The First Kardashian

The hat shop girl who invented being famous for being famous.

When Parliament failed to control colonial presses through taxation, they needed another source of influence, and these 1768 efforts coincided with the conclusion of a watershed media event in modern Europe: someone had achieved fame by achieving fame. It was a kind of onanistic social mobility previously unknown, and Kitty Fisher had birthed it. Fisher was not an actress or musician or entertainer of any recognized sort; she was not royalty, and unlike Phryne — the model for Praxiteles’s Aphrodite — Kitty was not even a model.

Born Catherine Marie Fischer most likely to very poor German immigrants, Kitty was an assistant in a hat shop when she was discovered by a naval officer who introduced her to London’s high society. Some believed that Kitty possessed neither great sense nor wit but rather vast quantities of impudence, but her beauty and disregard for decorum made her famous — or infamous, but the line between the two was becoming blurred. Like Phryne before her, Kitty was a prostitute, and, also like Phryne, well-connected and famous. Phryne was a famous Greek courtesan, the model for the world’s most famous statue (Praxiteles’ Aphrodite, of which the Venus de Milo is a copy), and lover of many philosophers, lawyers and politicians. According to historian Athenaeus, Phryne offered to rebuild the walls of Thebes that had been destroyed by Alexander the Great on one condition: the walls were to be inscribed with the dedication “Destroyed by Alexander. Restored by Phryne the Whore.” Alexander’s The Great was replaced by Phryne’s The Whore. Phryne was the paradigm of the power of wealth and female impudence. Kitty Fisher had the latter, would soon have the former, and could leverage the force-multiplier of the press.

Kitty Fisher was not yet 18-years-old and was already the star of the London press, so much so that in 1759 she objected to “the baseness of little scribblers” and complained that she’d been “abused in public papers, exposed in print-shops.” But Kitty used the London papers as much as they used her, and her every exploit — though some likely fabricated — was reported, from racing horses where they shouldn’t be raced to wearing the equivalent of the Crown Jewels during an afternoon stroll. The press simmered with questions about who was paying for her contentious and inexorable display of shallow wealth and what social taboo would she next parade through the daylight of a midweek afternoon stroll. Engravings of her — one showed her dressed as Cleopatra dissolving a pearl in wine — sold by the thousands to an emerging middle class while gentlemen competed for her affection and collected portraits of her painted by the best. Joshua Reynolds, founder of the Royal Academy of Arts, painted her lounging with a parrot, and Nathaniel Hone, a founding member of the Royal Academy, painted her next to a goldfish bowl being attacked by a black kitten, with the reflection of admirers in the bowl’s glass. She was twenty-two in both paintings.

Young women copied her style, and high society competed to be blessed by her presence. Kitty’s fame was known across Europe, and even Giacomo Casanova — the Casanova — thought it necessary to comment on his chief competitor for public notoriety; he opined on her fashion, her wild display of wealth, and the fact that, according to rumor, she literally ate money for lunch. If Casanova had an eye for anything, it was money, and even he was astounded by Kitty’s apparent wealth. Another report recounted Kitty meeting Maria Gunning — a notorious social climber — in the streets of London. Gunning, now Lady Coventry after recently marrying Lord Coventry, sought to belittle Kitty by asking who had made her dress; Gunning’s assumption was that poor Kitty Fisher couldn’t possibly afford the best London dressmakers. Kitty replied that Lady Coventry should ask her husband, since it was he who bought the dress. Lady Coventry then uttered a slight about Kitty’s lower status, and Kitty replied that she’ll call Lady Coventry names once she too marries a lord. Kitty’s assertion was likely true; she was having an affair with Lady Coventry’s husband, and he did buy the dress. Kitty was 19-years-old when this exchange occurred. Lady Coventry died the following year at the age of 27, and Kitty died in 1767 at the age of 26, both most likely from using lead-based cosmetics.

When those who wished to suffocate the emerging American revolution walked the halls of power in London in 1768, they did not need to convince anyone in the Ministry that the press could make something out of nothing. A poor teenage girl had thoroughly proven that the press was a philosopher’s stone and that the globus cruciger was within reach even of those at the far borders of status. Kitty had no social position, no education, no lands, none of the assets that the feudal system would have valued. And yet as the 1760s progressed, it was increasingly obvious that this new media world could create value ex nihilo. As with printing paper money, this new asset seemed volatile, disruptive, and fascinating, and yet the power of the new asset was undeniable.

The Stamp Act was followed by the Townshend Acts, beginning with the Revenue Act of 1767, and these Acts provided the opening for the Ministry to apply Kitty Fisher to the Mundus Novus. Such formal exercises of government power seemed insufficient in the new media world, so Parliament would secretly turn to buying influence among a few major newspapers, particularly in Boston and New York. Through various slush funds, substantial sums were directed to these papers over the following years, and this marked the first time a government made a concerted effort to weaponize the media. So the contribution of the hat shop girl wasn’t the famous-for-nothing economy that would metastasize across the West over the centuries but rather that seemingly sensible adults could be driven to insensible behavior with the application of ink to paper.

About Nathan Allen

Formerly of Xio Research, an A.I. appliance company. Previously a strategy and development leader at IBM Watson Education. His views do not necessarily reflect anyone’s, including his own. (What.) Nathan’s academic training is in intellectual history; his next book, Weapon of Choice, examines the creation of American identity and modern Western power. Don’t get too excited, Weapon of Choice isn’t about wars but rather more about the seeming ex nihilo development of individual agency … which doesn’t really seem sexy until you consider that individual agency covers everything from voting rights to the cash in your wallet to the reason mass communication even makes sense….




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