07/10/2011 04:15 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2011

How Betty Ford Invented the Age of Celebrity

Did you ever wonder when the age of celebrity began? That is, when was the moment when celebrities became not merely people famous for being famous but rather an entirely different species -- single individuals who embodied the entire zeitgeist, capturing and distilling everything about our times, making their private life a matter of public discussion.

You could blame it all on Betty Ford. You might not naturally think that Snooki and the former Betty Bloomer have much in common, but in one sense the former First Lady was also the First Modern Celebrity -- the one person who more than anyone else brought the private lives of the rich and famous into the public sphere.

Before Betty Ford so candidly discussed her own breast cancer, the press kept hands-off the medical experiences of famous men and women alike. When Happy Rockefeller went to the hospital for a similar radical mastectomy, the press printed discreetly that she had undergone a "cancer operation." But after Betty Ford's robust discussions of not only breast cancer but also depression, drug abuse, and teenage pregnancy and sexuality, suddenly all the ground rules had changed. Betty was praised for her candor in that she had de-stigmatized all of these once-verboten conditions and thereby assisting and comforting others with the same experiences. In other words, hanging out one's private life in the public for all to examine was nothing to be embarrassed about, it was cleansing, healthy -- positively praiseworthy.

For the press, then, it was a short leap from covering Betty Ford's cooperative candor to reporting similar issues faced by other celebrities of the '70s -- Karen Carpenter (eating disorders), Tony Orlando (mental illness). If the celebrities did not necessarily want their problems made into public fodder, well, so what? The public not only needed to know that celebrities suffered from the same difficulties everyone else did, they could even be inspired by them. It was the duty of the press to be honest about the lives of the rich and famous. New magazines like People did so responsibly and accurately, a key to its success. Inevitably, though, in the Gresham's Law of journalism, the bad reporting drove out the good. Goodbye, Betty. Hello, Snooki.