In many ways, the Kentucky Derby is a big party. And one thing that defines a great party is who comes.
"If you're the kid who can get Justin Bieber to come sing at your Sweet 16 party, you're going to be at the top of the heap," says Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.
That's a big reason why the Derby and related events such as Friday night's Derby Eve parties in Louisville try to get as many celebrities as possible to attend.
This year's Derby boasts a number of inarguable entertainment stars, including country princess Miranda Lambert, who has said this will be her bachelorette weekend before she ties the knot next week with Blake Shelton, who also is expected to be in attendance; Grey's Anatomy/Private Practice star Kate Walsh; and from the world of sports, reigning Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers.
But in recent years, the rap on the list of celebrities attending the Derby has been that it's a group of D-listers who pale in comparison to the film and music royalty who used to turn out for the race and its related events.
Haters hark back to A-List visitors Jack Nicholson and Sylvester Stallone, who would sit in Churchill Downs' Skye Terrace trying to pick a winner with the same skill as most of the people crowded around the paddock. The naysayers contend that recent years' rosters of reality TV stars and models can't possibly measure up to those big names.
Are they missing the point?
Go to the supermarket and scan the covers of the tabloids, and you'll see some of the same people who have graced the red carpets at recent Derbys, including Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, and Hugh Hefner and his Girls Next Door. When football and VH1 star Terrell Owens drove up to the red carpet at last year's Derby, you might have thought Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie had just arrived, judging from the cheer that went up from the crowd. It was cheering the Owens of The T.O. Show, which was filming his Derby visit, as much as his bad-boy image in the NFL.
So, has the definition of celebrity changed?
"It's not that it's changed, but there are more openings," Thompson says. Most of those past Derbys took place in an era of three to six TV channels in most living rooms, a handful of movie theater screens in each town and a much more narrowly defined pop-music hit parade.
Now, with a much larger pop-culture landscape, including hundreds of cable and satellite stations, reality shows giving a wider variety of people a shot at their 15 minutes of fame, and the growing influence of the Internet, a lot more people can be credibly defined as "celebrities." And rosters of Derby guests in the past few years have boasted many of those stars, including the late Anna Nicole Smith, one of the first stars, but definitely not the last, to arrive at the Derby with her reality show in tow.
Access Hollywood executive producer Rob Silverstein says that the definition of celebrity definitely has changed and that sometimes reality stars such as the hard-partying Jersey Shore crew, which has not been to the Derby yet, attract media attention for a big reason.
"They're more accessible and more fun," Silverstein says. "True celebrities like established movie stars are a lot more guarded. But a star from an MTV reality show can be a lot more unpredictable and willing to play along."
That makes for better TV and print copy.
In a way, he says, the reality stars help make life easier for movie stars because they satisfy the public's and the media's appetite for celebrity.
"Harrison Ford can concentrate on making movies because he doesn't have to cater to the press," Silverstein says.
That, he says, is why supermarket magazines these days are often dominated by people from Teen Mom and Jersey Shore.
But is the reality-TV A list comparable to the movie A list, or are we grading on a curve?
"I would never put a reality TV star above a movie star," Silverstein says.
The Derby is not a destination for marquee movie stars, Thompson says, but that doesn't mean it can't be or that it adversely affects the image of the Run for the Roses.
"I see the Derby as a pageant of style and refinement, a place where, if I was there, I'm afraid I might do something wrong or say something inappropriate," says Thompson, who clearly has never been to the infield.
And that image is why Access Hollywood, which will have Derby coverage on Friday's and Monday's shows at 7:30 p.m. on WLEX (Channel 18), and other celebrity chroniclers come to the Derby.
"We just got back from the royal wedding, and I think of the Derby in the same sort of way, as a pageant of style and fashion," Silverstein says. "That's what we come for. I'm not expecting to see 20 to 30 major celebrities."
But he does think of the first Saturday in May in the same way he thinks of royal weddings, which has to be a good thing. And for all that D-list slagging, the Derby did have Queen Elizabeth II in attendance four years ago.
Of course, she might not have been as fun as Snooki.
Reach Rich Copley at (859) 231-3217 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3217.