What Explains the Supply of Fame?

Over a long dinner (and more than a few glasses of wine) with some economist friends, conversation turned to trying to understand why happiness is declining in Belgium. Helena Svaleryd offered an audacious new theory: the Belgians have not enjoyed the rise of celebrity culture that provides so much amusement for the rest of us. Concurring, Anna Sjögren argued that no one in Belgium is famous.

You may argue that this theory is questionable. But if everyone does this, it may be more profitable instead to attack the empirical premise. At least that is my usual approach.

But the premise is true: Belgium is suffering a severe shortage of famous people.

Between the five of us at dinner, we managed to come up with one-and-a-half famous Belgians: Hergé (the author of the Tintin books), and Tia Hellebaut, a leading women’s high jumper (whose surname couldn’t be recalled).

The website Famousbelgians.net boasts of 259 famous Belgians, but I have heard of very few of them. And 259 seems a rather paltry number for a population of 10 million, especially given that the list is dominated by historical figures. And to get to 259 Belgians, you have to include folks like Sabine Appelmans, who you may not have heard of unless you read down to #22 on the A.T.P. women’s tennis rankings in 1992.

Here’s a challenge: Name another famous Belgian. For the truly brave, see if you can name half a dozen of ’em. And for the social scientists: What explains the absence of famous Belgians?


Jacob

The Czech Republic is doing fairly well for itself. In hockey there's Jaromir Jagr, Dominic Hasek, etc. In soccer there's Tomas Rosicky, Pavel Nedved, Petr Cech, etc. Outside of sports there's Vaclav Havel. Also some tennis players. If you include history (Jan Hus, Dvorak, Kafka, Wenceslas) I think I could probably get to twenty famous Czechs before I was able to name a single Belgian.

Does Zorba count for Greece? How about The Greek?

Algonad

Waffles and beer. What else do they need?

JP

Other countries with about 10M people, include Greece, Portugal or Czech Republic. Now, try to name famous people from that countries as well.

AM

Legendary cyclist Eddy Merckx!

Lars Marius Garshol

Besides the already mentioned Herges, Simenon, and Leopold I, there is of course also Jacques Brel. Hugo Claus also became reasonably famous for his novel recently.

But in one sense, this "game" is unfair, since most Belgians who do become known do so either in the French-speaking world, or in the (rather smaller) Dutch-speaking one. I'm not sure the insularity of English-speakers (ok, and Swedish-speakers) is really indicative of anything very much.

Dave

Jean-Claude Van Damme of course!! The muscles from Brussels!

Lyta

Audrey Hepburn.

http://www.famousbelgians.net turned out to be an amusingly informative source.

Pieter

Famous cartoonist: Kamagurka.
He has been published in a New York paper or magazine in recent years.

jz

Justin Henin-- newly retired tennis pro.

frankenduf

a simple glance at the list provides the answer- who the heck can spell any of those names?- I vote for Poirot for the most famous- and what's with the Appelmans reference?- Kim Clijsters (sp?!) is way more famous

Shane

Jean-Claude Van Damme, the Muscles from Brussels

BW

Re Greece: Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Hippocrates, etc. etc. etc. Not doing too well on more recent entries. Arianna Huffington (nee Stassinopoulos) is about all that comes to mind. Oh, and George Michael (born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou). Not sure that this is sufficiently statistically significant, however, to validate the thesis re Belgium.

Mercutio.Mont

There aren't any famous people from Belgium because the population is too unhappy to do anything worthy of fame.

Marc LaFountain

Hercule Poirot! ;-P

MM

Tom Boonen contemporary (nearly legendary) cyclist.

Sam

Vincent kompany, soccer player. Czech has many famous models and athletes, so that comment was a bit ignorant.

woodchoper

@ JP Not a problem for the first two if you include long dead people.

Greece - Aristotle, Plato, Socrates etc The list is endless.

Portugal - Vasco da Gama, Bartolomeu Dias, Henry the Navigator.

I suspect that the problem is that Belgium is both small and less than 200 years old and so hasn't had time or space to build up any heroic capital.

If you include people who lived in what is now Belgium (but before the state was founded) there are more. For example the Flemish painters included names like Pieter Bruegel who is world famous.

Chuck

But certainly there are locally famous Belgians, no? Politicians, royalty, stars of Belgian television shows and such, whose celebrity Belgians can be amused by.

MS

This is silly and a little egocentric.

Can you name 10 famous people from Indonesia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Thailand, Sudan, Algeria, Uganda, Uzbekistan, Malaysia, Taiwan or Ghana? Try even China.

The list is much longer. And all of this countries have at least 20 million people.

There is a limit on fame: not everybody can be famous, there is just so many names our names can store. Say we can readily remember 2,000 names. Among 200 countries, that would mean about 10 per country. And we can not even name the 200 countries. There should be then many unhappy countries according to the fame-happiness link.

Sean M.

Famous Belgians now excel in things most of us Americans care little about. Women's tennis and cycling are not on the radar when we think about famous people. Belgians need to shift their focus to terrible reality T.V., sex tapes, and government scandals. Then we will care and make them famous.