Someone recently asked me why I’ve never explored the roots of famous people in this column. I’ve happily offered case histories of people who were not household names (sometimes not even within their own families). Why not public figures or celebrities? I was unexcited by the idea, so I decided to do a tour of celebrity genealogy coverage to figure out why.
By and large, major mainstream media ignore genealogy, except for occasional human-interest stories or when a new Canadian prime minister or American president is elected. (In recent years, the mainstream media in both countries have been obsessed with reporting the Irish ancestry of political leaders ... but more on that later!)
Credible celebrity genealogy websites like Geneastar.org and FamousKin.com exist, but they are not well-known, even within the genealogy community. Much higher in profile are FamilySearch Family Tree, World Family Tree on Geni.com, and similar websites that seek to combine everyone’s family trees into a single tree of all humanity.
Notwithstanding their ideal of including everyone, these sites love celebrities. FamilySearch entices its visitors with the line “What do Tom Hanks, Abraham Lincoln, and Elvis Presley have in common? Besides being famous, they are also all related — and you may be related to them too!”
The unexpected lesson here is that the principal attraction of celebrity genealogy is not the celebrities themselves but John & Jane Q. Public’s undiscovered connections to them. As one observer commented to American journalist A.J. Jacobs, “It’s like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, but everyone is Kevin Bacon.”
Search hard enough, and you’re related, albeit very distantly, to royalty and to just about every celebrity you can think of.
Still, this insight doesn’t explain the abiding popularity of the best-known category of celebrity genealogy media, the episodic TV documentary series. Most familiar is the Who Do You Think You Are? franchise with close to twenty versions in countries around the globe, most familiarly in the United Kingdom and the United States. Each episode depicts a celebrity on an emotional journey of discovery about his or her family history.
Seasoned genealogists have a love-hate relationship with Who Do You Think You Are? On one hand, they feel validated by the near-global popularity of a program about ancestry, and they accept that the charisma of celebrity attracts the interest of viewers who would otherwise never bother with family history.
In practice, though, narratives are warped by the demands of the TV medium. Hours of painstaking research are routinely collapsed into a few mouse clicks. For many genealogists, their research is limited to web searches or perhaps visits to local or regional archives. But when Friends actress Lisa Kudrow needs information, she simply jets off to Poland to get it, camera crew in tow. And supermodel and actress Brooke Shields has an emotional epiphany that her love of France must come from newly discovered French ancestors — no matter that they contributed virtually nothing to her DNA or to her life experience.
It raises the question: If so much celebrity genealogy is just fluff, is there any value to it for serious genealogists? For some there’s the “fun facts” aspect: Did you know that Canadian pop star Justin Bieber can trace his ancestry back to seventeenth-century immigrants to New France?
Others are attracted to rip-roaring case histories, such as the outstanding work on the ancestry of former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama by genealogist Megan Smolenyak, which was extended and popularized by journalist Rachel L. Swarns.
If I’m ever so lucky as to stumble across such an amazing story and have the luxury of spending months on the investigation, you can be sure that the readers of Canada’s History will be the first to know.
In the meantime, let me announce it here, loud and clear: Current and recent Canadian prime ministers Justin Trudeau, Stephen Harper, and Paul Martin all have Irish ancestry; so too do presidents Joe Biden, Donald Trump, and Barack Obama (not to mention Michelle Obama). Stay tuned for further celebrity genealogy breaking news!
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