Monetizing fame is actually pretty easy. Consider the Oprah effect: When Oprah recommends a book, it sells like crazy. If she wanted to, she could leverage her fame to promote products, businesses, and more in exchange for a cut of the sales. Lots of companies would be happy to pay her for an endorsement.
Celebrities commonly generate income streams by endorsing products and services. With enough leverage they can be granted a cut of the sales they help generate, stock options, and additional perks. Their endorsement may not involve much direct effort, maybe a photo shoot or some filming, but it can produce significant income if the celebrity’s recommendation carries a lot of weight in terms of generating sales.
Many celebrities have millions of Twitter followers, even though they often share mostly personal updates that no one would ever want to read if it came from a non-celeb. With such large audiences, they could recommend all kinds of things that make them money, such as William Shatner did by appearing in Priceline commercials. Movie stars can promote their own movies too, which puts more money in their pockets if they can help sell more movie tickets.
Fame provides many benefits, because attention begets more attention. A famous movie star gets more movie offers because the star’s fame can drive more people to see the movie. More movies means even more fame and recognition.
You don’t have to become a major movie star to enjoy some of the benefits of fame. Even a little fame can help.
For instance, due to the popularity of my website, I’ve been quoted in the New York Times three times. My website has been mentioned in quite a few books as well as on TV. I’ve never paid for any of this extra publicity. More exposure can generate more web traffic, and that’s something I already know how to monetize. I don’t have a good way to measure how much this helps income-wise, but I’m sure it has some effect.
You have to be careful when monetizing fame because there’s always a chance of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. If you do something stupid that kills your reputation and turns everyone against you, your fame will become infamy. Interestingly, you can still monetize infamy, but you may need to use different strategies. The greater risk to your financials is muddying your reputation and being forgotten.
Public vs private life
Some famous people are really into brand and reputation management. Quite often their real lives differ significantly from their public personas, but they keep playing up those personas, partly because it makes them money. One of the best examples of this would be pro wrestling, where the public characters can be so bizarre and conflict-driven. Drama sells more tickets.
When I realized that my web traffic was likely to give me a small dose of online celebrity, I made a conscious choice that I didn’t want to have to manage two different characters in my psyche. Whether in public or private, I do my best to behave the same way… and not to hide aspects of my personality, regardless of how people may judge me. But many people don’t feel good about doing this, so they separate their public and private selves.
Whether you invent a public character to portray or do your best to be your same self in both worlds is a matter of personal preference. However, you can run into problems when you pretend that your public persona is your real private self as well. Many speakers have fallen into this trap.
How to become famous
So how do you become famous in the first place? I’d say the #1 rule is to violate expectations.
Fame is attention, and to get attention you need to stand out. Copying what everyone else does only makes you invisible. To become famous you must do something exceptional, unusual, or extraordinary. Flaunt your uniqueness. Learn what other people did to become famous, and then discard their solutions and do something different. It’s okay to model someone’s general approach, but don’t copy their personal style or technique unless you want to be labeled “So and so, Junior.”
I gained some degree of fame by publicly sharing so many of my interests on my blog, including my experiments in polyphasic sleep and raw foods, my interest in open relationships and D/s play and threesomes, my explorations of subjective reality, etc.
Of course there are many people who share these interests, so I’m not particularly unique in that regard. But not many people were willing to share such details in public, especially people in the personal development field. Writers in this field had a tendency to whitewash their lives and present a sanitized public image. I shared the more experimental side of my life, and when I did so, people would thank me for it. People with similar interests or challenges could relate to what I was going through and learn from my failures and successes. They encouraged me to continue. I also felt good about doing this.
I recognized early on that if I kept up this approach, it would surely turn some people against me — such as people who get upset by articles like 10 Reasons You Should Never Have a Religion or How to Graduate From Christianity — but on balance, I have gained much more traffic and income than I’ve lost by writing on such topics openly. In some media, this would backfire, but with blogging people tend to place more value on honesty and authenticity than on needing the writer to clone their values.
Fame is a mixed bag. While it can open up a lot of doors, it can also do weird things to your social life. If you can feel congruent with this path, it’s not that difficult to become famous. The hard part is reaching the point where you can accept and welcome the whole package. Most people could appreciate the benefits of fame but definitely wouldn’t want to deal with the drawbacks such as the loss of privacy, endless solicitations, and the public criticism they’d have to deal with, and so they reject the package as a whole; this virtually ensures they won’t become famous.
Even the people I know who seem pretty comfortable with fame still generally keep it at arms’ length as much as possible. For them, fame is a byproduct of pursuing other interests — but it’s not a particularly worthy end in itself.