The Atlantic

Why Are They 'Stars'?

Celebrities are celestial because of Shakespeare. And because of Chaucer. And because of the weird workings of the movie camera.
Source: Noam Galai / Getty / The Atlantic

It makes so much sense to refer to certain kinds of celebrities as “stars.” At their heights, those people inspire the rest of us. They shine, larger than life, above us, and around us. They suggest, in their insistent omnipresence, a certain order to the world. To see the stars—or, more specifically, to believe in them, taxonomically—is to endorse a notion that the people before us on our screens, far from us and yet so close, exist, as the author Jeanine Basinger puts it, “on some plane between ours and that of the gods.”

But: Why are they “stars,” specifically? Why is Hollywood’s Walk of Fame populated by pentagrams of pale pink, rather than some other arbitrary shape? Why is it “stars” who are, obviously and incorrectly, Just Like Us?

The answer has to do with Ovid. And Shakespeare. And Thomas Edison. And Mary Pickford. Stars are stars, certainly, because they sparkle and shine—because, even when they are bathed in the limelight, they seem to have

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