An Unlikely Celebrity: “Jeopardy James” as an Old-Media Phenom in a New-Media World

Andrea McDonnell

On the evening of Monday, June 4th, I was sitting in a dimly lit theater enjoying a getaway after finals and graduation. Determined to disconnect for a week, I wasn’t checking social media, I’d switched off CNN, and I was blissfully unaware of what was happening in American pop culture.

Until an iPhone screen lit up in the row beside me.

“He finally lost,” I heard a woman say.

“It had to happen sometime,” replied her partner. 

And there, immediately, I was snapped back to reality.  They were talking about Jeopardy contestant James Holzhauer. 

Not, I admit, a regular viewer of the long-running weeknight trivia game, I had learned all about “Jeopardy James” from my parents, who were enthralled by his winning streak.

“He knows everything,” my mother had gushed to me over Easter dinner. “I swear he has a photographic memory.”

James Holzhauer’s incredible knowledge, cool demeanor, and penchant for making insanely large wagers had rocketed him to Jeopardy success—and international fame. Over the course of 32 games played between April and June 2019, he had quickly become one of the top earning contestants the show had ever seen, outpacing past-champion Ken Jennings and earning nearly $2.5 million dollars.

But James had not just become a Jeopardy celebrity, he was now widely famous, part of the pop culture vernacular. Jeopardy had launched a “James Holzhauer tracker” where fans could monitor his techniques, accuracy and winnings. The New York Times featured a profile of James, complete with analysis of his gameplay tactics (Mather, 2019). He was interviewed by CBS, discussed on social media and joked about by Jimmy Kimmel on late-night TV. T-shirts emblazoned with his face began popping up on Etsy.

“The kind of fame that’s privileged today is slick, constructed, and self-reflexive; James was none of those things. So why did we care?”

Andrea McDonnell, Associate Professor of Communication & Media Studies

Why had James Holzhauer become a phenomenon? We live in a digital era where micro-celebrities and influencers abound on social media and followers view live footage of Kylie Jenner’s birthday party on Instagram. On the one hand, we are accustomed to the narrative that anyone—with the right social media strategy and a little bit of luck—can become famous. But the kind of fame that’s privileged today is slick, constructed, and self-reflexive; James was none of those things. So why did we care?

Celebrity scholar Chris Rojek (2001) writes that there are three types of celebrity: ascribed, attributed and achieved. Ascribed celebrities are famous by birth (think Prince George or Miley Cyrus); they may make significant contributions but they are always linked to fame through their lineage. Attributed celebrities are those who are famous simply because they have managed to attract attention. They are, as the saying goes, famous for being famous. But achieved celebrities are those who are well known because they have done something remarkable. They earn our attention through their talent, ingenuity and impact on society. 

Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, those individuals who became famous largely did so through their achievements. As Susan Douglas and I write about in our book, Celebrity: A History of Fame (2019), it was the inventors, the politicians, the artists and writers who were able to achieve renown in the days before radio and television. But once these new technologies became widely available, the nature of fame began to shift. Mass media allowed individuals to become well known to the millions of viewers and listeners in record time. More recently, digital technologies and especially social media have further condensed this process. Our access to stars is now instantaneous, our attention constantly in flux. This shift in technological accessibility has brought with it a focus on attributed celebrities, people famous for their ability to attract our attention, rather than for a specific skill set. The Kardashians have built a business empire on this fact.

Jeopardy James is not an Instagram model or a social media influencer. Jeopardy is an old media artifact—a weeknight, network TV program designed for live viewing that has aired since the 60s—in a new media world. Yet James’ success draws upon both the old and the new. He appeared on and was covered on old media—TV and print—yet his winning streak was also Tweeted about and fans could learn about his personal life on Wikipedia. 

Our awe of James is traditional, it stems from his talent, his achievements and his singularity. As such, his popularity reflects a nostalgia for a time when celebrities “earned” their fame. Yet were this James’ only appeal, his stardom would have only burned bright for avid game show fans. Instead, new media propelled Jeopardy James into a full-blown cultural phenom. And although social media has surely already moved on to the next influencer, Jeopardy James will persist, sure to appear on Tournament of Champions shows and Internet memes for years to come.

In Jeopardy James we see how old and new media technologies work hand in hand to influence the ways in which celebrities are created, consumed and considered.

Andrea McDonnell
Andrea McDonnell

Associate Professor of Communication & Media Studies Andrea McDonnell is a media scholar and author whose work examines the production, content, and audience reception of media texts that are produced for and consumed by women. Her work emphasizes the intersection of media technologies, audiences, and everyday life. She holds a B.A. in American Culture from Vassar College and a Ph.D. in Communication Studies from the University of Michigan. McDonnell also holds a graduate certificate in Museum Studies and has worked in fine arts and children's museums throughout the northeast. Her first book, Reading Celebrity Gossip Magazines was published by Polity Press in 2014. Her new book, Celebrity: A History of Fame, coauthored with Susan Douglas (University of Michigan), was published by NYU Press in 2019.