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Celebrity Death Hierarchy: What It Means and Why

Updated on October 15, 2012
Mariah Carey Performing at Michael Jackson's Memorial Service
Mariah Carey Performing at Michael Jackson's Memorial Service | Source

If you follow the news these days-whether it is print, television, or internet media- you know that celebrity news is big business. Romances, paparazzi meltdowns, and celebrities in legal battles regularly pepper news outlets, blogs, and tabloids. However, the one type of celebrity news that manages to trump all is the celebrity death.

Celebrities die as regularly as the rest of us but as we see not all celebrities are as celebrated in death as they are followed, hounded, and scrutinized in life. If you will, there is a celebrity death hierarchy that may not be outright explained to the public but it is certainly enacted to regulate coverage.

Depending on the celebrity's industry, rank, and level of success- they are treated differently by the media and this hub hopes to decode that.

Amy Winehouse Performing in 2007
Amy Winehouse Performing in 2007 | Source


Music is one of the most common forms of entertainment, but they get the least amount of news coverage from mainstream and entertainment news outlets. The reason? It probably has to do with the fact that music is promoted and advertised through the internet and word of mouth more than anything. And unless you are an avid watcher of music videos, music awards shows and Billboard charts- you are bound not to recognize a musician.

For instance, it is alot easier to remember a song than the person who sang it. And that has to do with a number of things such as name recognition, iconography, and image. And for many of us, movies and television work the same way. But music is most common since it is the least visual. Below, a slight breakdown of who will get the most attention in music when they die.

Members of a Collective or Group: What I mean by this category is someone who was a part of a group of artists such as a hip-hop collective or group of rock stars. I do not mean individuals who form a well-known group such as The Who but usually artists who collaborate together but are still known as solo artists. Generally, they do not get much attention outside of outlets (i.e. magazines, websites) devoted to their style of music. Unless you follow their music you probably will not know them therefore they may get a slight blurb or mention online or in a news paper but not on mainstream news. A recent example would be Ms. Melodie of the hip-hop collective Boogie Down Productions who died in July 2012.

One Hit Wonders: We all associate these artists with the nostalgia factor such as being at the prom or driving in your first car. And while sometimes these artists create second careers for themselves, it usually happens outside of the public eye. The song lives on but unfortunately the artist does not. Again, they might get a mention or tribute in the newspaper, but nothing major. Someone I would associate with this would be the lead singer of the Knack, Doug Fieger who passed in 2010.

Genre Stars: Some people have great success- within there own genre. They may have a crossover pop hit but in general are associated with a specific genre of music. These artists usually have a loyal and devoted fan base and are successful but never made it big time. A good example would be Teena Marie, the multi-talented protege of Rick James who died in 2010.

Iconic Group Members: Unlike members of a collective or group of artists- these artists are not solo acts, they are identified with the group. The group itself has a certain status in music because of cult following, impact, or influence in the music industry. For instance, Grateful Dead is considered iconic and so was their lead singer, Jerry Garcia who died in 1995.

27 Club Members: If you do not know what the twenty seven club is I will give you a couple of names. Kurt Cobain and Janis Joplin are among the members of this unofficial club. And while we all would like to think this is a club that has no traction, it's latest member is proof that it is very much real. Amy Winehouse died in 2011 and became the latest inductee. The media fascination with this strange coincidence always brings new attention to why this happens.

Musical Legends: The name of this category says it all. These are people everyone knows whether or not they listen to their music and they are usually identified by one name. Whitney. Elvis. Michael. And when they die- it becomes a media sensation. Everything from when and how to why. Now of course the three artists I mentioned died fairly young, they were icons and record-breakers in their own right. Usually there is not only an ongoing news story about them but a series of specials and documentaries on their life and career.

There are some exceptions to these categories as every musician is different- but in general they do follow a certain pattern of coverage by the media.

Andy Griffith at the White House in 2005, Receiving Honors
Andy Griffith at the White House in 2005, Receiving Honors | Source


Unlike music, television is arguably the most visual medium in our current lives barring the internet. And while the internet is still shiny and new, television has a deeper impact as we welcome most of these people into our homes day in and day out.

Reality TV Stars: This category is the newest but it is steadily growing. As we all know, reality television leads to instant fame and success but cannot prepare you for the pitfalls of it. The problem with reality television is that unless you are invested in it or the star markets themselves beyond the show (i.e. Kim Kardashian), you probably do not know who is involved. The most recent example being former Real World castmate Joey Kovac.

One Show Wonders: Much like one-hit wonders in music, these are people who had a pretty decent role in a sizable show and then moved on. When they moved on, very few of us paid attention. Again, a small mention may be made but nothing more. A recent example would be some of the cast members of Welcome Back, Kotter.

Child Stars: They get several mentions mainly because alot of people feel like they grew up with. And alot of times these deaths are mired in tragedy, triumph, and heartache. Essentially, their stories compromise an episode of E! True Hollywood Story. For example, Gary Coleman from Diff'rent Strokes.

TV Icons: These are people who helped change television into what it is today. Usually their influence goes beyond one show- they have starred on more than one series and have possibly helped produce the show. Their work has helped to inspire other stars in younger generations. Andy Griffith- one of television's most beloved icons is a great example of someone who helped shape the television landscape.

Heath Ledger
Heath Ledger | Source


Even though television impacts more people, for the most part movies stay with us long after the lights are turned on. Movie stars are the originators of pop stardom as they were the first members of a medium to be seen and recognized by wide audiences. And while we may never understand the real lives they lead, we identify with the characters they embodied.

One Movie Wonders: Just like one show and one hit wonders, they only really have a single movie hit that highlights their careers. But unlike one and done types in the other categories, they get even lesser mentions in the news.

Quick Burnouts: These are people who have a string of good movies to their name but beyond that have not sustained a steady career. This could also include child movie stars who have trouble translating to adult audiences or simply people who peaked before they could go further. A good example of this would be Sal Mineo who starred alongside Natalie Wood and James Dean in Rebel without a Cause.

Young Icons:This category covers those who died young but left an indelible mark on the film industry. They had alot of potential but tragedy ultimately took them from us too soon. A great example would be Heath Ledger who gave his Oscar-winning performance in the Dark Knight but died before he could celebrate his win.

Movie Legends:These are people we all related to growing up in the movies. Their lives played out like a movie in alot of instances. And we were there through it all to celebrate. These stars usually get a tribute laid out for them on a movie channel in the days and weeks following their passing.

Cause of Death

In every category there are special exceptions for each type of star covered in accordance to this. Cause of Death usually has alot to do with that. If someone died from natural causes or prolonged illness, the interest level is not as high as when someone is younger, has a drug problem, and/or involved in tragic circumstances.

Vehicular Accident: Anytime there is an accident involved, interest level spikes. We want to see what really happened, if the responsible parties are brought to justice, and if things could have been prevented. For example, R&B singer/actress Aaliyah's death in 2001. She died in a small plane accident that was later found to be preventable.

Mysterious Illness: This is another type of death that causes interest. How did the person get the illness? Was it something that was easily treated? And why did the person not get treated? Corey Haim's death in 2011 is an example of this.

Accidental Overdose: It is safe to say most overdoses are accidental but there is a combination of factors that interests people. For instance, the drugs found in the person's system, the time of the overdose, and who prescribed the drugs are always common questions. Whitney Houston's recent death has shown proof of that.

Suicide: It is perhaps the most tragic cause of death since it is at the hands of the person. And we all know that suicide comes with it's set of questions. Why, usually being the biggest among them. Tony Scott's recent death is just the latest suicide to hit the headlines.

Homicide: This rarely happens but when it does, it is big news. A celebrity being murdered is big news for obvious reasons. Why? Who? One of the biggest stories of this type was Marvin Gaye who was murdered at the hands of his own father.

Types of Tributes

Here are some tributes that are likely to occur when a celebrity death occurs.

Twitter: As we all know by now, a celebrity death or celebrity death hoax for that matter becomes a trending topic. Twitter actually shut down when Michael Jackson passed back in 2009.

24 Hour Music Video Block: This happens when a music legend dies. VH1 recently did this when Whitney Houston passed on the eve of the Grammys.

Classic TV Marathon:If the star of a major sitcom or television icon dies there's likely to be a marathon on classic networks like TV Land.

Movie Marathon: A major movie icon will get a movie tribute in some respect. If they are from the classic era of films- TCM will most likely give them a marathon.

Dateline or 20/20 Special: This usually happens for major stars who die under unresolved circumstances.

Today/Good Morning America/This Morning Interview: For most major celebrities, the morning news show you watch usually has some kind of interview with friends and loved ones in addition to a clip retrospective of the person's life.

Talk Show Interview: Again family and loved ones usually go on these outlets to share their memories.

Cable Specials: This varies due to the degree of the celebrity that passes but networks like BET, E!, and others who focus on specific genres or stars will do their own types of specials.

We all deal with death differently and in the case of celebrity death, it is its own industry. But it does not change the fact that no matter how hard we try death is still a mystery.


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    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 5 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      Thank you Cogerson! I did not remember that about Robert Mitchum and Jimmy Stewart. I was a kid but I remember Today coming on saying Jimmy Stewart had died. And the same seemed to happen when Michael Jackson died. I remember exactly where I was when I heard. My roommates and I were eating dinner when I was on the phone with my other roommate who was eating with a friend and told us something happened to Michael Jackson. We all got on CNN and after that we forgot everything we were talking about. Always interesting to see how things in the media don't change even though are access to it does. Thanks for coming by again!

    • Cogerson profile image

      UltimateMovieRankings 5 years ago from Virginia

      I was thinking about this hub as I finished up my Robert Mitchum of the possibly interesting facts that I did not include was that Mitchum died one day before James Stewart. At which time all the tributes to Mitchum stopped cold and Stewart got all the media attention. So if his death had to play second fiddle to a bigger star.

      To a certain degree Farrah Fawcett had the same thing happen to her when she and Michael Jackson died on the same day.

      Your hub continues to be a very interesting one on the second reading...more votes up and interesting.

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 5 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      I'm glad you enjoyed reading it. Thank you Michelle!

    • midget38 profile image

      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      I like the way you've organized and categorized the celebrities according to the level of successes they experience. An organized an informative commentary! Thanks Alecia!

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 5 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      Hi agusfanani,

      I agree having everything does not always satisfy the basic desires in life to be loved and cherished for who you are. And it is ironic they die doing something that's so indicative of how they suffered in life. Thank you so much for coming by and commenting!

    • agusfanani profile image

      agusfanani 5 years ago from Indonesia

      Hi Alecia, many celebrities are so rich and have satisfied themselves with everything which I can only have in my dream. They seem not to have problems in life but then they are suddenly found end up die in ironic ways like committing suicide or overdose. Isn't it because of the total satisfaction they have so that they lead a dull life, see life isn't attractive anymore ?.

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 5 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      Thanks so much Deb! I agree age/circumstance certainly determines the scope and amount of coverage.

    • DeborahNeyens profile image

      Deborah Neyens 5 years ago from Iowa

      Interesting analysis, Alecia. I think age and circumstances of death play a big role in the level of media fascination with the demise of a celebrity. The younger and more tragic the circumstances, the more coverage there will be.

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 5 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      Thank you Martief for coming by and commenting! It is a very interesting thing to think about. I can't imagine writing or singing something as personal as a song and people remembering it more than me.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 5 years ago from South Africa

      This is an awesome, well-presented hub about celebrity death hierarchy. So true - "The song lives on but unfortunately the artist does not." While actors in movies and TV-series become so much easier celebrities living forever and a day while movies disappear in the archives of entertainment. And this is but only the tip of your iceberg of a topic. Voted up and well-stressed.

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 5 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      I would have to say Neil Armstrong fits near the TV category since his work was closely tied to TV so maybe TV icon if I had to categorize him here. I meant to include other types of public figures but I thought it would make the hub too long.

    • PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

      Justin W Price 5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska

      Interesting work and fascinating look at the death hierarchy. How do you think Neil Armstrong;s death will be viewed? He was an entertainer of sorts.

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 5 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      Thanks Cogerson! Yeah I agree that the media does alot of comma length summarizations- almost like a Tweet as to capture the person's life in a moment. Tony Scott unfortunately was best known as Top Gun's director and as Ridley's brother- but at least they left that out.

      Movie stars are just like any other celebrity- they have their place. And I agree movie marathons are awesome!

    • Cogerson profile image

      UltimateMovieRankings 5 years ago from Virginia

      One of your best hubs yet....a very detailed hub and really shows the way the media will treat a recently dead seems that they(the media) like to summarize a whole career with a comma....Tony Scott who died this Scott, director of Top Gun, died of....

      hard to believe that someone's whole life comes down to a comma.

      I really like how you broke down the movie stars(I bet you could not guess marathons are awesome...just like this hub.

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 5 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      Thanks alocsin! I think Phyllis Diller falls into the television icon category. She influenced alot of women in comedy but people know her most from television.

    • alocsin profile image

      alocsin 5 years ago from Orange County, CA

      What a thorough discussion of the death hierarchy. But I'm wondering where one of my favorites, Phyllis Diller, who just passed recently, falls here. Voting this Up and Interesting.

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 5 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      Thanks PurvisBobbi44! I'm glad you enjoyed it!

    • PurvisBobbi44 profile image

      PurvisBobbi44 5 years ago from Florida


      Great hub with a lot of thought and research. Your outline was perfect

      and it kept the reader's attention. Great job and I enjoyed reading it.

      James Dean was a great actor.

      Thanks again,

      Your Hub Friend,

      Bobbi Purvis

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 5 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      Thanks Tillsontitan! Yeah, I guess by being prepared they don't have to do much but I wouldn't want my obituary pre-written for me unless it was absolutely necessary.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 5 years ago from New York

      You sure did your homework! Very interesting. The thing that scares me is they have the obituaries of celebs and politicians ready to go for years...I don't know if I'd want that. Anyway this was a great hub and a great read. Voted up an interesting.

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 5 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      Thank you so much mary615! I'm glad you enjoyed it!

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 5 years ago from Florida

      Great Hub! I remember so many of the ones you wrote about, and many more come to mind; some of the old actors that I really liked.

      I voted this UP, etc. and will share. Mary

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 5 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      Thank you so much billybuc! It took alot of time but I am glad to do it :).

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 5 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      Thank you so much Sunshine! I know of all the days to publish a hub, there happen to be two more celeb deaths. I agree celebs who leave a positive legacy will never been forgotten.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Wow! You gave this a lot of thought. I couldn't have even come up with this many categories, let alone thought about people to put in the categories. Well done and excellent research.

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 5 years ago from Orlando, FL

      Well done Alecia! It's obvious you put a lot of time, effort and research into this hub. Unfortunately Phyllis Diller and Tony Scott are now also among the deceased celebrities. I think any celebrity that leaves behind a legacy for present and future generations to enjoy should be recognized. Thank you for creating this article. I'm sure it will be appreciated by many.


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