small as "a star of the first magnitude" .
"A friend of mine named Ingrid from New Jersey came up with a new last name, just right for her new, loosely defined show-business career. She called herself "Ingrid Superstar." I'm positive Ingrid invented that word. At least, I invite anyone with "superstar" clippings that predate Ingrid's to show them to me. The more parties we went to, the more they wrote her name in the papers, Ingrid Superstar, and "superstar" was starting its media run. ingrid called me a few weeks ago. She's operating a sewing machine now. But her name is still going. It seems incredible, doesn't it?" (Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol)

Early 1900s: Development of the Hollywood "Star System"

By 1909, the silent film companies began promoting "picture personalities" by releasing stories about these actors to fan magazines and newspapers, as part of a strategy to build “brand loyalty” for their company’s actors and films. By the 1920s, Hollywood film company promoters had developed a “massive industrial enterprise” that “... peddled a new intangible—fame.”
Hollywood “image makers” and promotional agents planted rumours, selectively released real or fictitious biographical information to the press, and used other "gimmicks" to create personas for actors. Then they “...worked [to] reinforce that persona [and] manage the publicity.” Publicists thus "created" the "enduring images" and public perceptions of screen legends such as Rock Hudson, Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly. The development of this “star system” made “fame... something that could be fabricated purposely, by the masters of the new ‘machinery of glory.’”

1970s: Academic interest in stardom

According to Sofia Johansson the "canonical texts on stardom" include articles by Boorstin (1971), Alberoni (1972) and Dyer (1979) that examined the "representations of stars and on aspects of the Hollywood star system." Johansson notes that "more recent analyses within media and cultural studies (e.g. Gamson 1994; Marshall 1997; Giles 2000; Turner, Marshall and Bonner 2000; Rojek 2001; Turner 2004) have instead dealt with the idea of a pervasive, contemporary, ‘celebrity culture’." In the analysis of the 'celebrity culture,' "fame and its constituencies are conceived of as a broader social process, connected to widespread economic, political, technological and cultural developments."

1980s-1990s: Publicity tactics

In the 1980s and 90s, entertainment publicity tactics have become “more subtle and sophisticated”, such as using press releases, movie "junkets, and community activities. These promotional efforts are targeted and designed using market research, "to increase the predictability of success of their media ventures.” In some cases, publicity agents may create “provocative advertisements” or make an outrageous public statement to “trigger public controversy and thereby generate "free" news coverage.”

Socio-Psychological Theories

According to Roger Callois, superstars are created by the interplay between “mass media, free enterprise, and competition.” Superstars are produced by a mixture of effort by the actors or athletes and chance (the luck of winning, due to the many arbitrary factors influencing sports, film releases, etc.). The “superstar has extraordinary natural talent augmented by an even more extraordinary perseverance and drive.”
However, “small and relative differences are of decisive importance for winning or losing by a hair’s breadth.” It is here that chance plays a role; a sudden gust of wind at the end of a yachting race can mean the difference between stardom and defeat. Callois notes that the role of chance in superstardom is paradoxical, given that the west is such a “predominantly meritocratic society,” which valorizes the role of work, competition, activity, and determination.
“[Since] only one may be first. [a person may] choose to win indirectly, through identification with someone else”- the superstar, whose triumph as the most popular actor or hit recording artist is in part due to the actions of “... those who worship the hero”. The public believes that “the manicurist elected Beauty Queen, by the sales girl entrusted with the heroine’s role in a super production, by the shopkeeper’s daughter winning the Tour de France, [and] by the gas station attendant who basks in the limelight as a champion toreador” represents the chance or possibility, from the public's perspective, that they may become wealthy and successful. For example, Levine points out that "Lars Ulrich, the drummer for Metallica, was a service station attendant before becoming a rich rock star; Harrison Ford was a cabinet maker" before becoming a wealthy film star.
Caillois calls superstars’ huge incomes and rewards “disguised lotteries”, a “special kind of game of chance.” For example, the grand prizes for literary competitions “bring fortune and glory to a writer, for several years.” Callois notes that a “superstar” cannot merely be successful at some activity; they must also be richly rewarded. He says that the “material reward of the superstar is a necessary ingredient (for the glory of the star) for the identification of the public with the star, or whether it is the excellence or the private life of the star which is of more importance.” He states that superstars’ extravagant incomes play an important psychological “compensating mechanism” role for the public.
According to Madow, “fame is a "relational" phenomenon, something that is conferred by others. A person can, within the limits of his natural talents, make himself strong or swift or learned. But he cannot, in this same sense, make himself famous, any more than he can make himself loved.” Madow goes on to point out that “fame is often conferred or withheld, just as love is, for reasons and on grounds other than "merit." This means that regardless of how “... strenuously the star may ... try to "monitor" and "shape" it, the media and the public always play a substantial part in the image-making process.”

Economics of "Superstars"

Sherwin Rosen (1981) examined the economics of superstars to determine why “relatively small numbers of people earn enormous amounts of money and seem to dominate the fields in which they engage.” Rosen argues that in superstar markets, "small differences in talent at the top of the distribution will translate into large differences in revenue." Rosen points out that "...sellers of higher talent charge only slightly higher prices than those of lower talent, but sell much larger quantities; their greater earnings come overwhelmingly from selling larger quantities than from charging higher prices" Robert Frank and Philip Cook's book "The Winner-Take-All Society" describes how a small number of superstars have come to dominate in the artistic and cultural sphere: "Winner-take-all markets have proliferated in part because technology has greatly extended the power and reach of the planet's most gifted performers....Now that most music we listen to is prerecorded...the world's best tenor can be literally everywhere at once.”Alan B. Krueger's studies of the concept of the "superstar" in popular music indicate that "the top 5% of revenue generators took in 62% of concert revenue in 1982 and 84% in 2003", as demand for "superstar" performers increased.

Debate over Superstardom

Some scholars argue that superstardom has a useful role in society. Callois cites Rawls, who states that the “premiums earned by scarce natural talents . . . [serve] to cover the costs of training and to encourage the efforts of learning, as well as to direct ability to where it best furthers the common interest.” Cowen (2000) cites Rosen (1981) to argue that "the superstars effect is welfare-improving (consumers get better performances) even if it leads to raising income inequality," and adds that the "superstar phenomenon should not be overstressed. Indeed, fame is a positive-sum game, not a negative nor a zero-sum one." Cowen states that "countervailing forces operate, such as a convergence of quality that limits the ability of the very best stars to dominate the market for long, or more radically the elastic supply of fame." This means that "when demand for fame increases, the numbers of prizes, rewards and whatever fame generating distinctions is rising too." On the other hand, it has been argued "compensation systems that resemble prizes [lotteries] can also create perverse incentives by discouraging cooperative behaviour and may encourage some contestants to disrupt the performance of competitors". As well, Frank and Cook (1995) have called "into question the way the winner-take-all markets operate, with their damaging features." They argue that the "winner-take-all payoff structure [of competition for superstardom] generates a spiral of individual and social occupational waste, since it leads both to increasing (monetary and non-monetary) reward inequalities and to overcrowdings in the markets and occupations prone to an overestimation of one’s chance to succeed." Thus as a result, they argue that "when excess numbers of contestants are induced to invest in performance enhancement in order to rise their individual odds of winning, these investments will be mutually offsetting and socially inefficient; end consumers may get more valuable products but the social cost are excessive."

The "Superstar's Curse"

Arthur De Vany and W. David Walls use the term “superstar’s curse” to describe the risk involved in contracting "superstar" or "A-list" actors for feature films. De Vany and Wells claim that the "curse" exists because "if superstars are paid their expected contribution to profit, their movies almost surely will lose money." They claim that this phenomenon occurs because film profits exhibit a "stable Paretian distribution" with a "finite mean and infinite variance" and a skewed shape that contributes to creating the “superstar’s curse”.
Boldrin and Levine point out that the "puzzling aspect [of superstardom] derives from the fact that, more often than not, the perceivable extent to which a superstar is a better performer or produces a better good than the lesser members of the same trade is very tiny." Boldrin and Levine predict that "superstars should abound in industries where the main product is information which can be cheaply reproduced and distributed on a massive scale". They note that this " the case for the worlds of sport, entertainment, and arts and letters, which coincides with the penetrating observations that motivated Rosen's original contribution [on superstardom]."

Other meanings

"Superstar" art museums

A small number of major art museums, including Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, among others, have become household names and major tourist destinations. Art museums such as these, with their striking, architecturally-designed buildings and very well-known masterpieces can be termed “superstar” art museums. With their huge visitor traffic, superstar museums are often able to derive a significant income from museum bookshops and restaurants and have a “major impact on the local economy.”.
Superstar museums are able to use the popular appeal of their location and art holdings to produce their own books, videos, and television specials, which adds an additional revenue stream and further reinforces the public’s awareness of the museum. Some superstar museums have also begun establishing museum networks. For example, London’s Tate Gallery has launched satellite art museums at Liverpool and St. Ives..
Cultural institutions such as art museums play a “gatekeeping role” for consumers, helping to screen and grade the cultural artifacts and artworks, thus “reduc[ing] information and search costs” for consumers. Moreover, “by channelling resources to a limited group of visual artists, cultural institutions also enhance superstar phenomena within the visual arts.”

Superstar CEOs

McGraw-Hill’s economic website argues that the multi-million-dollar salaries of superstar Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) in the corporate world with can be viewed as a type of tournament prize. The huge salaries of superstar executives “often seem to resemble prizes for the winners of contests rather than compensation in return for the value of the marginal product of labour.” As an example, “a company may have many vice-presidents of roughly comparable ability and the v-p (who may only be slightly more talented than the others) that is promoted to president receives a huge salary increase, which resembles a prize for winning the contest as best v-p.”
The article goes on to argue that “...such a compensation system may be efficient if the organization is only able to rank its executives according to the relative value of their contribution to the organization (the organization cannot measure the productivity of each executive, only the productivity of the group of executives).” Moreover, “even if executives are paid a wage equal to the average productivity of the group, there will still be an incentive to perform in order be promoted and win the prize.” However, “compensation systems that resemble prizes can also create perverse incentives by discouraging cooperative behaviour and may encourage some contestants to disrupt the performance of competitors”


Superstars is also the name of french writer Ann Scott's second novel published in 2000 by Editions Flammarion and considered to be cult in France. Translated into several languages but not English.
Nickname of Mexican American Comedian. Mario Salazar 11-06-1979 "Superstar" Salazar

Further reading

  • Hamlen, William A. “Superstardom in Popular Music: Empirical Evidence.” Review of Economics and Statistics 73 (1991): 729–33.
  • MacDonald, Glenn M. “The Economics of Rising Stars.” American Economic Review 78 (1988): 155–67.
  • Rosen, Sherwin. The superstar effect – “The Economics of Superstars”, American Economic Review, 71 (1981).
  • Salganik, Matthew J., Peter Sheridan Dodds, and Duncan J. Watts. "Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market." Science 311 (2006): 854-56.


superstar in French: Effet superstar
superstar in Italian: Superstar (termine)

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

A per se, ace, big name, boss, celebrity, champion, chief, commander, constellation, crackerjack, cynosure, danseur noble, dean, diva, electronics king, feature attraction, figure, first tragedian, first-rater, folk hero, fugleman, galaxy, genius, good hand, great, great man, head, headliner, heavy lead, hero, heroine, higher-up, honcho, idol, immortal, important person, jeune premier, king, laureate, lead, leader, leading lady, leading light, leading man, lion, luminaries, luminary, magician, mahatma, man of genius, man of mark, master, master hand, master spirit, mastermind, name, nonpareil, notability, notable, paragon, paramount, past master, person of note, personage, pleiad, pop hero, popular hero, popular idol, practiced hand, prima ballerina, prima donna, principal, prodigy, protagonist, public figure, ruler, sage, senior, singer, skilled hand, social lion, somebody, star, superior, superman, the greatest, the most, top dog, topnotcher, virtuoso, whiz, wizard, wonder, worthy
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