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living: feature

The survival of celebrityThe survival of celebrity

Jack Yan looks at two recent sports-celebrity endorsements—Maria Sharapova for Sony Ericsson and Zinédine Zidane for IWC Schaffhausen—and wonders how some remain on a high while others lay low after very public slips

 

Maria Sharapova in Lucire
Above: Maria Sharapova in London, prior to Wimbledon, endorsing her line for Sony Ericsson.

 

CELEBRITY ENDORSEMENTS are a double-edged sword, whether those celebrities are athletes, singers or movie stars. Phil Knight, one of Nike’s founders, once remarked that in his company’s early days, it could not afford to be on the back of Sports Illustrated—but it might be able to be on the front cover. Hence, John McEnroe and others, brilliant as they were, gave the swoosh some high-profile endorsements.

Lucire ran a piece on Anna Kournikova over six years ago, and was largely positive about the effects of her celebrity, despite her less-than-stellar performance in tennis. There were the negative effects, such as the fact that companies were rewarding Kournikova’s looks rather than her sporting ability, consequently sending a less-than-appropriate message to the public: that we are a surface society, interested in the image and not the substance.

At least when Sony Ericsson chose tennis star Maria Sharapova to be its first global ambassador, it found someone attractive to the eye and skilled in tennis, being a former Wimbledon champion.

The Maria Sharapova Design Collection, unveiled in London on June 20 on the eve of Wimbledon, consists of various cases and travel wallets for cellphones, marketed as fashion items with a catwalk show ‘by some of London’s up-and-coming faces,’ said the company.

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Lucire, the global fashion magazine, 2008
Lucire, the global fashion magazine, 2008Lucire, the global fashion magazine, 2008
Above: Models showcase Sony Ericsson’s Maria Sharapova Design Collection, available from the third quarter of 2008.

 

This seems a good endorsement: Sharapova is being rewarded for her victories as well as her looks, and her achievements make for a good role model.

In recent years there have been predictions such as the death of reality TV, something that still has not been realized—we must have heard that one around 2000. In 2005, one photo agency was adamant in telling this magazine that the celebrity cover was dead because of the overexposure of Paris Hilton et al—only we noted that InStyle had yet another increase in newsstand circulation. The interest in celebrities, three years after the prediction, has not abated.

But what if the celebrity gets a wire or two crossed? Britney Spears is most infamous—beyond the knickerless partying incidents, her head-shaving showed the singer at an emotional low, yet a few companies, including Elizabeth Arden with numerous fragrances, have contracts where they are compelled by law to keep promoting her.

There are ways out, of course. We suggested that Spears could rescue her image ‘through authenticity. Rather than say that a certain product has been inspired by Britney, go inside her home and show that she is actively working on it during her recuperation.

‘“Britney gets her act together,” the headlines might read—and she can slowly begin showing that she is not a victimized pop star but someone prepared to take charge and deal with her problems.’ In effect, use the paparazzi and the media’s fascination—not to mention the institutionalized Britney economy as highlighted in Condé Nast Portfolio that has to be fed—to get back on top. ‘[I]f there’s one thing the public loves more than a feel-bad story, it’s the turn-your-life-around story,’ we wrote.

The other strategy is to wait it out. Marc Ellis in New Zealand may have got busted on drugs but seems to have found his way back to a prime-time TV show. Cynics might point to the reverence New Zealanders hold for sporting heroes who have represented the country. And the Zinedine Zidane head-butting incident in the World Cup of 2006, which some said marked his end, seems to have done him no harm as he endorsed a new line of watches for IWC Schaffhausen of Switzerland.

LucireIn fact, football fans aside, Zidane’s positive image has persisted more strongly, and IWC hasn’t misjudged its timing with its new watch, the Ingenieur Automatic Édition Zinédine Zidane. At the launch were numerous celebrities from sports and film—Eva Longoria being the most recognizable, international face, alongside her husband Tony Parker; Jo Wilfried Tsonga, David Douillet, Christophe Lambert and Inès Sastre were present.

The limited-edition 1,000-unit watch was launched at a high-profile event at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris.

But ask academics and the answer would suggest that Zidane wasn’t big enough to overcome the World Cup incident. ‘In today’s economy, athletes and celebrities push all manner of products and services, and their travails can tarnish, by association, the brands and companies that they endorse,’ said the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania’s [email protected] magazine.

There, the wisdom is that ‘uber-endorsers’, ‘people who, out of a mix of achievement, personality and personal history, manage to transcend their sport or field’ are able to survive the bad. Lance Armstrong, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods are given as examples.

Martha Stewart and Paris Hilton managed to see their profiles increase despite jail and a sex video respectively, through careful management of their personal brands, the university believes. We add Kate Moss, whose checking in to rehab after being exposed for using cocaine has led to her bouncing back into supermodelling.

While personal brand management is very important, one has to wonder how active Zidane was—surely in the international media, he has hardly been visible since his retirement from professional football.

In an ideal world, we would like to believe that the bad will tarnish a celebrity—Mel Gibson is laying low after his drunken, anti-Semitic remarks, surfacing only to announce that the Gibsons and Spearses would holiday together; and Michael Richards has hardly been seen since publicly shouting the n word repeatedly.

In Zidane’s case, there was no racism, no jail time, no controversial sex tape—but a spur-of-the-moment reaction that has allowed him to resurface strongly. Few, we believe, would even remember whom Zidane head-butted two years ago.

Perhaps it is our need to believe in some idols, particularly in secular societies, wishing them to be visible because we can all understand their inability to hold back. McEnroe remained a strong endorser for a good part of his career, despite traditionalists being appalled by his behaviour—even he believes his outbursts made tennis more human. We wish we could have our outbursts and how civility prevents them—beyond sports, even in fiction we admire the political incorrectness of characters such as DCI Gene Hunt in Ashes to Ashes.

What we might need to realize, since it is unlikely we would stop championing the bad boys and girls of celebrity, is that we are not rewarding these behaviours. We are staring at a television or computer screen and we treat them as entertainment or escapism, knowing full well they are poor examples of how we might live our lives. We shouldn’t be fascinated by this world, but all those people who swore they would not buy a tabloid again, after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales 11 years ago, don’t seem to have affected the sale of tabloid publications one bit.

The danger comes in a society that believes that these examples are normal: certainly that is where the criticism of reality television stems from. If we are to guard against anything, it is against becoming a surface society, not caring about the substance. The right buzzwords and soundbites should not be a substitute for character and hard work. And that puts that duty firmly back on us, the media, for providing that context. •

 

Jack Yan is founding publisher of Lucire.

 

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In 2005, one photo agency was adamant in telling this magazine that the celebrity cover was dead because of the overexposure of Paris Hilton et al—only we noted that InStyle had yet another increase in newsstand circulation. The interest in celebrities, three years after the prediction, has not abated

 

 

Zinedine Zidane

Tony Parker and Eva Longoria, in Lucire









Above: Celebrities in Paris, celebrating the new IWC Schaffhausen Automatic Édition Zinédine Zidane watch. Left: IWC Schaffhausen’s new limited-edition watch, named for French footballer Zinédine Zidane.

 

 

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