Among the more embarrassing displays of Second City syndrome is the desperate thirst for a Chicago “celebrity culture,” especially local media outlets’ relentless quest to frame the city as “star-powered.” This manifests in lame party coverage—from store openings attended by a few self-mythologizing fashion bloggers and an errant Bulls player to fund-raising galas catering to North Shore socialites, dutifully emceed by Bill Kurtis—as well as secondhand reporting about literally anything any remotely Chicago-related famous person says, wears, eats, or tweets. Bonus points if said person wears something Cubs, eats something Portillo’s, or tweets something about Cubs/Portillo’s. Because, alas, the giant mirror Chicago holds up to itself can only reflect the most basic signifiers of Chicagoness.
Who qualifies as a Chicago celebrity, anyway? Lifestyle and entertainment reporters cast a ridiculously wide net. Top of the list, and spurring an endless stream of “Local boy/girl makes good” stories, is any famous or quasi-famous individual born anywhere in the metropolitan area—whether Glencoe or Waukegan, Maywood or Minooka. Note: “born and raised” is not a requirement; being born somewhere Illinois-ish is newsworthy enough. Singers, chefs, models, moguls, authors, politicians, MasterChef contestants—all qualify. But Second City alums who grew up elsewhere count too, as do professional athletes who live in the city only semiannually. Then there’s breathless coverage of actors in town to film Empire, Shameless, and any of the numerous public-service-themed Dick Wolf shows, Chicago P.D. or Chicago Streets & San or whatever, as well as routine stories about graduates of New Trier or Northwestern who caught their big break in New York or LA, never to return again. If you absorbed only local news, you’d think Kanye West remains a resident, Billy Corgan is culturally relevant, and everyone in Cook County is still reeling from Oprah’s departure.
Of course, many notable people are from Chicago, and some actually live here. The issue isn’t whether the city can claim VIPs (not you, fashion bloggers and Lake Forest ladies who lunch); it’s the weird fierceness with which they’re claimed. At best, it’s awkward—with a distinct lack of self-awareness the media trumpets such people and attempts to shoehorn in ever more notables as a means of legitimizing Chicago’s existence. The same goes for gleeful consumers of this stuff—i.e., Rahm Emanuel and people who are drawn to dine at Bill and Giuliana Rancic restaurants. At worst, the thirst for a celebrity culture runs completely counter to Chicago’s ethos—that we favor things like hard work and process over posturing and status. Bill Murray sightings are fun, and fuel for the insatiable content machine, but the bottom line is Chicago is studded with regular people and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. v