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- A commercial example: back in the 1970s, Alberto VO 5 hair products had a series of ads starring "international superstar" Rula Lenska. While she was recognizable as an actress in the UK, in North America she was famous chiefly as "that woman on the shampoo commercials nobody's ever heard of."
- This came up in an episode of Designing Women, when Pop-Culture junkie Charlene admits feeling pangs of guilt because the commercials made it seem like she should know who Lenska was, but she simply didn't.
- A 1980s Archie Comics story guest-starred, and featured on the cover, one Glen Scarpelli as a Teen Idol that the characters just couldn't stop gushing about. In fact, while Scarpelli wasn't completely obscure—he had a recurring role as Alex Handris on One Day at a Time (1975)—he wasn't known for his music. However, his father, Henry Scarpelli, had been an Archie Comics artist for decades, so draw your own conclusion.
- Wonder Woman is an example of a fictional character suffering this. DC Comics likes to bill her as part of their Big Three, alongside Batman and Superman. The reality is is that the latter two are far more well known than she is, and her own books are regularly outsold by DC's other big name superheroes. Her live-action TV show is the only adaptation of her that became ingrained in the public concious, with most other planned adaptations of her never getting off the ground. Any attempts at giving her a consistent personality, a long-term supporting cast and even an interesting rogues gallery have often failed to stick, with even the man who's supposed to be her main love interest Steve Trevor getting regularly ignored because most writers have no idea what to do with him. Ask the average person about Batman and Superman, and chances are they'll be able to tell you their abilities, their sidekicks and the names of some of their villains. Ask the average person about Wonder Woman and they'll likely tell you that she's the biggest female superhero, maybe the fact that she has a lasso and an invisible jet—and little more besides that.
- A weird example in that Supergirl has never been a terribly prominent part of the Superman mythos. However, she is instantly one of the most recognizable superheroines in the world to both children and adults. Critics have said that may simply be because common-sense says a female teenager in Superman's costume is Supergirl but it is still true. Despite this, there have been literal decades where Supergirl has had little-to-no-major role in comics. Likewise, she rarely plays a major role in Superman's stories. This is changing in recent years with the Post-Crisis New Krypton storyline and incorporating her into the New 52 Superman stories from the beginning. So in a way, that would make her the opposite of Wonder Woman as she appeared very little but is well-known while WW appeared from the 1940s but isn't very widely read.
- While six of the traditional Justice League of America "founders" are iconic characters that have been adapted (albeit with vastly variable results) as the title stars in plenty of other media and generally have good sales for their solo comics, the seventh (either the Martian Manhunter or Cyborg, depending on what version of the league it is) has not had nearly as much success even within comics.
- Mallard Fillmore did a week-long series of strips promoting the drafting of conservative economist Walter E. Williams as the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. In the strips, the groundswell of popular support for Williams' drafting is depicted as being so huge that it causes then-Chairman of the DNC Howard Dean to throw a tantrum out of fear and frustration. In reality, Williams was little-known other than by hardcore listeners of the Rush Limbaugh Show where he sometimes guest-hosted when Limbaugh was on vacation.
Live Action TV
- Probably the best example of this occurred when the short-lived late 70s sitcom Hello Larry made a desperate attempt to garner higher ratings by getting Joey "Not John" Travolta to guest-star on the show as himself. Although efforts were made during the episode to convince viewers he was every bit as hot and famous as his older brother, even then people knew he was a lesser-known sibling trying to ride on his coattails.
- During the 1970s, there were several variety specials aired starring an unknown singer named Dora Hall. Hall was the 70-something wife of Solo Cup Company CEO Leo Hulseman who used his fortune to bankroll her recording career and produce her TV specials even though she hadn't performed publicly since the 1920s. Hulseman even lined up some recognizable-at-the-time guest stars for Hall's shows even though they were as much in the dark about who she was and why she was being presented as such a big deal as the TV viewers.
- The Muppet Show had this to an extent in the first season, when no-one knew how big it was going to be, and the special guests were mostly doing Lew Grade a favour. So there were several British celebs that American audiences had never heard of, but Kermit would still try and convince everyone that Bruce Forsyth was an international megastar. (It should be noted that there were also a number of American celebs that British audiences had never heard of - someone like George Burns was no problem, but Phyllis George?)
- Not so much in the show itself, but NBC's advertising for The Master (aka Master Ninja) hyped co-star Timothy van Patten as "the supreme heartthrob." As our own page notes, "Timothy van Patten was never a supreme heartthrob, even in 1984."
- On reruns of What's My Line?, the mystery celebrities are often long-forgotten teen heartthrobs or Broadway stars. (Oh my gosh, it's...Van Johnson?) This was particularly prevalent by the early 1970s, after Line had been a five-a-week show for several years ... and producer Gil Fates was left to scour the streets, cast lists of those Broadway shows (for co-stars) and local New York-New Jersey personalities. Fates was guest one time, and the joke was "Very big mystery, very little guest."
- Parodied on one The Weakest Link special, which specifically used B list celebrities (or "People who are famous for one reason or another." as Anne Robinson put it).
- Also parodied on Mystery Science Theater 3000 with "TV's Frank". "TV's Frank" is not famous for anything even though his name would suggest he's a well-known television star. The creators just thought the convention of adding "TV's" or "Hollywood's" to an actor's name is funny.
- Parodied by Extras in its Christmas special. Andy Millman appears on Celebrity Big Brother and rants about the producers' definition of "celebrity", claiming they could be sued under the Trades Descriptions Act.
- It's been joked several times that ABC plays fast and loose with the definition of the term "star" for Dancing with the Stars. Alongside the high-profile actors and world-class athletes, are quite a few people who are only known to a niche audience at best and completely unknown to the mainstream at worst. Many other celebrity-based reality shows have the same problem, as finding a dozen or so people who have both the interest and the time available is rather tricky from a scheduling standpoint, so they have to cast the net wide to fill out their roster. Perhaps the most blatant example of this was when Bristol Palin was cast as a "star" on the show. For those not in the know, she's the daughter of Sarah Palin, who was running for vice president in the 2008 US election, and Bristol's only claim to fame is...becoming a teen mother while her mother was campaigning (and while Bristol was promoting teen abstinence.)
- Happens in retrospect on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The show had Bell Biv DeVoe, Tevin Campbell and Al B Sure as guest stars. Both Tevin Campbell and Al B. Sure were big at the time the show aired (early 1990s) but ended up being one hit wonders. While Bell Biv Devoe isn't technically a one hit wonder, these days they are mostly known for their Signature Song "Poison" and little else.
- Invoked in the Clone High episode "Plane Expectations", which features "special guest star" Ashley Angel from O-Town, who is almost invariably referred to in exactly those words. O-Town was a relatively obscure boy band even at the time, and is now nearly unremembered. All of the characters act as if he were a huge celebrity except for JFK, who mistakes his group for a laundry list of other (mostly more-popular) flash-in-the-pan boy bands before, after a beat, exclaiming (apparently sincerely), "Oh! Ashley Angel from O-Town!" as though he were the foolish one for not recognizing the name immediately.