The fame paradox Pay attention to me, on my terms
Posted: Friday, May 29, 2009 8:01 pm
By TED ANTHONY
AP National Writer
Look at me. Look at my life, my body, my antics, my kids, my home. It’s OK — come on in. It’s a fair deal: I’m getting famous, you’re getting entertained. Everybody’s happy. What’s the problem?
But ... whoa. Wait. Stop. I didn’t sign on for THIS. Why are you looking at me? How dare you look at me! Go away! Can’t you leave me and my family in peace? At least until next season?
A monthlong eruption of celebrity anger over unwanted attention — everyone from Miss California USA Carrie Prejean to Brooke Shields to the stars of the reality show “Jon & Kate Plus 8” — suggests a new, oddly paradoxical dimension to the way we look at famous people.
In short, Americans who traffic in the commodity that is their lives — Hollywood actors and reality-TV stars alike — aren’t at all happy when their carefully calibrated reality bursts out of the cages they have built to contain it.
“It destroys people’s lives,” Kate Gosselin of “Jon & Kate” said at a recent appearance — a publicity appearance — in Michigan.
Celebrities upset with intrusive coverage are nothing new — Greta Garbo wanted to be left alone as early as the 1930s. And, more recently, stars from Kanye West to Keith Urban to Sarah Jessica Parker have expressed dismay at the media frenzy surrounding their activities and families.
But there’s something different afoot today, something cloudier.
Where George Clooney could say a decade ago that his public performances were separate from his personal life, the lines between public and private have blurred. We are awash in an era of oversharing, an age where millions of regular people broadcast prosaic status updates to the world on Twitter and Huggies sponsors “The Potty Project” featuring real families toilet-training their toddlers.
Today, hundreds of everyday Americans bare their workaday existences to millions of their fellow citizens on reality shows, molding themselves into twinkling, if shooting, stars. On the other end of the spectrum, performers like Tori Spelling, Denise Richards and Jessica Simpson shoehorn their carefully edited personal lives into marketable narratives in a calculated bid to keep the buzz going.
We love it. And they love it. Until the “reality” goes off script and the prying eyes that made them wildly successful suddenly start making them angry. Then you get:
• Prejean, who competed in the Miss USA pageant in a bikini, condemning the people who circulated topless photos of her after she answered celebrity blogger Perez Hilton’s question about marriage by saying it should be between a man and a woman. Prejean said Hilton’s question had a “hidden personal agenda” and that she was “punished” for exercising her freedom of speech. Said Prejean: “This should not happen in America.”
• Shields calling it “inexplicable” that a media storm could erupt over her connection to the New York arrest of Kiefer Sutherland this month. “It is frightening and shocking the access people have to everybody else,” she said last week. In 2005, Shields appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to discuss deeply personal aspects of her life, including her suicidal thoughts and postpartum depression.
• A new documentary about 1970s uber-celebrity Farrah Fawcett, dying of cancer, that includes footage of her discussing the supermarket tabloid that she says robbed her of her privacy — the privacy that she herself is surrendering by starring in a highly publicized documentary about the same topic.
Not to say that anyone is wrong here. It’s all just gotten a lot more complicated in recent years as personal and public lives merge — something that might be expected in a nation where the notion of privacy as a legal right is only about as old as the movie industry.
“You put yourself out there like this, these things are going to happen,” says Lou Manza, who heads the psychology department at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa.
“If you’re going to let the cameras into your life, you shouldn’t be surprised at what the cameras show,” he says. “‘I want you to film me’ — OK, well do that, and you’ll get famous, but that’s a double-edged sword. People are going to know all your dirty laundry.”
That conundrum seems particularly distilled in the odd case of Jon and Kate Gosselin, stars of the TLC Series “Jon & Kate Plus 8,” which documents the ins and outs of the southeastern Pennsylvania couple’s family life. Faced with recent magazine reports of infidelity on both sides, the two have lashed out at the media attention to the personal lives they chose to expose, publicly and lucratively, to the world.
“This is certainly not what I envisioned I was signing up for,” Kate Gosselin said during the Michigan appearance. “When I see magazines in stores, it’s really difficult. It amazes me there is an industry that follows you around and writes stories about you.”
In 1961, historian and future Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin wrote about the growing celebrity culture and the “pseudo-event,” a happening that is orchestrated for the express purpose of being watched and reported on. Boorstin defined celebrity as “a person who is well known for his well-knownness.”
But when Boorstin wrote that, he couldn’t have imagined, in his most outlandish speculation, “The Real Housewives of Orange County” or “Who Wants to Marry My Dad?” — part of an industry that farms, then harvests the tapestry of American daily life into drama-infused show business fodder.
In other words: These days, a lot more of our fellow Americans are suddenly, willingly vaulted into fame — or its Bizarro-universe counterpart, notoriety — without the slightest bit of preparation.
“One of the things about reality and the celebrity narrative is that there are always stakes. Because it’s real,” says Neal Gabler, author of “Life: The Movie — How Entertainment Conquered Reality.”
“A celebrity ceases to be a celebrity when the narrative runs out,” he says. “But the narrative requires other people to amplify it. That’s what the media do. So for someone like Miss California to act as if they have no business doing this, this IS their business.”
So forget about life imitating art or vice versa. As Gabler puts it in his book, “Life has become art, so that the two are now indistinguishable from each other.”
And in an environment like that, is it any wonder that there’s confusion from the amateurs suddenly thrust into the celebrity-industrial complex in ways they never imagined? And that the “Jon & Kate” Web site is brimming with “behind-the-scenes” stories about how they struggle to deal with fame?
“It’s hard being on this side of the camera,” Jon Gosselin says in one Webisode. “People see your life as episodes ... I mean, we don’t have privacy at all. If I go out, people know I go out, and photograph it and do everything they gotta do to do something about it.”
Adds Kate Gosselin: “Ready for Season 5 — we think.”
Editor’s note — Ted Anthony covers American culture for The Associated Press.
Published in The Messenger 5.29.09
Brooke Shields, Jon & Kate Plus 8, Kanye West, Keith Urban, Miss California USA Carrie Prejean, Sarah Jessica Parker