The Cult of Celebrity
A passion for celebrity is not something one is meant to talk about. There are worlds, or rather circles, where, if you do, it is assumed that what you are really claiming for yourself is a type of intellectual slumming. If, for example, you admit to or even boast of reading Hello! magazine, an addiction to which I happily confess, reading Hello! could not possibly be what you are really boasting about. ‘Is it true that you read Hello!?’ I am sometimes asked in disbelief – an appropriate enough wording, ‘is it true?’, since celebrity depends for its existence on hearsay, innuendo and gossip (although what is distinctive about Hello! is that it doesn’t, or not quite). Admitting to a passion for celebrity, it seems, is like flaunting a shameful secret. So there might be an intimate, even passionate, connection between the cult of celebrity and shame.
Whenever we find a rich mix of affective or emotional language in relation to celebrity and its cult it is worth paying close attention to it. Take (inevitably) the death of Princess Diana, the public response to it and reactions to that response. These reactions can be divided into two camps. According to the first, the ‘unbelievable!’ camp, the public was deluded and the emotions expressed were manipulated and/or false. According to the second, ‘the week that shook the world’ camp, the very fact that emotion was being publicly expressed by the British was proof of its authenticity; which in turn meant that such emotion was truer than anything else about the British psyche (the end of English reserve).
In other words, faced with this public display of feeling, we could only cry ‘true’ or ‘false’. Is there any authority on which such judgments can be made? Or is it the need to judge, whether for or against, that is paramount, as if nothing could be more frightening than a public display of emotion which can’t be read immediately and unequivocally; as if public affect must necessarily be either good or bad for us all. But what if instead of thinking in terms of ‘true’ and ‘false’ we were to rearrange the dominant vocabularies to see what else they might yield? What happens, that is, if we do two seemingly contradictory things: take wholly seriously public demonstrations of affect without taking them at their word? If we at one and the same time believe and – to deform the famous formula – suspend our belief?
Consider the celebrity of Mary Bell. How many times did outraged journalists cut straight from their disapproval of the money she was paid (making profit out of the most hideous of crimes) to the pleasure she was said to have taken in murdering Martin Brown and Brian Howe? Again: how could anyone know? Given the profit that these papers were making out of their horror at her profit (an obvious point), not to say out of the horror they drew their readers into – given, that is, their own traffic in the pleasures of horror – we might, again shifting the terms, ask: what is the perverse profit of pleasure? How far is pleasure – the pleasure we take in celebrity, for example – bound up with perversion, or with something we experience as perverse? Is that the bonus which distinguishes celebrity from fame? It depends on how you define perversion. There may be a link between shame and celebrity, but we know that there is a link between perversion and shame. Shame, or shaming, with its ostentatious morality, might be seen as a form of perversion in itself. Celebrity is often a ritual of public humiliation. Not just in the shaming of Mary Bell, but in relation to all celebrity , shaming often appears to be the point.
Could it be, then, that celebrity does indeed represent our guilty secret, that it’s a veiled way of putting into public circulation certain things which do not easily admit of public acknowledgment? Hence the pull and the paradox, the reason celebrity is so exciting and demeaning at the same time? I know that for some it is emphatically neither one nor the other, or perhaps one or the other, but I suspect that for those really grabbed by it, it necessarily partakes of both.
There are of course different types of celebrity – there are, for example, celebrities of the Left. You might want to argue that for this kind of celebrity any self-aggrandisement is offset by the collective good aimed at by their necessarily public commitment. There is a famous psychoanalytic article by Harold Searles called ‘The Effort to Drive the Other Person Crazy’, in which he lovingly details all the ways people have of driving each other mad, and then even madder by denying that that is what they are doing. He then asks: what is the profession in which the denial of the desire to drive the other person crazy is strongest? To which the answer is: psychoanalysis, of course. Which suggests that psychoanalysts are the people who most want to drive other people mad (obvious enough, some may think). According to that argument, no one would be more passionately committed to the cult of celebrity than those who construct an elaborate façade of public good as the veil for their own need for acclaim.
A more generous approach to the drama of display so central to celebrity in the modern world would be to look at it in historical terms. In Frenzy of Renown: A History of Fame (the word ‘frenzy’ will return crucially in relation to Mary Bell), Leo Braudy argues that our uncertainties about the morality of public behaviour and the personalities of public people arise in great part from the ‘Judaeo-Christian attack against Roman standards of public glory’. In this opposition, to seek or confer fame is either an appropriate manifestation of public valour and dignity, or a self-violation and affront to our true inner worth; either civic virtue, due recognition that our acts are only sanctioned by their staging in the world of men (it was of course mainly men), or a spiritually corrupt performing to the wrong crowd (God is the only true audience of man’s worth). ‘It is far from honouring him who made us,’ Montaigne writes in the ‘Apology for Raymond Sébond’, ‘to honour him whom we have made.’
For Braudy, Augustine is the key figure. Augustine saw Lucretia’s suicide not as proof of her virtue but the opposite. He called her ‘praeclarissa’, ‘the most visible’, her error being to have committed suicide in order to make what is in her heart visible – the only way, as she saw it, to display her inner worth to the eyes of men. There is of course a tension here, one in which even our secular culture could be said still to be caught. Jesus makes the deaf hear and the mute speak but then enjoins them to silence (‘He charged them to tell no one; but the more he charged them, the more zealously they published it’). Augustine, as Braudy puts it, ‘turned his face against Roman public life and argued that the emptiness that comes from living exclusively in the eyes of others could be filled with God, but even he wrestled with the desire to be praised openly for his denial of worldly values’.
Cut from here to Mark Twain’s ‘The Story of a Good Little Boy’ (who does this remind you of?):
Jacob had a noble ambition to be put in a Sunday school book. He wanted to be put in with pictures representing him gloriously declining to lie to his mother … and pictures representing him standing on the doorstep giving a penny to a poor beggar-woman with six children … and pictures of him magnanimously refusing to tell on the bad boy who always lay in wait for him around the corner as he came from school, and welted him over the head with a lath.
There is a paradox inherent in seeking an audience for one’s own worth – which is why discussion of whether Diana’s acts of benevolence were hypocritical or sincere are beside the point. The vanity of public life contains its own disavowal. It is not hypocrisy to want to be seen to be doing good; it says very little about the nature of the act being performed. One definition of a celebrity might be that they are the people required by us to bear the weight of the question: who are we meant to be performing to, or what are we doing when performing to an invisible audience? We should never assume that because one audience is visible, there isn’t an invisible one hidden but present too. Among other things, public celebrity might be an elaborate diversion from the complex, often punitive audience inside the mind. One variety of narcissism could be a diversion from another.
Celebrities who insist, often with apparent desperation, that they do not court publicity, who try to wrest their private lives from the public gaze on which they are totally dependent (they are legion – open any paper), are naive only for failing to realise that this is the balancing-act they are required to perform. They are never functioning so appropriately as celebrities, never displaying so perfectly the tension on which celebrity thrives, as in the moments when they make that non or anti-performative claim. A celebrity is someone all too close who also stages something in the nature of a magical disappearing act. Here is Richard Gere interviewed – although that is not quite the right word – by Cameron Docherty in the Independent last June:
He is as elusive as smoke. Restless and edgy, he paces around the marble floor of his Malibu home wondering why people are always curious about his private life, and isn’t it enough just to talk about his profession.
Finally, Richard Gere settles into an armchair and remains motionless, staring straight ahead, his nobleman profile tilted ever so slightly upward, as if he were listening for ethereal music lesser mortals cannot hear.
He proceeds to spend the next hour talking to me without ever looking at me. His voice is scarcely audible … he makes so faint an imprint on his surroundings, I keep fighting the uneasy sensation that he might dematerialise before my eyes.
What I love about Hello! (or perhaps I should say one of the things I love about Hello!) is the so much more brazen, upfront way it puts this on display. One of my favourite moments was Barbara Taylor Bradford renewing her marriage vows in the total privacy of a completely deserted tropical island on which no tourists step; with only black luggage carriers in attendance , as well as the whole photographic and editorial team of Hello!. (She said this day was as good as the first day of her marriage, which made me think the first day probably hadn’t been so good.)
Perhaps Princess Diana and Prince Charles broke the rules, boldly crossed the public/private boundary with their television interviews and the intimacies they used them to reveal, but perhaps they didn’t. More simply, Diana embodied a wondrous mixture of forms of celebrity – sacred and secular. ‘Not only did she capture the spirit of the age,’ Andrew Morton writes on the last page of the most recent edition of his famous book, ‘but more than that the manner of her life and death formed part of a religious cycle of sin and redemption, a genuinely good and Christian woman who was martyred for our sins, epitomising our strange appetite for celebrity.’
It is easy to list what Diana and Mary Bell have in common, in addition to the extraordinary public fervour that surrounds them. Two innocents, two girls too young to know what they were doing when they did what most radically determined their lives, two female figures hounded by the press, two women whose physical attributes seem to be an essential component of their appeal, two women accused of being manipulative. Even Andrew O’Hagan’s powerful defence of Bell in the Guardian against what he saw as Sereny’s ethical blindness and manipulations, made Bell’s own manipulativeness a central part of his case, something Sereny should have been protecting her from: ‘Mary Bell is still a very confused and hurt and manipulative person.’
In both cases the press is seen to have pushed its case to the point of violation: in Diana’s case possibly to her death, in Bell’s to the destruction of the life she had so carefully built against the legacy of her own crime. Both women try or tried to make use of a public world which exceeds, overruns, slips out of their control with devastating consequences. As Diana is supposed to have said about Andrew Morton’s book (Morton quotes it in his revised edition): ‘he’s pretty much written my obituary.’ Or in Morton’s words, waiting for its publication was ‘like watching a slowly spreading pool of blood seeping from under a locked door’.
In the first responses to the death of Diana, when Earl Spencer evoked the myth of Diana the huntress as hunted; in the dismay at what has happened to Mary Bell subsequent to the publication of Cries Unheard, it is as if the violence and sadism of public acclaim have been suddenly laid bare: acclaim is granted as a form of punishment. That paradox or in-mixing of contraries is just one violent twist away from the historic conflict which Leo Braudy describes. There is something murderous in our relation to celebrity. On this score, Salman Rushdie would be exceptional only for having had the murderousness precede his status as celebrity rather than the other way around.
The response to celebrity always harbours a political subtext. It is often assumed, especially on the left, that emotions on public display are politically demeaning and should be put to cultural or political work somewhere else (love against labour, as it were). Or else, more simply, that they are a front. As many of these commentators fairly pointed out, the so-called transfiguration of the British psyche at the time of Diana’s death left a lot of undesirable components of the British political landscape intact. Those mourning Diana on the Mall do not necessarily want to pay higher taxes to improve the lot of those she sponsored, nor was it hard to hear the undertones of racism in the conspicuous, at moments deafening silence about Dodi Fayed.
But the most vociferous critics of the Diana phenomenon often seem to be expressing something more. A belief that affect is antagonistic to politics, that if we do not ‘reason together’, as Mary Wollstonecraft once put it, we destroy any chance of collective or individual participation in the fullness of civic life. Politics is emotionally divested reason or it is nothing (emotion eats out the mind). ‘September was not a good month for those who imagined that human society is, or could one day, be governed by reason,’ Ian Jack wrote in the ‘Unbelievable!’ issue of Granta dedicated in part to Diana’s death. For Elizabeth Wilson, in ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Diana’ in New Left Review, Diana’s mythic status put paid to any feminist component of her story (as if the two were incompatible). The Left is the last bastion of a form of reason dangerously discredited in our times, and nothing embodies that danger more clearly than the Diana effect: ‘grief for Diana privileges the value of feeling over reason and is therefore good, where as ideas associated with socialism, such as justice and equality make a fatal claim to rationality and are therefore bad.’ Similarly Ross McKibbin in this magazine, though much more hesitant about pronouncing on the authenticity of the emotions involved, concluded: ‘a democracy which admired her with such intensity is both incomplete and immature.’
For the ‘unbelievable!’ camp, the problem was not just that the emotion displayed was excessive but that it was emotion of the wrong kind. Those participating wholeheartedly in the experience were light-headed (‘grief-lite’), even deluded. Grief, this argument goes, is false if it is directed at someone you don’t know. Or to put it differently, if you are not actually suffering, the affect is not true. Yet one of the functions of public figures is surely to make you feel you know them, that you are linked to them in some mysterious but none the less powerful way. More important, what pre-Freudian policing of affect was this demand that grief should appear in the right place for the right object at the right time? As if grief comes pat to place, as if it shows up, or only shows up, in the moments when it is due. As if mobilising defences, or even a radical dissociation of affect were not common aspects of grief. Pain goes underground – the technical name is ‘repression’ – biding its time, waiting for an occasion when it can catch you unawares. ‘False’ is the wrong cry. False, in relation to grief, can ring true. (In fact, one of the writers in Granta said that what she experienced or relived through the death of Diana was, first, Kennedy’s death and then her rape as a much younger girl, itself evoked for the first time by Kennedy’s death.)
What this response also ignored was the complex circulation of emotion, not just in individual subjects, but more generally in the public realm. One reason it is unhelpful to assume that public trauma (manipulated or authentic) is necessarily a veil for more personal, private trauma, is that public events can and do cover for each other. This is from Pat Barker’s The Eye in the Door, the second of the Regeneration trilogy. Siegfried Sassoon is talking about the public obsession with the Pemberton-Billing trial. (Pemberton-Billing was sued for libel by the actress Maud Allen for publishing an article suggesting that a large number of her audience at the opening of Oscar Wilde’s Salome were German spies. Lord Alfred Douglas used the occasion of the trial to accuse Wilde’s friend Robert Ross of being the ‘leader of all the sodomites in London’.)
Siegfried’s face darkened. ‘Do you know we actually sat in dug-outs in France and talked about that trial? The papers were full of it, I think it was the one thing that could have made me glad I was out there, I mean, for God’s sake, the Germans on the Marne, five thousand prisoners taken and all you read in the papers is who’s going to bed with whom and are they being blackmailed? God.’
But to say that this trial is an irrelevance in time of war is to overlook the intimate relation – the whole of the The Eye in the Door is in a sense devoted to it – between the persecuting and blackmailing of homosexuals and conscientious objections to the war, between the mental health (or not) of the nation and the public vilification of Oscar Wilde. Or to put it another way, celebrities – and the passions they arouse – are rarely only a distraction.
The alternative response to Diana’s death was celebration – a wholehearted embrace of the new national ethos (that this ethos did not engage the whole nation, or rather the extent to which the whole nation was called on to mourn, is a problem in itself). This is Andrew Morton again, expressing a sentiment voiced repeatedly over that two weeks and indeed since: ‘While the style was ancient, almost tribal, the substance on that day, 6 September 1997, will be seen by historians as marking the crumbling of the old hierarchical regime and the coming of a more egalitarian era.’
The problem with the celebratory response is its complete detachment of the Diana phenomenon from the surrounding political landscape (the point repeatedly and convincingly made by the other camp), as if the People’s Princess made the People’s Prime Minister immune to criticism. Suddenly the worst of what was happening under New Labour – the continuation of Thatcher’s economic agenda, minus the ruthlessness (does that make it better or worse?), but with an extra and lethal dose of moralism – seemed to become invisible. Many commentators have made the point that it was only shortly after this so-called egalitarian festival that Blair cuddled up to the monarchy and on the same day declared the end to single parent benefit (the first – but, for many, wholly revealing – New Labour fiasco, on which he subsequently had to climb down). As McKibbin puts it, Diana may also have inadvertently allowed the monarchy to survive by obliging it to transform itself – but of course we do not know this. How could we? One way or another, I do not think it was the grieving for Diana which severed our public life from political concerns – we know nothing definitive about the political affiliations and involvements of the majority of people involved – so much as this strand of the analysis that attended to it.
What is most striking, however, about those who saw this occasion as evidence of a new emotional presence on the part of the British people was the extraordinarily limited, benign, self-congratulatory image of the world of feeling that was evoked. It was as if the Diana phenomenon was being used to call up not just a new, publicly available form of feeling, but feeling divested of one half of its nature. What we were being offered was more like a vision of the national psyche in the process of purging itself. (Perhaps this is why it all became so coercive – grief not only had to be done but had to be seen to be done.) This crowd is too knowing, too sure, too politically astute and too pure. It is not true finally that one camp was ‘for’ public emotion and one ‘against’, but rather that in the second instance emotion was only permissible as virtue (emotion by virtue of being nice).
Oddly, in their uncritical celebration of what happened, this camp reproduce what might be seen as one of the most, if not dubious, certainly precarious components of the phenomenon of celebrity itself. Somebody must be allowed to win for us all; someone must be seen to come out on top; but in defiance of the ruthlessness of their and our ambition – against the psychic odds, as it were – they must survive as pure. In this way, self-serving individualism does not have to stop us from feeling, or being, good. This is Braudy: ‘The goal is to purge achievement of all negative implications – to strive purely, to win without defeating, to be committed to the life of achieving – while constantly trying to avoid the compromised surrender to a sordid public gaze.’ So what, finally, are the alternatives on offer? Politics as emotionally divested reason or, alternatively, a new politics of feeling divested of one part – the ugly half, to put it crudely – of the mind. Restore the two missing portions – affect and psychic violence (or the violent part of affect) – and we might be able to circle back to the heart of celebrity.
There seems to be general agreement that the attention paid to Mary Bell in the press has been sadistic, and that it has been sadistic in direct proportion to its vaunting of its own virtue, as if it could be taken for granted that those pursuing her in the name of public curiosity were totally exempt from any trace of her crime. More interesting, however, and less obvious perhaps, than the sadism of the tabloids, is the ethically complex place in all this of Gitta Sereny. Sereny’s aim – and this seems to be the strength of her project – is to oblige us to acknowledge the roots of iniquity in an individual life. ‘In our system,’ Inspector Dobson, the chief detective in the investigation of Mary Bell, remarked, ‘it is not the business of the police to find out why crimes are committed … When the perpetrators are children, it doesn’t appear that it is anyone’s business.’ What troubles Sereny is that nobody bothered to track Mary Bell’s childhood before her case was judged, that no one tried to understand what the children in the Bulger case might have been expressing in the enactment of their monstrous, or ‘frenzied’ to use Sereny’s word, crime before they were sentenced. This is the crusading aspect of Sereny’s writing, especially when she is writing about child criminals whose treatment she wishes to see changed. In this respect what our society suffers from is not too much curiosity but not enough:
relatives, closing ranks against outsiders, tend to protect their own, unmindful or unaware of the consequences; neighbours close their ears to manifestly serious troubles; over-extended police officers underrate the potential dangers in conflicts between parents and child … We are not just discreet in Britain, we make a fetish of privacy. We do not look carefully at our neighbours’ children.
On the face of it, Sereny’s interest, progressive and socially transformative rather than vicarious, stands at the opposite pole from the sort that celebrity feeds.
It is therefore all the more disturbing to watch her inquiry slide into precisely the kind of ruthless pursuit of its subject to which it is ostensibly opposed; to observe the violation of ethics at the heart of the ethical moment. Maybe there is no such thing as virtuous curiosity. Curiosity does violence to its object. Sereny, it seems, represents a form of spectatorship that believes in its own virtue at the same time as it corrupts itself – we could call it the perverting of curiosity in motion.
Sereny is a champion of her subjects; she believes in original guiltlessness and she believes in truth: ‘only the truth will serve the purpose of this book.’ The two seem to be intimately related in her thought since she believes (and in relation not only to Bell but also to the subject of one of her previous books, Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth), that if she can bring the subjects of her investigation to acknowledge the truth, then their underlying nature, in all its original innocence, will be released. And so, in the case of Mary Bell, she considers herself not licensed but obliged to pursue this truth like a quarry, to force Mary Bell (against therapeutic advice) to relive in her presence the moment at which she killed Martin Brown. The violence of this moment in the book – its climax and its justification – is overwhelming. It has been referred to but not cited in the reviews:
You cannot bear to remember it as it really was, I told her. But you must try. You must make another, final effort, to tell it honestly. In the final analysis, I told her, only the truth would serve the purpose of this book: which was, on the one hand, to tell her story as completely as it could be told, but also to use what had happened to her, and the reactions of others as an example and a warning.
‘I don’t know how to do it,’ she said. ‘I don’t know if I can’ …
I told Mary I was going to ask her one more time about the day she killed Martin Brown and that she must concentrate as never before. I had turned off the telephone, the window was closed, and the curtains were half-drawn – not to make the atmosphere overly dramatic, but to underline to Mary, who finds it so difficult, the need to search back in her memory about this day, and relate what had happened as far as it was possible in a sequence of events.
When Mary Bell starts to live the scene in the present tense, Sereny has to intervene to break the hallucination which she herself has provoked.
There is a comparable moment in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. Lanzmann is interviewing the Treblinka survivor Abraham Bomba, whose job it was to cut the hair of the victims as they were about to enter the gas chamber. Bomba is cutting hair as he is interviewed, although it later transpires that he is no longer a hairdresser.
Bomba: I can’t. It’s too horrible. Please.
Lanzmann: We have to do it. You know it.
Bomba: I won’t be able to do it.
Lanzmann: You have to do it. I know it’s very hard. I know and I apologise.
Bomba: Don’t make me go on please.
Lanzmann: Please. We must go on.
Bomba: I told you today it’s going to be very hard.
Why the staging? Why do these moments have to be relived in the present tense?
In his classic study, Perversion: The Erotic Form of Hatred, the psychoanalyst Robert Stoller argues that at the heart of perversion is mystery. In the perverse act, a felt and threatening limit to what is knowable, or masterable by knowledge, is repeatedly, coercively and violently subdued. Whatever the ethical agenda, in other words, there is something potentially murderous in our fervour, our frenzied desire to know, as well as in our commitment to a virtuous reckoning of ourselves (the belief in innate good turns bad). Celebrity simultaneously evokes and annuls mystery – perhaps that could be its definition.
Crucially for Stoller, if the perverse impulse is more or less undesirable for the smooth running of our personal erotic affairs, it is no less the precondition of our participation in the so-called civilised world. No mind can free itself completely from the aim of mastering the onslaughts of the world. No human being completely escapes perversion:
For describing an ubiquitous mechanism, ‘perversion’ is too strong; it cannot rid itself of moral taint. To the point here is a remark of Freud’s: ‘No healthy person, it appears, can fail to make some addition that might be called perverse to the normal sexual aim; and the universality of this finding is in itself enough to show how inappropriate it is to use the word perversion as a term of reproach.’
Which leaves us with a number of questions that relate both to Diana and to Mary Bell. Can you have public life without idealisation? And then: can you have idealisation without sadism? What would a world look like in which we did not seek out people to carry our own shame? Rather than having celebrities about whom we feel curious, we create celebrities so that our curiosity, or curiosity at its most violent, can be licensed and maintained.
Is there finally a link not only between celebrity and shame but between celebrity and fascism? (¡Hola!, the ur-Hello!, was born in the immediate aftermath of Franco’s death.) Sereny herself connects her interest in Mary Bell with the work she did with German children traumatised by their experience as cheap labour in the camps, and again of course with her investigation of Albert Speer. More oddly, Leo Braudy chose to open his book on fame with an account of Charles Lindbergh, whose belief in his own inviolability (above clouds and crowds) slid into Nazi sympathy – he returned from his tour of the Nazi aircraft industry in 1936 promoting an accommodation with Hitler – he also lived the cruellest aspect of fame with the kidnapping and murder of his child. (‘Who stole the Lindbergh baby? Was it you? Was it you? Was it you?’ went a popular song of the time.) Kitty Kelley’s The Royals opens with Princess Margaret flouncing out of a screening of Schindler’s List on the grounds that she heard too much about the Jews and the Holocaust during the war (Kelley’s – deliberate? – mistake: Margaret may indeed have said it, but had anyone in Britain heard too much about the Holocaust during the war?) Reviews of Kelley’s book have ignored the extent to which it is an exposé of the royal German connection: it begins at the moment when the royal family came into existence as the Windsors by severing their German heritage in 1917. Given the part the Royals have played in the genesis of celebrity in the modern world, why shouldn’t that be one of the crucial secrets which our present-day preoccupation with celebrity in Britain is intended to conceal and contain?
To end, however, with Houdini. His daring always kept his audience on a knife-edge of sadistic relish: ‘Maybe this time he won’t escape.’ Until the day he let one of his admirers punch him in the stomach to test his muscle control. Just over a week later he was dead of acute appendicitis: it had been too late to operate after the show which, despite the diagnosis, he had insisted had to go on.