Celebrities are paid what the market will bear
Date posted: July 16, 2014
Talons drawn, the media have descended upon Chelsea Clinton. Again. Not for her frizzy hair, now smoothed with a killer blowout, or for that preteen metal mouth, now braces-free and pearly white.
This time the attacks are over how much money she makes — for her network television fluff pieces and well-attended gigs on the lecture circuit — despite her stick-thin resume.
“The former first daughter has never run for office, held a public policy job or done philanthropic work outside her family business,” sneered the New York Daily News. “But that hasn’t stopped the speaking fees from rolling in — along with a reported $600,000 salary as ‘special correspondent’ for NBC News.”
Likewise, upon learning that Clinton Fille pulls in $75,000 per speaking engagement, The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd asked, “Why on earth is she worth that much money? Why, given her dabbling in management consulting, hedge-funding and coattail-riding, is an hour of her time valued at an amount that most Americans her age don’t make in a year?”
To which my reaction is: Since when do you need talent or skills to be a well-paid celebrity?
Lest there be any confusion, most compensation — but especially compensation that’s accompanied by a flock of flashbulbs — is determined not by some intrinsic measure of worldly achievement or moral worth but by what the market will bear.
Witness famous-for-being-famous reality star Kim Kardashian.
Kardashian vastly out-earns Clinton and more accomplished public figures such as Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. The new Mrs. Kanye West charges $100,000 per appearance, according to the fine celebrity journalists at OK! magazine, and at those gigs no one even expects her to deliver prepared remarks on eradicating waterborne illnesses or racial tensions. (In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if her contracts explicitly forbid such pontification.) On some occasions, Kardashian has commanded as much as $500,000, her reported payout for attending the recent Vienna Opera Ball. It’s not clear what talents Kardashian possesses that make her “worth” $500,000 per appearance, except maybe a talent for identifying people willing to pay her $500,000 per appearance.
It’s more than that, of course. Hollywood celebrities like Kardashian — and political personalities like Clinton or Sarah Palin — can command big appearance fees because the organizations hiring them derive some value from the appearance, too.
Several years ago, I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation to determine why nightclubs might be paying “Jersey Shore” starlet Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi the head-scratchingly high fee of $25,000 merely to drink, dance and socialize for a few hours. It turned out that once you took into account the extra revenue streams that Snooki’s name brought in — from cover charges, bottle service and publicity in glossy magazines — her attendance might actually have been worth several multiples of what she charged clubs.
The exact numbers probably no longer hold up today, since in recent years Snooki’s star, if not her tan, has faded. But the same principles apply to other celebrities and political scions getting big bucks for appearances on TV and red-carpet events.
After all, having a brand name like Chelsea Clinton keynote your conference or college lecture series can attract better attendance, bigger donations and more press coverage. Televising her recognizable visage can likewise draw in valuable eyeballs. Same goes for other politicians’ children, such as Jenna Bush Hager, Meghan McCain and Ron Reagan, who have also been paid contributors for the NBC family of channels. What these political starlets lack in actual journalistic training they make up for in name recognition and precious political connections, both of which — fairly or not — are highly valuable to broadcast outlets.
Whatever the optics, I don’t begrudge Kardashian or Clinton the money they can make by charging the market rate for their services; I instead blame audiences for endowing these celebrity brands with value and cash-strapped state schools for wasting money on star appearances that could instead be used for scholarships.
If there is any objection I have to Clinton’s speaking gigs, it’s not the size of her paycheck. It’s the possibility that her hosts and employers are hiring her in order to buy influence with a possible future president (Clinton Mere), an aspect of Chelsea Clinton’s lucrative speaking career that for some reason has not been emphasized in most media reports. This possibility is particularly troubling given the family’s resistance during the 2008 primaries to releasing information about donations to the Clinton Foundation, where Clinton’s speaking fees reportedly go. When it comes to the Clintons, exposure is easy to come by; transparency, less so.
Catherine Rampell is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post. She previously worked as a reporter for The New York Times, covering economics and launching the award-winning Economix blog.