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What’s wrong with celebrities?

The closest I’ve come to having a celebrity as a friend was when Bad Science überblogger Ben Goldacre linked his site to this one.  Apart from that, and if you don’t count my hitting an unnoticed Tim Henman with my bag in a lift in the Birmingham Hyatt, my life has been entirely unencumbered by celebrities.

This doesn’t of course mean that I am unaffected by them.  And there are so many.  It used to be that people who had expended their soupçon of fame enjoyed a swift return to obscurity, with their otherwise harsh real world landing softened only by an appearance on Through the keyhole; but now they swirl around the plughole for years.  To be handed a free paper on the London Underground these days is to be assailed by forty pages of celebrity tittle-tattle.  Mindless though these pseudo-events may be, our exposure to celebrity culture, and these people’s ‘amazing’ lives, litanies of achievements and gym-honed bodies cannot help but inform our opinions of ourselves.

Marina Hyde, author of the Guardian’s Lost in Showbiz column, makes a jaunty attack on celebrity folly in her book Celebrity: how entertainers took over the world and why we need an exit strategy. Entertainers, she holds, have increased their remit beyond simply entertaining us and in the process have become global brands with the freedom to proselytize on areas on which they have no qualification to act.  Jude Law travelled to Afghanistan to negotiate with the Taliban, Sharon Stone sharing a platform with Shimon Peres to promote Palestine-Israeli peace.  Angela Jolie sits on the Council for Foreign Relations.

This is all very noble you might think, but to Hyde for a celebrity to become involved in a subject is to bowdlerize it.  Loathe to alienate their audience they choose conservative causes and their lifestyles undermine their position.  For instance environmentalist Leonardo diCaprio continues to fly in private jets and U2’s Bono preaches more generous state aid for African countries whilst simultaneously avoiding paying towards the Irish exchequer.  Now instead of a cause generating its own grassroots hero – a new Desmond Tutu perhaps – causes are obliged to recruit an already famous face.  But despite an explosion in celebrity advocacy, charity giving overall remains static; the only way for celebrities to really make a difference would be to donate some of their own cash.

Goodwill aside, the famous also espouse dubious religions and unschooled views on science.  Tom Cruise and Madonna manage to combine both of these with their respective views on psychiatry and Kaballah water banishing verrucas.  They pick bundles of pretty babies from abroad for adoption forming ‘perfect families’ but keep stum about the armies of nannies they also recruit for proxy parenting.  Short of addressing the problems of orphans in the developing world, the ‘Madonna effect’ has ensured that parents there are now giving up their children in the hope that they will find a ‘better life’ in the West.

British readers of her column may be disappointed by Hyde’s bile restricting itself to a limited number of internationally known, mostly Hollywood, stars.  This was no doubt done with international sales in mind but one can’t help feeling disenfranchised.  Her prose, which is so refreshing in bite sized chunks can also be wearing when in for a long haul.  The book is an enjoyable read, but light on any sort of social theory and its moments of true insight are rare.  It would have been interesting to hear of Hyde’s views on the effects of celebrity saturation on the population at large; the Hello!  effect doesn’t get a mention for instance.  Instead ‘Celebrity’ satisfies itself by listing and mocking celebrity pretensions rather than holding true to its initial promise of a toolkit for the fightback*

*But see Columbian economist Xavier Sala-i-Martin’s Wall Street Journal article Sharon Stone’s basic instinct and also Daniel Boorstin

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  1. I’m no journalist, psychologist, sociologist or expert of any sort on the subject but this is my take on it. I think a lot of these ‘celebrities’ have genuinely good intentions at heart but there’s clearly something that being ‘famous’ does to you. If you’re somebody like Sharon Stone or Tom Cruise, you’re bound to have a completely messed up sense of self-worth. People throw themselves at these people.

    Advertisers send them free stuff, kiss their asses, and offer them millions of pounds, fans prostrate themselves at their feet, a far greater than normal proportion of the opposite sex are available to them, whatever they want is CONSTANTLY available to them in fact. They are treated like deities, because Pepsi knows if it treats Britney Spears like royalty and she agrees to be in their commercial she will make them a huge amount of money because all of her die-hard fans will suddenly prefer Pepsi to coca-cola.

    Everything about these people is marketed as much as possible. Sadly for Britney Spears, even her sexuality was up for grabs. The people who wanted to make money out of her carefully constructed a public persona for her, which included being both a completely unavailable, good Christian girl, and at the same time a very sexually available young woman who posed on the cover of Rolling Stone in her underwear. No wonder the poor woman got to a point in her life and wanted to rebel. And yet she was publicly eviscerated by the media. Her every move was picked apart in the media, because it sold papers and copies of Heat! magazine.

    It is ridiculous what some of them come out with. Honestly, it reminds me of the depiction of the Film Actors Guild (F.A.G) in “Team America: World Police”, one of whom says something along the lines of “we need to use our acting powers to repeat what we saw on TV as if we thought of it”. Too true. But at the end of the day the media and the public who consume the mass media celebrity cultures are the ones that put them in that privileged position in the first place.