I find this to be a tough one, as celebrities are often public figures, but public figures don't need to be celebrities. Anyone who works in a "public" kind of job, or has some name in public interest beyond the norm, could, I suppose, be a "public figure." I want to know if there's any clear, canonical, distinct meaning that can draw the line between a celebrity and a public figure. I ask because there are quite a few problems here that could be addressed between the two:

1."Celebrity" doesn't always mean super-famous. A handful of people in the entertainment industry may be considered "big stars" or synonymous with "celebrity," but the reality is that being a "celebrity" could be a far-reach from just being a small public figure, in which case most actors are. Unfortunately, almost all actors are "public figures" at best -- very, very few are "big stars" or household names to most; therefore, "celebrity" could be used in place of just "public figure."

2.In politics and sports, only the absolute best on the biggest leagues are considered quote-on-quote "celebrities." Most pro athletes without outstanding careers in big leagues are rarely called "celebrities" -- more so, they might just be "public figures" because they work in a public job that involves media, spectators, etc. Working in a public job, however, doesn't guarantee "celebrity."

3.There is also the subjective nature of "notoriety." According to Wikipedia, "notoriety" can be very easy to get -- however, there's a difference between being "Wiki notable" and actually being popular. I'd imagine that very few Wikipedia articles on living people are household names.

In short, being on Wikipedia doesn't mean being famous -- just being "somewhat notable."

Ultimately, what makes a clearer distinction between the words "public figure" and "celebrity" or "famous?" Many people use them all synonymously, but the reality is that they aren't all equal.

For example, I know a guy who states that he is a public figure because he "has a name" (he's an entrepreneur and inventor) -- however, he doesn't consider himself a "real celebrity" because he is rarely a household name and the massively majority of people would not know who he is -- but his presence in social media and work, website, and businesses all mean he has a public presence and job beyond the norm of publicity; this is what he considers "public figure" to mean.

  • There are legal issues connected that refer to levels of expected privacy and thresholds even about what sort of rights the press might have to publish your image doing something while you are in public etc.. So perhaps you'd want to google farther or ask at a legal adjunct of SE to get answers. I would say that any "celebrity" is a public figure for sure, but the head of your local school board is also a public figure if it came to the press reporting on activities that might reflect on his moral authority to protect children etc...even if he wasn't known or recognized by local people.
    – Tom22
    Commented Apr 8, 2017 at 3:05
  • Aside from the legal issues regarding the definition of "public figure", which are complicated and vary country by country, of course people will differ on what they deem as a "celebrity" or "famous" ... there will be general agreement that all "super-stars" are celebrities, but people might differ if someone famous within a context. The best surfers in the world who make millions endorsing products, appear in specialty magazines, sell their name and likeness, but aren't known by 97% of the population they meet many thresholds...certainly enough to call them a "celebrity surfer".
    – Tom22
    Commented Apr 8, 2017 at 3:24
  • Cornell Law School's site references this Nolo 'Plain English Law Dictionary" with this definition: nolo.com/dictionary/public-figure-term.html Public Figure: A person of great public interest or familiarity, such as a government official, politician, celebrity, business leader, movie star, or sports hero. Incorrect harmful statements published about a public figure cannot be the basis of a lawsuit for defamation unless there is proof that the writer or publisher intentionally defamed the person with malice (hate).
    – Tom22
    Commented Apr 8, 2017 at 3:35
  • @Tom22 - Why not write an answer? Commented Apr 9, 2017 at 4:23
  • When a public figure does something it is reported in the Washington Post. When a celebrity does something it is reported on Entertainment Tonight.
    – nnnnnn
    Commented Dec 23, 2019 at 8:55

2 Answers 2


Ultimately, what makes a clearer distinction between the words "public figure" and "celebrity" or "famous?" Many people use them all synonymously, but the reality is that they aren't all equal.

People do not use these synonymously.

No one says 'public figure' at all except as a legal term, especially for those extended fewer privacy protections. It essentially means 'someone who has put themselves out there' and is thus fair game for public attacks. The precise definition varies by jurisdiction, though.

Celebrity is now the agent noun of famous, much moreso than its original sense of someone who is celebrated. Its synonym, though, is the noun phrase famous person, not the adjective famous.

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    As a side point, notoriety is not a synonym for notability. People who are notorious are infamous, well known for their failings or misdeeds and not for their good works or positive attributes.
    – lly
    Commented Apr 8, 2017 at 6:21

All celebrities are public figures not all public figures are celebrities. Skye Patrick is a public figure she is the director of the Los Angeles County Library yet I'm sure she can move freely around the United States including Los Angeles and not be recognized. At this point in time her status has not reached that of a celebrity based on recognition and interest by the public. Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Robert Downey Jr., Kanye West are widely recognized and are celebrities and of course public figures as well.

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