The ABC's Of A-Listers

I’ve heard it too many times to count: As I look for celebrities to help promote a brand’s campaign, my client tells me, “We want an A-lister.” My heart always sinks a little—not because I disagree with the request or because the job is too difficult (although, come on, of course it’s difficult!), but because…what does it mean? An A-lister according to whom? By what standard?

I’m sure if I asked 10 people to name celebrities they consider A-listers, a few names would show up on everyone’s list: George Clooney. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Michelle Obama. Um, Leonardo DiCaprio? Sandra Bullock? Denzel Washington?

I’ve probably already inspired disagreement. And here’s a question: Are the Kardashians A-listers? Does infamous = A-list? Or do you have to be actually talented to reach that status?

I put these questions to some friends of mine who’ve observed what Joni Mitchell called “the star-maker machinery” for many years: What makes someone an A-lister? Is it the quality of his talent? The amount of money she’s made? The number of followers on social media? Their box-office bankability? Here are some of their thoughts—then I’d love to get yours. 

Susan King, who wrote about entertainment for the Los Angeles Times for more than 25 years, says, “To me, an A-lister has a proven track record with audiences and also with critics. And his or her career is so strong that their careers can withstand a flop or two.” Okay, I’d put Meryl Streep, Morgan Freeman, Julia Roberts, Halle Berry, and Matt Damon in that group.

Mark Rosch, former vice president of PR for E! Entertainment Television, says, “Today, I think an ‘A-lister’ is defined by exposure in any medium—TV, print, Internet, it almost doesn't make a difference. You can even manufacture it yourself; after all, ‘YouTube Celebrity’ is a badge many wear proudly (although to me, that sounds like the mid-’80s rationalization you'd hear from struggling bands up and down the Sunset Strip: ‘Yeah, but we're big in Japan’). So ‘A-Lister’ and ‘celebrity’ are pretty much synonymous. A star, however, is a different animal.”

So then, the Kardashians would be A-listers, along with Kanye West, Donald Trump, and all those youngsters with millions of followings on Vine and Snapchat, even if I’ve never heard their names.

Yet, Hollywood journalist Ray Richmond says, “An A-lister is almost more of an attitude than a level. You can be an A-lister and not necessarily command the highest salary, the most ink, the greatest presence on social media. An A-lister is a star, celebrity, or media figure who has withstood the test of time. I don’t think anyone fresh on the scene can accurately be termed an A-lister. It’s someone who has at least a few years and projects under their belt and a real track record. They also have to be accessible to a certain degree and understand that they are only as good as their last project and public image.

“This isn’t to say that all A-listers are good, intelligent, substantive people,” Richmond continues. “But a true A-lister is most often inclusive and humble. Someone who is successful without first paying their dues is an A-lister with a B-lister future. And jerks are often destined to have a tragically short A-list stay.” 

So swimmer Ryan Lochte may have been on the A-list during the Olympics, fallen off the list with his post-Olympics gas station shenanigans, but have the chance to reclaim his position after his stint on next season’s Dancing With the Stars? Anything’s possible!

I’m not sure all of this has resolved the challenge I have with my client—after all, A-list status is obviously subjective. So what do you think? Fame, talent, notoriety, famous-because-they’re-famous…what are the over-riding factors that put someone on the A-list? Please share your thoughts in the comments. They may even help me with my next project!

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