How to make a pop star.

November 30, 2012 at 9:39 am (pop culture)

I wrote this for another website but they ended up not using it, so here it is, for Gynomite! 

I think a lot about pop culture a lot, and more specifically, how we consume it. There are tons of actors/personalities/musicians out there, so why do some of them stay “oh, what’s her face from that show” while others are vaulted into the stratosphere of fame? What relationship do we have with these superstars, and why can we never get enough? Why is Nicki Minaj more famous than Ashanti? Why Taylor Swift and not the lady that did the “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” song? These are the things that fascinate me, because often it has very little to do with the product they’re putting out, and more with the product that is them- their personal lives, their style, where they hang out- and sometimes it’s little more than that. Gone are the days when you would release a song and sit back to see what happens- now our musicians are packages to be opened and consumed. Not to gank from the TV show, but what is that X factor that makes a female musician go from female musician to demigoddess? If one wanted to become a pop star, what could one do to increase one’s chances?

Let’s find out.

I went through a long list of pop stars from the 80s to current day to try and isolate the qualities that separate them from the mere mortal musicians around them. So let’s assume that beyond the standard attractiveness, catchy songs, and lucrative record deals, here are a few of the ingredients you may need in order to be a famous pop star. Use this for your own edification, or perhaps join me in creating a Frankenstein’s monster of fame and signature perfumes.

Willingness to live in public

This one has become incredibly popular recently. Twitter, paparazzi, and the 24 hour machine of pop culture news has meant that if you want an audience, one is always available. I am not saying that every pop star you see in the gossip blogs is an attention whore, I’m just saying that there are bars and clubs you can go to where paparazzi don’t hang out. I mean, you can text or call your ex-boyfriend, rather than tweeting at him, Rihanna. Miley Cyrus doesn’t seem to go shopping without a horde of photographers, and I don’t even remember the last song she recorded. This is a path that absolutely gets results and requires diligent late-night partying.

(Fun LA story- several years ago, I saw a now fairly well-known celeb stop her car at a restaurant because a group of paparazzi was camped out there, waiting for someone else. She got out and pretended to be going into the restaurant, shielding herself from the cameras, and then walked back out and shook hands with them before driving off. I will never reveal who it was, and I will never forget it.)


Let us not forget that an extraordinary voice can work wonders. Whitney Houston was a gospel singer and personally fairly boring (compared to her contemporaries) when she landed on the scene, but no one could deny the power of that voice. Christina Aguilera came out with “Genie in a Bottle” around the time that Britney, Mandy Moore, and a few other young girls were releasing catchy tunes, but the girl distinguished herself by belting the shit out of it. The same with Jennifer Hudson, Adele, and Alicia Keys, who seem to shun the spotlight but can’t seem to stop being famous. Sometimes I feel like we wanted to abandon Mariah but couldn’t because of her ridiculously amazing voice. This “X factor” may be the hardest one to manufacture.

Wholesome relatability

There are certain famous people that do the impossible by making us believe that if we had just done things slightly differently, we would be them! Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen, Debbie Gibson, and Kelly Clarkson are great examples of this. They make mistakes, seem to get their success out of nowhere, date the wrong boys, are shocked by their own success, don’t wear tons of makeup in public, and just generally feel like they’d be easy to hang out with. And if you relate to someone personally, beyond their music, god help anyone who tries to talk trash about them or skip past their songs at the club. To achieve this one,


My my, do we love a girl with problems. It helps both her relatability and the sad “car crash” hobby that we can’t seem to get enough with. Case in point, this X factor is often hand-in-hand with the “living in public” path to success. My memories of Amy Winehouse aren’t of her amazing songs, but of her walking around London, shoeless and inebriated. Britney and Miley’s refusal to wear panties, Demi Lovato discussing her self-abuse and eating disorder, Rihanna’s very public domestic abuse struggles- all of these aren’t done in service of their careers, but in a very sad and weird way, these problems did help their careers. This is not an advisable tactic to becoming famous, but if you insist, please just go with flashing your vagina. It’s much less damaging overall.

*Please please note, I am not in any way making light of domestic violence, substance abuse, or mental illness. I am proud of the women who have used their issues to raise awareness and lessen stigma, and I am saddened by the women who can’t seem to stop making the same mistakes over and over. Saddened, but not judgmental, because god knows the last thing women struggling with personal issues in public need is more judgement.

A total package


I don’t really have anything to say beyond that. Beyonce is, to me, is the ultimate woman. Smart, business-minded, gorgeous, married to a badass, secretive, amazing singer- the woman just seems untouchable, even when her albums aren’t as successful. Kathleen Hanna (of Bikini Kill, le tigre, and The Julie Ruin) once said of Beyonce:

Beyoncé isn’t Beyoncé because she reads comments on the Internet. Beyoncé is in Ibiza, wearing a stomach necklace, walking hand in hand with her hot boyfriend. She’s going on the yacht and having a mimosa. She’s not reading shitty comments about herself on the Internet, and we shouldn’t either. I just think, Would Beyoncé be reading this? No, she would just delete it or somebody would delete it for her. What I really need to do is close the computer and then talk back to that voice and say, Fuck you. I don’t give a shit what you think. I’m Beyoncé. I’m going to Ibiza with Jay-Z now, fuck off. Being criticized is part of the job, but seeking it out isn’t. That’s our piece to let go.

I couldn’t agree more. Beyonce projects ultimate confidence, ultimate peace with herself, and ultimate style. Note: this is almost impossible to pull off, and involves actually being Beyonce.

A well-crafted image

Whether it’s put together by you as you scrape your way to the top or by a team of handlers or somewhere in between, a well-crafted, fully fleshed-out image goes a long way. Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj, and Lana Del Rey all exemplify this to a tee. Think about it: even though you’ve never seen Nicki Minaj eating breakfast or cleaning her house, you can probably guess what it would look like, right? That’s an image. It’s a character they’re playing, and a character that’s been conveyed to us so clearly that we can fill in the blanks. It sells records and it wins over hearts. If this is a method you want to try, start with a backstory and a hairstory, and work your way down from there. Be eccentric, but don’t be random.

Unabashed sex appeal

No conversation about female pop stars can be had without mentioning Madonna, of course. When I talk to younger women about Madonna they’re always like “Express Yourself was great, but what’s the big deal with the cone bra stuff?”. What’s hard to imagine now is that pop stars before Madonna wouldn’t ooze sexuality, they would instead seem to be accidentally releasing it if they acknowledged it at all. Madonna was weird, headstrong, and sexy as hell, and she refused to apologize for it. The hotness of Rihanna, Christina Aguilera, and beyond is all owed to Madonna paving the way. And what male or female isn’t completely mesmerized by such a show of force?  This is a hard one to pull off these days, as the envelope can’t be pushed much further, but it’s a fine place to start. Get out those whips and chains!

“Who me?” sex appeal

…then again, there’s always a market for the classics. Britney Spears and Katy Perry frequently appear to be surprised by their sexiness. What else could putting spinning peppermints on your breasts or dressing as a sexy schoolgirl for your first video mean? It may not be my personal favorite way to present myself as a sexual being, but rather than think of this as a negative, I try to remember that there’s a playfulness to their personas that feels like someone who is secure enough to have fun with herself. This is often very important to young women who aren’t quite ready to be “out and proud” about their sexuality, and also, dudes love it. Bonus info: Katy Perry used to be a Christian singer, a career for which coy sexuality does not work as well.


I work with a lot of comedians and frequently tell them to work on their product (the jokes) before they work on their hustle (getting jobs and gigs), but for pop stars, it seems like these things need to be crafted simultaneously. If you want a future as a pop star (read: a POP STAR, not a musician), work on your singing voice, create a bizarro persona, make yourself either relatable or incredibly unrelatable, and get out there and live in the public eye. The fans will come running.

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