Rethinking Celebrity

Reviewed by Katja Lee

In Indigenous Celebrity: Entanglements with Fame, editors Jennifer Adese and Robert Alexander Innes have brought together a range of scholars from around the world to consider the “inherent complexities of Indigenous people’s relationships with celebrity” (5). Their contention is that indigeneity is a particular (and particularly fraught) context that shapes how public life is expressed, experienced, negotiated, and represented: indigeneity matters. It’s an argument that scholars, particularly in the field of celebrity studies, will acknowledge is both compelling and underappreciated. Hence this text represents a crucial intervention in the field that begins to untangle and sketch the scope of long-overdue conversations.


The collection opens with a productive and provocative introduction to the issues at stake. Through the figure of the reconciliation celebrity—Indigenous subjects whose public image has been used by settler-colonial cultures to embody the nation’s “progress” towards reconciliation—Adese and Innes raise two critical trajectories that reoccur throughout the chapters. The first is that the celebrification of Indigenous peoples in settler-colonial contexts has a long history of furthering the aims of colonization. This is not simply because Indigenous peoples are represented in ways that serve and perpetuate colonial values and agendas, but because the entire system of celebrity is embedded in capitalist, individualistic, commodifying frameworks that sit in tension with Indigenous values and systems for honouring and serving community. The second is that within these systems of fame and celebrity, Indigenous subjects are active agents capable not only of negotiating these conditions but also of using them as a site of resistance.


Of the eleven chapters that follow, several explore these complex negotiations of indigeneity, agency, and the colonial framework of celebrity in specifically Canadian contexts. For example, in the chapter on Mohawk activist and model Kahn-Tineta Horn, Kahente Horn-Miller explores how her mother used her fame—built on her beauty and circulation in mainstream media—to strategically advocate for her community. In their exploration of the gentleman/savage tropes in Justin Trudeau’s charity boxing match with Patrick Brazeau, Kim Anderson and Brendan Hokowhitu make salient connections between past and present legacies of colonial violence and gender in Canada.


Chapters that do not directly touch upon Canadian contexts nevertheless have much to offer Canadian scholars. In their chapter on “Indigenous Activism and Celebrity,” Jonathan G. Hill and Virginia McLaurin distinguish between Indigenous celebrity that arises from activism and Indigenous celebrity that is mobilized in activist contexts and the politics of humility that can play a significant role in how Indigenous communities respond to the activist efforts of the famous. Another compelling chapter on activism (one I plan on using to teach Habermas’ ideal speech situation) is Sheryl Lightfoot’s “Collectivity as Indigenous Anti-Celebrity,” which details how the principles and practices of the global Indigenous rights movement are grounded in “ancient and ongoing forms of Indigenous leadership” that stand in marked contrast to the hierarchical and individualistic systems that characterize modern celebrity (223).


As the chapters unfold, a third critical trajectory arises: the argument that, as Adese and Innes write, “Indigenous peoples have always had their own ways of bestowing respect, acknowledgement, admiration and appreciation on members of their own societies” (26). Public renown and reputation, they contend, are not new to Indigenous people but figured in profoundly different ways than settler-colonial constructions of fame. Perhaps the most provocative argument to that effect arises from the first chapter, in which Anishinaabeg scholar Renée E. Mazinegiizhigoo-kwe Bédard argues in no uncertain terms that “Western concepts of celebrity are incommensurable with mino-waawiindaganeziwin” and that using “celebrity” to characterize Anishinaabeg peoples held in high esteem in the community as mino-waawiindaganeziwin is both grossly inaccurate and part of the “cognitive imperialism” that disempowers Indigenous peoples when they use European languages (44). Bédard has harsh words for Western constructions of celebrity and while she’s not wrong about the nature and effects of this capitalist juggernaut, her reading of celebrity theory is narrowly focused on those aspects that serve her argument. Other chapters, like Lightfoot’s, agree that there can be no reconciling celebrity and Indigenous-centred practices and world views. In the final chapter, Anishinaabeg scholar w. C. Sy takes a more flexible approach, looking for alternative, Anishinaabeg-centred views of celebrity within Anishinaabeg practices.


The contrast between Bédard’s approach and Sy’s approach is, to my mind, one of the great delights of this book. It is refreshing and productive to see a conversation among scholars where there is not consensus but multiple viewpoints trialled and leveraged; it offers room for discussion and growth, and a glimpse of the sheer scope of Indigenous relationships with public life and fame. Also of particular interest are the methodologies practised by the scholars, particularly those that destabilize settler-colonial epistemologies (see, for example, the chapters by Horn-Miller and Sy, and the chapter on Pasifika rugby players in Australia by David Lakisa, Katerina Teaiwa, Daryl Adair, and Tracy Taylor).


Indigenous Celebrity is the first collection to interrogate Indigenous relationships to celebrity and is an important and rewarding read particularly for those working in celebrity studies, cultural studies, and Indigenous studies. The chapters are thoughtfully edited and organized: reading them in order, one can begin to appreciate the salient connections between seemingly distinct topics and trace the emergence of the key questions and contradictions that these scholars are implicitly or explicitly grappling with. In short, I thoroughly enjoyed this text. It is well written and engaging, and also provocative. It offers a crucial challenge to scholars whose assumptions about celebrity have been formed and structured by settler-colonial cultures: to rethink how they think about celebrity.

This review “Rethinking Celebrity” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 1 Mar. 2022. Web.

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