Zsa Zsa Gabor was the original Kim Kardashian

There is nothing new about being famous for being famous

Modern life would hardly be worth living without the Kardashians to kick around. Their stubborn ability to occupy media space without really doing anything is annoying enough. More irritating still is the repeated insistence that photographing your own boobs in the ladies’ room is an act of “empowerment”.

What would we do with ourselves if we weren’t able to brag about not being able to tell Kendall from Kourtney? That would be Katastrophic. It would be Kriminal. It would be. . . Erm, help me out here.

This never happened in the olden days. Before the arrival of the purposeless celebrity, women became famous for writing To The Lighthouse or discovering polonium.

How many pioneering modernist novels has Katie Price written? Which elements has Paris Hilton isolated? Ask the second wife of Hilton's great-grandfather. I'm sure the recently deceased Zsa Zsa Gabor was equally appalled at the advance of fame that thrives in a vacuum.

That familial connection between Gabor and the star of The Simple Life reminds us that the notion of being famous for being famous is not a phenomenon of the new century. Indeed, Zsa Zsa (whose additions to the gaiety of nations cannot be questioned) came to define that art in the middle part of the last century.

A former Miss Hungary, she first married a Turkish diplomat and, after moving to the US, became entwined with Conrad Hilton, founder of the eponymous hotel chain. But it was her subsequent marriage to George Sanders, the most urbane actor ever to have brandished a cigarette holder, that really nudged her into the limelight.

To be fair, Gabor, unlike Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian, had an acting career before she achieved full-strength renown. Contemporaneous notices do, however, express bewilderment as to how she secured roles in such unappealing projects as The Girl in Kremlin and Queen of Outer Space. She was one of those rare actors that can't pull off a convincing performance in even a still image.

In later years, being famous for being famous became the family business. Zsa Zsa was married nine times. She was terrific value on chat shows. She obliged the press by allowing successive civil and criminal cases to eat up her time.

Meanwhile, her sisters Eva and Magda were taking up the socialite slack elsewhere. They had 20 marriages and 19 husbands between them. That equation was imbalanced when Sanders married Magda in 1970. How’s that for colour? Those Kardashian girls are mere amateurs by comparison.

Wealthy young layabouts have been playing this game for centuries. The question “What is that you do exactly?” has been asked to celebrities since they wore the flashiest model of toga.

One can hardly imagine a better example than the regency rake Beau Brummell. Born in 1778, the former soldier became an enormous celebrity at the turn of the 19th century by wearing his tie in a certain way and risking unusual styles of headwear. Brummell boasted about the fact that it took him five hours to get dressed and recommended washing your boots with champagne.

Simply being friends with the notoriously useless Prince Regent was enough to gain him entry into society. It is from Brummell and his followers that we derive the concept of "the dandy". Nicole Richie and Katie Price seem, by comparison, like fountains of industry.

Your average dandy spent the evening wearing tight trousers and taking occasional whiffs of snuff while waiting for posh ladies to fall helpless at his feet. Apart from occasionally shooting each other or writing the odd line of verse, no dandy is known to have actually done anything worth recording. At least Paris Hilton leaves a sex tape and the horror film, House of Wax, to posterity.

Prod a historical era and you will find such a person. Madame de Pompadour was best known for allowing Louis XV to fall drunkenly asleep on her famous bosom. Yet her name comes more readily to our lips than contemporary French geniuses such as Antoine Lavoisier or Joseph-Louis Lagrange. “What exactly do you do, Mr Rasputin,” an attendant at the Romanoff court might have asked that notorious layabout.

There is nothing new about being famous for being famous. When Andy Warhol suggested that, in the future, everybody would be famous for 15 minutes he was spinning hyperbole about his own times and ours. We have always enjoyed following the lives of people more gifted than ourselves.

What more covetous gift could there be than the capacity to manufacture fame out of breath and dust? What greater pleasure do we have than to feel superior to rich people we think unworthy of their wealth?

We salute you Zsa Zsa, Eva and Beau and all those who are famous for being famous for being famous for. . .