In 1968, Andy Warhol—already famous in his own right—further added to his celebrity by creating a lasting cliché: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”
Prescient as Warhol might have been, it seems we haven’t reached that future quite yet, at least according to science. A new study, published today in the American Sociological Review, finds that true fame lasts a good deal longer than 15 minutes. In an analysis of the celebrity journalism nationwide, researchers found that the most famous (and most often-mentioned) celebrities stick around for decades. To come to the finding, a number of sociologists each spent a multi-year sabbatical meticulously combing the “Stars: They’re Just Like Us” feature of UsMagazine. Several reportedly declined to return to the field of academia, apparently taking their talents to the analytical departments of the glossy magazine industry full-time. Just kidding! In all seriousness, the sociologists, led by Eran Shor of McGill University and Arnout van de Rijt of Stony Brook University, used an automated search took a random sample of roughly 100,000 names that appeared in the entertainment sections of 2,200 daily American newspapers published between 2004 and 2009. Their sample didn’t include every single name published, but rather a random selection of names published at all different frequencies—so it wouldn’t be useful for telling you who was the most often-mentioned celebrity overall, but would be illustrative of the sorts of trends that famous (and not-so-famous) names go through over time. The ten most frequently-mentioned names in their sample: Jamie Foxx, Bill Murray, Natalie Portman, Tommy Lee Jones, Naomi Watts, Howard Hughes, Phil Spector, John Malkovich, Adrien Brody and Steve Buscemi. All celebrities, they note, were relatively famous before the year 2000, in some cases decades earlier (Howard Hughes rose to fame in the 1920s). All ten names, additionally, are still fairly well-known today. Overall, 96 percent of the most famous names in the sample (those mentioned more than 100 times over the course of a given year) had already been frequently featured in the news three years earlier, further dispelling the 15 minutes cliché. Furthermore, if a name was mentioned extremely often in its first year of appearing, it stood a greater chance of sticking around for an extended period of time.
There is, however, some truth to 15-minutes idea: Names of lesser fame (those less frequently mentioned to start) exhibit significantly higher amounts of turnover from year to year. The researchers say these names mostly fall into the category of people involved in newsworthy events—such as natural disasters and crimes—rather than people who readers find newsworthy in their own right. As an example, Van de Rijt mentions Chelsey Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who briefly achieved celebrity after successfully executing an emergency landing on the Hudson River in 2011, but is now scarcely frequently mentioned in the press.