Professor Mathieu Deflem finally realised that something truly strange had happened to him when people started asking him for his autograph.
For the professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina is not a celebrity. He is just an academic, who teaches theories about fame in modern popular culture.
Yet last year in Tokyo, Deflem realised that a viral news story about a course he had taught called “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame” had had the most unforeseen impact: it had made him famous, too.
Attending a Lady Gaga concert in Japan, Deflem suddenly found himself being approached by Japanese fans who called him “Gaga sensei”, which translates as Gaga professor, and they asked him to pose for photographs and sign autographs.
“That was weird. It was indeed surreal. Most professors do not get recognised at pop shows and yet they knew me by my face. They had seen me on TV,” Deflem told the Guardian.
Now, in a meta move that shows how twisted and strange the world of fame has become in the 21st century, Deflem has published an academic paper examining his own experiences of becoming famous for teaching a course about the nature of fame.
One of his conclusions is that the statement of pop artist Andy Warhol – that anyone can be famous but just for 15 minutes – is no longer true. In the age of 24-hour media and widespread social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, basically everyone can be famous all the time.
These days, Deflem concluded from his own brush with celebrity, it is staying unknown that is the harder and more unusual experience. “Nowadays it more exceptional to be obscure,” he said.
Deflem’s entry into the world of celebrity began quietly enough. He had an idea for a course looking at Lady Gaga’s rise to fame – and examining it from a sociological point of view – in the summer of 2010 and got the go-ahead to design it. In October, 2010, the course was announced to the university newspaper. From there – to the astonishment of many – the course suddenly became news across the globe.
In the weeks that followed, Deflem was swamped by interview requests and media appearances to discuss the course. They came from the New York Times, the BBC, the Washington Post, MTV, Billboard, Elle and USA Today. Media from countries including Italy, Germany, Ireland, Slovenia, India, Vietnam, Lebanon, Oman and even Zambia ran pieces about it. He fended off accusations that he had cynically designed the course and its title just to get such attention. “There is no way I could have planned this. I am not that smart,” he said.
But that was just the beginning. Soon he got an avalanche of criticism from figures like conservative firebrand Ann Coulter as well as Christian fundamentalists. His course even became an answer on the game show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.
Lady Gaga herself noticed the course and talked about it on radio interviews and a chat with broadcast journalist Anderson Cooper on the flagship news programme 60 Minutes. Saturday Night Live did a skit about Lady Gaga featuring a fan of the star who was dressed to look like Deflem.
Deflem found himself being consulted as an expert on other celebrities, such as Kim Kardashian, despite telling reporters he knew little about such figures. At a conference in Israel he was told by a colleague he was famous in her country for the Gaga course. “My feelings on the matter are distinctly ambiguous, involving both a measure of agony as well as excitement,” Deflem wrote in his academic analysis of the experience.
Indeed, it is rare that a professor gets to so directly experience the subject they are studying.
Deflem said that it gave him deeply personal insights into celebrities and the wider culture that creates, sustains and can often destroy them.
He enjoyed the thrill of recognition, while understanding that it had a downside too as numerous internet postings appeared accusing him of all manner of outlandish things such as being a member of the Illuminati.
He also came in for a lot of criticism because he had confessed to being a fan of Lady Gaga’s music. “That was used against me,” he said.
He was also amazed at the lack of agency he had over his own fate and image as it spiralled out of control in the hands of hundreds of journalists. “You kind of undergo it. You experience it. You do not really have any control,” he said.
As for the course, Deflem taught it five times and has no current plans to teach it as a separate activity in the future – though he may include it as part of broader studies of fame. However, he adds that one of the proudest moments of the whole experience was the fact that student reviews of his work generally praised it as academically rigorous.
He pointed out that one student had written on a professor ratings website: “Stay away from the Lady Gaga class. You have to do the readings and work your butt off.”
Guardian News Service