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Dysfunctional Celebrities

 

In its stage of ripeness, the entertainment culture (Civilization IV) focuses upon dysfunctional celebrities.

Originally, celebrities became famous because of some accomplishment. In the 1920s, Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean, risking his life to achieve something which had never been done before. His celebrity status was enhanced by the fact that he was young and handsome and was an American. Likewise, Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in the 1927 season, breaking the record in Major League baseball. Ruth was a power hitter whose feats drew large crowds to Yankee Stadium. When he was paid more than President Hoover, Ruth commented, to understanding crowds, that this was because he had “a better year” than Hoover.

So we see that the entertainment culture picked certain persons out of obscurity because of an outstanding performance. The best players on professional baseball teams became famous. So did the stars in motion pictures. Someone like Mary Pickford was intimately known to millions of people through her images on the silver screen. Popular singing stars became famous when their records sold millions of copies and huge crowds assembled for their concerts. Anyone who starred in a network television show would be known to many people. They became celebrities.

At some point, however, celebrity status diverged from the fact of real accomplishment. It started perhaps when a person was given a stage for conspicuous public performance by an administrative decision rather than the person’s own efforts. Take the astronauts. The U.S. space agency selected these individuals from a group of test pilots after evaluating each by a battery of psychological tests and other unknown selection criteria. The chosen few entered the spotlight of publicity when they piloted a rocket into outer space. In contrast, Lindbergh had to arrange for the manufacture of his own airplane and had to pilot the plane across the Atlantic himself.

Even so, U.S. culture had for many years a stable of celebrities associated with professional sports, popular music, motion pictures, and political office. The public would see these individuals on the late-night talk shows. Newspaper and magazine articles would be written about them. Although political or entertainment bureaucracies had selected them for this role, the celebrities were famous because they performed successfully in a certain role that was presented by the news and entertainment media.

Into this world crept dysfunctionality. It may have started with the gossip columns. A Hollywood star who was having problems in his or her personal life was more interesting to the public than a star who lived an exemplary but boring life. Marilyn Monroe, an accomplished and beautiful actress in several Hollywood films, became an entertainment superstar because of the hint of scandal in her life. She had once posed nude for a calendar. She might have had an affair with Robert Kennedy and perhaps even with his brother, the President. Her tragic death, presumably by an overdose of sleeping pills, sealed her immense celebrity.

Now, however, we have celebrities who attract public attention without substantive accomplishments. They may have started on the path of accomplishment but did not reach a level of achievement that would have been required in an earlier time. Instead, something about their “looks” or personal story intrigued the public and made them a superstar. Increasingly, these persons are female. Publications such as “People’s Magazine’ and, of course, the tabloids found at the checkout counter of supermarkets have made them famous. Something about them put them on the path to stardom.

An example is Anna Kornikova. Her stardom began with her career as a professional tennis player. Yet, Kornikova never won any major tournaments. She had undeniable good looks combined with a romantic relationship with a well-known professional hockey player. Celebrity romances are major features of today’s celebrity culture. Two entertainment figures who date or marry each other capture the headlines. The same happens when they separate or divorce. The public is interested in such things.

Paris Hilton would be another example. She and Nicole Ritchie, daughter of the popular singer Lionel Ritchie, were put on the path to celebrity as cast members of a television-network show. Hilton became a superstar when videotapes of her having exotic and raucous sex circulated on the internet. She went with the flow of her notoriety, appearing at Hollywood parties, talk shows, and comedy routines such as Saturday Night Live. Hardly an issue of a gossip or tabloid newspaper goes by without including some juicy item about Paris Hilton, the good-looking rich girl gone wild.

This is where the U.S. entertainment culture is today. The focus of popular attention remains upon celebrities. However, the new celebrities are individuals who exhibit some degree of personal dysfunctionality because that is what people want to see. They want to laugh at their celebrities, not see persons of sterling character. Being able to look down on famous persons - on President Bill Clinton caught in an illicit affair with a White House intern - makes the celebrity seem more “human” and it gives the viewing public a good feeling about themselves. Driving it all is today’s news media which contains ever less “hard news” and more celebrity gossip.

The other day Anna Nicole Smith died. She was a perfect example of the new celebrity culture. The newspapers had been full of stories about who was the father of her latest baby. Then her adult son died. Then, she herself suddenly died at the age of 39. The following article speculates about the basis of her fame.

We also have a newspaper column on the celebrity culture written by Garrison Keillor, himself a celebrity of sorts. Keillor, however, is a celebrity of the old school; he has talent. More than that, Keillor’s celebrity is based on his writing skills - his ability both to perceive contemporary life and to find the words to describe this and make it humorous to radio audiences.

His fame, however, really belongs not to the entertainment culture but to the previous culture - Civilization III - which idolizes great artists and writers. Keillor is our Mark Twain, someone who makes us laugh through his skilled choice of words. But he also performs on his weekly comedy show, “The Prairie Home Companion”, now also a Hollywood film. So as a writer of comedy and a performer on live radio, Keillor straddles two cultures. His prodigious talent, rather than good looks, has made him famous. A perceptive observer of the contemporary cultural and political scene, he offered useful opinions in a column, “The Old Scout”, which appeared in the Star Tribune newspaper.

Finally, on a personal note, I would point out that my own mother, Joan Durham (McGaughey), made a contribution to this culture. She was one of the first persons in this world, if not the first, to write a newspaper story about television. In 1939, as a reporter for the Associated Press in New York City, she was invited to a public demonstration at Rockefeller Center of NBC’s new communication device, television. My mother wrote a column about how persons should behave in a television studio audience. Her editors thought this a bit “far out” but approved its publication. The New York Times then picked up the story. This may have been my mother’s last article about television, but many, many others followed.

The newspaper story on Anna Nicole Smith’s death and Garrison Keillor’s column on contemporary fame follow.

1

What so fascinates people about Anna Nicole Smith?

Her oversized struggles turned her into a perfect pop culture icon.

“It was hard to watch Anna Nicole Smith. And, of course, harder not to.

Scant hours after news emerged of her death Thursday at age 39, many people were hard-pressed to describe what exactly Anna Nicole Smith was. Actress? Model? Reality star? Rich widow?

‘I don’t know exactly what she did,’ said talk show host Joy Behar. And yet, she came up with two things: Dysfunction.

And beauty.

‘No question, she was beautiful,’ said Behar, of ABC’s ‘The View’.

‘We know people like to watch dysfunction. But beauty gives you something extra to look at. Dysfunction and beauty: Now that’s something to watch.’

How was she dysfunctional. Really, how wasn’t she?

Her life seemed to veer from one oversized struggle to another. She struggled famously with her weight and with her family. She sometimes even struggled to speak without slurring. She had a TV show that could be so embarrassing you’d want to watch it with dark sunglasses on. Much more tragically, she lost her 20-year-old son. Five months ago she had a baby daughter and two men claim to be the father.

In other words, she was a perfect pop culture icon.

Jerry Herron, a professor of American culture at Wayne State University, said, ‘Anna Nicole was, in both her actions and her physical being, such an over-exaggerated version of what we both lust for and loathe in our society. Bomb-shell blonde? Family feuds? Lots and lots of money? Weight troubles? Obscene self-revelations on TV? She’s had it all.’

The compelling mix of beauty and vulnerability is just one quality that has led to comparisons with Marilyn Monroe, another sexy, tragic blonde who Smith liked to compare herself to. The comparison is tempting, but the difference is monumental.

‘Marilyn Monroe was an artist, a real performer, able to evoke in audiences a real empathy and a passion,’ said Richard Walter, a film professor at UCLA. ‘There is NO comparison.’ And yet he sees one strong point in common: the simple beginnings, the climb from total obscurity to fame.

‘She came from humble origins and achieved celebrity and wealth, one way or another,’ Walter said. ‘And that is an American story.’

For celebrity editor Janice Min of US Weekly, it’s the element of perseverance that stands out in Smith’s tale, which she sees as ‘almost this perverse Hollywood Horatio Alger story.’

‘She fought against so many obstacles: Poverty. Teen pregnancy. A bad home life.’ And, of course, ridicule. ‘But she persisted, where others would have shrunk away out of humiliation and shame.’

It might have made her look pathetic. But it also made it exceedingly hard to look away.

Smith was stricken while staying at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Fla., and was rushed to a hospital.

Edwina Johnson, chief investigator for the Broward County Medical Examiner’s Office, said the cause of death was under investigation and an autopsy would be performed today.

Seminole Police Chief Charlie Tiger said that a private nurse called 911 after finding Smith unresponsive and that Smith’s bodyguard administered CPR, but that she was declared dead at a hospital.

Smith was born Vickie Lynn Hogan on Nov. 28, 1967, in Houston, one of six children. Her parents split up when she was a toddler, and she was raised by her mother, a deputy sheriff.

She dropped out of school after 11th grade after she was expelled for fighting, and worked as a waitress and then a cook at Jim’s Krispy Friend Chicken restaurant in Mexia.

She married 16-year-old fry cook Bill Smith in 1985, giving birth before divorcing two years later.

Smith was a topless dancer at a strip club before she entered her photos in a search contest and made the cover of Playboy magazine in 1992. She became Playboy’s playmate of the year in 1993. She was also signed to a contract with Guess jeans.

In 1994, she married 89-year-old oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II, owner of Great Northern Oil Co. In 1992, Forbes magazine estimated his wealth at $550 million.

Marshall died in 1995 at age 90, setting off a feud with Smith’s former stepson, E. Pierce Marshall, over his estate. A federal court in California awarded Smith $474 million, which was later overturned. But in May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that she deserved another day in court.

The stepson died June 20 at age 67.

But the family said the court fight would continue.

Smith’s son died Sept. 10 in his mother’s hospital room in the Bahamas, just days after she gave birth to a daughter.
Meanwhile, the paternity of Smith’s 5-month-old daughter is a matter of dispute.

The birth certificate lists Danielynn’s father as attorney Howard K. Stern. Smith’s former boyfriend, Larry Birkhead, is waging a legal challenge, saying he is the father. An emergency hearing in the paternity case was scheduled for today in Los Angeles.”

“The fascination with Anna Nicole Smith”, by Jocelyn Noveck of the Associated Press, Star Tribune, February 9, 2007, p. A1 & A12

2.

They make the rest of us feel useful
by Garrison Keillor, the old scout

"We check on our national village idiots, and then we return to our work with fresh appreciation.

Let us speak of the sorrows of fame. You are a hot young thing on a promotional tour for your book or movie or perfume and the limo brings you to the small luxury hotel and the celebrity suite where you step into the bathroom and notice a wad of snot protruding from your left nostril. It is the size of the Hope Diamond. How long has this been hanging there?

You’ve spent all day mingling with people ecstatic at the sight of you you you, and yet not one of them dared mention this crusty green mucus ballooning from your nasal cavity. Nor did your publicist Stephanie nor the reporters at the press opportunity. Have you been walking around all day with this excrescence sticking out of your nose?

You lie awake, hot tears on your cheek. You are friendless in this world. People fawn over you but they don’t like you enough to even lean over and say, ‘Hey, Pal, you need a hanky.’ The next day, en route to the airport, you notice an item in the paper:

People are talking about a certain large enchilada who stood around with a noseful of blechhh the other day as he chatted cluelessly with members of the media. They say that heavy use of cocaine can desensitize the tissues. Anyway, check it out on YouTube.

You fire Stephanie. But the video of you makes its way around the Internet, you smiling, emoting charm, and a big green thing like an emerald in your nose. And everywhere you go, little knots of hecklers are waiting for you, pointing to their left nostrils.

You issue a statement through your new publicist, Jessica, announcing that you have a rare disease that is seldom fatal but that produces mucus unexpectedly. You caught it in Africa while trying to adopt an orphan and it was exacerbated by overwork, stress and alcohol abuse. You are checking yourself into rehab at a clinic. So far, so good.

Ninety days later, you emerge into the bright sunlight, smiling focused and in a totally different place from where you were three months ago, and happy to talk about your journey, and the press is not waiting for you. No cameras, no microphones, just a velvet rope with nobody behind it. What gives?

Your cell phone rings and it’s Jessica. She’s weeping. She did her best to draw a crowd for you but today was not your day, sweetheart. Other larger elephants were active in the bush and so the paparazzi swarmed them and not you. You’ve taken a spiritual journey and nobody cares. Nobody.

Right here is where you have a chance to learn what a great thing it is to have real work to do. When you fall off the A-list, you simply return to your work, whatever it may be, and that rescues you from insanity. Even if you have the misfortune to be born rich and not too bright, you could still be taught a useful skill. In the end, this would do you more good than cosmetic surgery.

People decry Paris Hilton but she serves a purpose. We‘re a big country and we have so little in common anymore. Television and pop music have splintered into hundreds of niches. There are no singers like Satchmo or Sinatra or Elvis whose voices everyone knows. The audience for even the most successful TV show is a small minority. Most famous persons in America are persons most Americans have never heard of.

But if we don’t admire the same people, at least we can find people to despise. That is the role of ditzy pop stars and rich bimbos and the old tycoons with comb-overs and the home-run kings on steroids - they are the village lunatics in our ongoing national fairy tale. We check on their comings and goings and then we turn to our work with fresh appreciation. Maybe your feuds aren’t widely reported and maybe people aren’t mobbing the celebsites looking for pictures of you without underwear, but you have work and that‘s a consolation, just being good at accomplishing useful things.

I, for example, am good at washing dishes. I used to do it professionally and it’s still satisfying. You clear away the wreckage and run a sink full of soapy water and make everything sparkly clean again, and you look around the kitchen and get a feeling that money can’t buy. Keep your nose clean and make yourself useful. That‘s my advice.”

“They Make the Rest of Us Feel Useful”, by Garrison Keillor, the Old Scout. Star Tribune, Sunday, February 4, 2007, p. AA2

*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***

Post Script: This just in - BRITNEY SPEARS HAS SHAVED HER HEAD! Baffling fans and critics alike, the popular singer and dancer recently shaved off all her hair. Commentators on CNN speculated that she was having a nervous breakdown or perhaps was sending out a subtle (if that is the right word) appeal for help. Entertainment Tonight reported that the bald Britney has replaced Anna Nicole Smith as the celebrity receiving most hits on its web site.

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