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"The Meaning of Celebrity"

At a recent Manhattan dinner party, the celebrity guests included a United States Senator, an embezzler, a woman rumored to spend $60,000 a year on flowers, a talk-show host, the chief executive officer of one of America’s largest corporations, a writer who had settled a plagiarism suit and a Nobel laureate.

The line between fame and notoriety has been erased. Today we are faced with a vast confusing jumble of celebrities: the talented and untalented, heroes and villains, people of accomplishment and those who have accomplished nothing at all, the criteria for their celebrity being that their images encapsulate some form of the American Dream, that they give enough of an appearance of leadership, heroism, wealth, success, danger, glamour and excitement to feed our fantasies. We no longer demand reality, only that which is real seeming.

Our age is not one in which the emperor’s golden nightingale is exposed as valueless when the true pure voice of the real bird pours forth, but one in which the synthetic product has become so seductive and malleable that we no longer care to distinguish one from the other.

Synthetic celebrities are our own creation, the modern equivalent of biblical graven images. In bowing down to them, we absent ourselves from the everyday ethical and moral judgments that insure the health of a society.

We cling to outmoded standards in according these fabricated celebrities all the substantial rewards we once reserved for those who deserved our adulation: social acceptance, head-of-the-line access, public acclaim, monetary gains and the ability to influence the power structures and institutions of our nation.

In rewarding these individuals, our society often exempts them from hard moral rules and equal justice.

When the film executive Robert Evans was convicted of cocaine use, his sentence was to create a program to deter young people from using drugs. When the Hollywood studio head David Begelman pleaded no contest to the charges of embezzling funds from Columbia Pictures, he was ordered to continue his psychiatric care. When the international celebrity art dealer Frank Lloyd was convicted of falsifying his books on the purchase and sale prices of the late Mark Rothko’s paintings, thereby defrauding Rothko’s two children millions of dollars, his sentence was to donate $100,000 to the Fund for Public Schools to be used in educating children in art.

Contrast these sentences to the one given William James Rummel for three nonviolent crimes that netted him a total of $230.00—life imprisonment (a judgment upheld by the Supreme Court). Or that of Jerry Helm, also sentenced to life imprisonment (a sentence recently overturned by the Supreme Court) for writing a check for $100 on a nonexistent account.

The rewards of villainy and heroism often prove equal. A decade down the road from Watergate, there have been 169 books written about this affair; they have generated an estimated total of $100 million in profits, much of the money garnered by President Nixon and his men, several of whom were imprisoned for their deeds.

Our inability or lack of concern in questioning the qualifications of people to be celebrated represents an increasingly pernicious phenomenon, for it is axiomatic of a society that we are who we celebrate.

The evolution from reality to image has been relatively rapid. In 1962, the social historian Daniel J. Boorstin alerted Americans to what then seemed a distant threat: “We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so realistic, that they can live in them.” What Boorstin could not have predicted was how the swiftness of our technological achievements, combined with the personal disillusionments of the last two decades, would encourage us to manufacture our fantasies while simultaneously destroying our former role models and ripping away the guideposts of the past. The result is that we have created synthetic celebrities whom we worship, however briefly, because they vicariously act out our noblest or basest desires.

Earlier this century, the proliferation of magazines, newspapers, network radio and Hollywood movies propelled celebrities into prominent positions in the national psyche. Now images can be instantly transmitted across the nation, indeed, the world, sometimes with disastrous results. Marshall McLuhan, the late mass-communications expert, credited television with turning terrorism from an isolated phenomenon into an international spectacle by allowing its parishioners to make free use of electronic facilities to publicize their causes. Political protesters inform the news media of their intentions, then stage demonstrations in front of the cameras. Even intimate tragedies become public events, turning those involved into momentary celebrity performers.

In today’s highly technological world, reality has become a pallid substitute for the image reality we fabricate for ourselves, which in turn intensifies our addiction to the artificial. Anyone who has attended a political convention or a major sporting event knows that watching the proceedings on television, where cameras highlight the most riveting moments, then replay and relate them to similar situations, provides us with more stimulating and complex perceptions than being there does.

Next year’s visitors to the Grand Canyon need not see it. One mile from the boundary will be a $5 million complex where they will be able to view a film of the way the canyon looks during all four seasons and take a simulated raft ride through artificial rapids.

Thomas Hoving, former director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, predicts that within the next decade there will be a “quantum leap in the appreciation of art.” By pushing a button in our living room, we will be able to exactly replicate any work of art in any museum in the world.

“Andy Warhol’s Overexposed: A No-Man Show,” will star a $400,000 computerized robot of the artist that has such sophisticated pre-programmed speech that it can hold press conferences and answer questions. In creating his robot, Warhol, who frequently serves as a bellwether of our celebrity society, has simply severed his image from himself, thus defining the ultimate in synthetic celebrity.

“Technology,” wrote the author Max Frisch, “is the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.”

Paralleling the technological advances of the last two decades have been a series of moral and ethical blows to the American psyche that have produced a crisis in confidence in the validity of our perceptions. No longer are there immutable standards by which to judge ourselves, or positive role models to provide a pattern for conduct. These have all but vanished in the wake of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, in the moral ambiguity of Vietnam, in the senseless violence of Kent State and in the traumatic aftermath of the “third-rate burglary” of Watergate.

But the need to celebrate other human beings—some symbolic, some real—is a continuing psychic and societal fact. Throughout history, the accomplishments of these individuals have provided a pattern for our aspirations, their frailties have bolstered our self-images. Celebrity worship, the psychoanalyst Ernest van den Haag says, is directly traceable to the basic and continuing need for authority figures.

In the past, Americans celebrated such positive examples as Johnny Appleseed, Horatio Alger and a father who “Knows Best.” As societal needs changed, so did the nature of celebrity. In the second half of the 19th century, those who in the words of social scientist Thorstein Veblen received “the deference of the common people” were men who epitomized the Industrial Revolution—Carnegie, Morgan, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt. These captains of industry, crude and rapacious though they were, felt a sense of moral obligation rooted in the puritan ethic. They endowed hospitals, museums, churches, universities; contributed to the poor, and, observed Veblen, served as a “guide to literature and art, church and state, science and education, law and morals—the standard container of civic virtue.” The trade-off seemed an equable one: preferential treatment in exchange for providing role models and economic support.

Though our deep-seated need to have individuals to celebrate has remained stable, our society has not. Many people wish to be admired, not respected, to be perceived as successful and glamorous, not as hard working and righteous. Among the worthy now are synthetic celebrities, famed for their images not their deeds. They need not have a sense of moral or ethical obligation, and often use our approbation for their own cynical purposes. The trade-off is no longer fair.

In a society where the details of private lives are subjected to public scrutiny, role models have all but vanished. In the past, we often provided those we celebrated with a protective cloak to cover their fallibilities and frailties. It was an unwritten law, for example, that the press never photographed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt except from the waist up, so that the dispirited society of the 1930’s would not be reminded its leader was physically crippled. Today such amenities are not practiced, nor are figures from the past spared. Long after their deaths, we are informed that Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson all were unfaithful to their wives.

The public appetite for celebrity and pseudo-event has grown to Pantagruelian proportions, and for the first time in history, the machinery of communications is able to keep up with these demands, even to outrun them, creating new needs we never knew existed.

To one extent or another, all the branches of the media have become complicitous to this pursuit. People magazine is prototypical. In one issue, novelist E.L. Doctorow is mentioned, but so are Joanie and Gary McGuffin, an Ontario couple on a 6,200-mile canoeing honeymoon across Canada. Elizabeth Taylor appears, but so does Frank Spisak, a neo-Nazi murderer. The ersatz and the real appear side by side, and the willingness to distinguish between them has been abdicated.

Charlotte Curtis of The New York Times was one of hundreds of members of the news media who interviewed a current celebrity, and wrote: “While she was here, she said, she put the couple’s spacious Fifth Avenue duplex on the market. . . . the asking price is expected to exceed $6 million. . . . ‘We’ll move to the New Jersey place.’ . . . a $3.5 million, 430-acre estate in Bedminster. Besides the 25-room Georgian mansion . . . there are guest cottages, a cattle barn and stables.”

In the not-so-distant past, this description could only have been of a member of high society. It was written, however, about Cristina DeLorean. When her auto-executive husband was arrested on charges of cocaine dealing, both DeLoreans became instant synthetic celebrities. John Z. DeLorean achieved what he admitted was one of his goals in life, though presumably not in the manner he expected: to appear on the cover of Time magazine. (He also appeared on the covers of New York and People magazines.) The couple also announced that they had been offered millions for their story.

The image of a titan standing at the pinnacle of society was maintained in the coverage of the trial and the subsequent appeals of the guilty verdict handed down to Claus von Bülow, accused of injecting his heiress wife with insulin in an attempt to murder her.

At the latest Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial Exhibition, the painter Eric Fischl depicts a couple in the act of sexual intercourse. A video camera records their actions and projects them on a television screen in front of the couple. The man’s eyes are riveted to his own image on the television set, which is clearly more exciting than the act itself. The most primal and basic of human acts has become secondary to its own image.

The rise of synthetic celebrity coincides with what the writer Jules Henry calls “the erosion of the capacity for emulation, the loss of the ability to model oneself consciously after another person.” When Lisa Birnbach, a young writer who is currently preparing a comprehensive guide to American universities, asks students to name their heroes, many say they have none. A typical explanation is that they are no longer willing to admire any person. (Indeed, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Elvis Presley, Humphrey Bogart and the like may have become enduring deities precisely because they are dead and can no longer manipulate or disappoint us.) Those students who do name their heroes often include the name of Blake Carrington, the unprincipled tycoon character in the television series “Dynasty.”

Daily, the concept of the melding of heroes and villains plays itself out on prime-time television where notorious, immoral, self-centered individuals, often the perpetrators of heinous crimes, are pseudoheroes. J.R. Ewing of “Dallas” is a scoundrel, but he is vigorous, rich, powerful and successful.

George Gerbner, dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communications, estimates that by the time a typical American child reaches adulthood, he or she will have absorbed more than 30,000 electronic “stories.” These have, he suggests, replaced the socializing role of the pre-industrial church in creating “a cultural mythology” that establishes the norm of approved behavior and belief. Gerbner concludes that watchers of prime-time television are receiving a highly synthetic picture of the real world, but that they accept it more readily than reality itself.

Credibility and plausibility have replaced truth. During the Watergate investigation, the American public was given explanations that seemed believable. As facts were discovered that rendered them implausible, President Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, admitted that his previous statements had become “inoperative.” Writer Christopher Lasch noted in “The Culture of Narcissism” that “many commentators assumed Ziegler was groping for a euphemistic way of saying that he had lied. What he meant, however, was that his earlier statements were no longer believable. Not their falsity but their inability to command assent rendered them ‘inoperative.’ The question of whether they were true or not was beside the point.”

A university student recently ventured the opinion that if the present Republican Administration wished to remain in power it must give the appearance of helping the poor. When the student was asked should they not simply help the poor, the reply was that, of course, that would be preferable, but if it were done invisibly it would not accomplish the desired end. The subject was, after all, remaining in power and only the visible appearance of helping would win the necessary sympathy and dissipate potential anger. This cynical understanding of the importance of image reality is formidable, and frightening. What counts is that our President project an image of decisiveness and self-confidence, not that he actually be able to solve the country’s problems.

We deal openly in terms of image. Universities, religious groups, business organizations, charities, law firms, all speak of their desire to create a favorable image. The woman in a Pine Power television commercial laments, “This mop will ruin my image.” Designer Bill Blass says that while he will license such products as chocolate and perfume, he will never lend his name to tires, which would damage his image.

With success as the primary goal, the temptation to take shortcuts is pervasive. The present art market is glutted with Jungian nightmares, full of energy but devoid of intellect. In recent years, there has been a rash of plagiarism suits against prominent writers. Business-man-author Michael Thomas says that today much of business is about “accounting not accountability.”

Narcissists, Lasch believes, have the best chance of becoming celebrities because they present pseudoheroic images, are often possessed of magnetic personalities and have “no compunctions about manipulating people or their environment, and no feelings of obligation toward truth.” Sociopaths, too, by virtue of the fact that they are totally amoral, incapable of guilt or shame, qualify as excellent material.

The rewards of celebrity are so substantial and seductive that genuinely talented and otherwise level-headed individuals in the arts, business and the humanities are willing to sacrifice their privacy and sense of self to commingle with the synthetic members of this privileged group.

The longer one remains a celebrity, the longer one continues to be rewarded. In explaining why he had signed up yet another book on Henry Kissinger, Summit Books’ president James H. Silberman said that he had great confidence in Kissinger’s “ability to keep himself in the public eye.” Norman Mailer, who recently signed a deal with Random House to write four books over a nine-year period for $4 million, has written of himself, “of necessity, part of Mailer’s remaining funds of sensitivity went right into the war of supporting his image and working for it.” Early on, Mailer created a renegade literary image for himself, tied to drinking and violence. Now he strenuously objects when the news media clings to his old image and does not print more about his refurbished one as a paterfamilias and partygoer.

Because it is fabricated, image can be altered at will. Andy Warhol owes the longevity of his celebrity to the fact that his image keeps changing to suit the temper of the times. His 1960’s go-go image of black-leather motorcycle jacket, patched dungarees and drugged companions has given way to the conservative tailored suits and socialite parties of the 1980’s.

Image is essential to the celebrity because the public judges him by what it sees—his public posture as distinguished from his private person. Entertainers are particularly adept at perfecting their images, learning to refine the nuances of personality. Indeed, the words “celebrity” and “personality” have become interchangeable in our language. Public relations people, who are paid to manufacture celebrities for public consumption, are often referred to as image makers.

Celebrities are invariably accepted as instant authorities. Advertising takes advantage of this, fusing the celebrity with the product to be sold. Robert Young’s long association with a physician role on television helped solidify his images as a medical authority, adding credence to his endorsement of Sanka. A similar case is the endorsement of Scoundrel perfume by the actress Joan Collins, the bad girl of television’s “Dynasty” series.

Former Senator Sam Ervin, who came close to genuine heroism in the Watergate affair, reduced his stature to synthetic celebrity by using his familiar country-boy locutions in television commercials while never leaving home without his American Express card.

So accustomed are we to seeing celebrities identified with products that those who are not initially celebrities become them as a result of their appearances in advertisements. Leona Helmsley, president of Helmsley Hotels, utilizes the image of a queen, bountifully dispensing her largess to potentional guests in advertisements that rely heavily on the public’s identification with her life style, which includes a phone in the bath, magnifying mirror, king-size bed, etc.

It has become common practice to use charity to bolster one’s celebrity. Benefits proliferate, often with no more involvement on the part of celebrities than a lending of their names. Television talk-show host Phil Donahue, who on many occasions has served as host at fund-raisers, said in an article he wrote for Television Quarterly that Americans have been lulled into thinking that “celebrity appearances can solve the problems of human misery. As long as we continue to congratulate ourselves for working on the ‘gala’ charity dinner, or the telethon, or the celebrity auction . . . we delay the time when we finally face up to the painful fact that this country’s priorities are wrong . . . . Sick children ought to receive . . . a piece of our public money pie . . . Show business should be out of this business.”

The combination of crime and the minutiae of private lives is also a sure-fire guarantee of celebrity. Truman Capote established the pattern in modern times when he reached into the criminal element to write “In Cold Blood” and escalated two men who had wiped out an entire family to celebrity. Recently, there have been two books on Jean Harris, who became an instant celebrity when she killed the Scarsdale Diet doctor, Herman Tarnower. Even in prison, she is a media draw. She was recently interviewed at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for radio and television news programs.

The brigand, the flamboyant person who “beats the system,” has always been an appealing figure in our culture. Those who operate outside the system gain particular popularity in times of economic stress, when people feel they have little control over their own destinies. Today’s social climate has much in common with that of the early 1930’s. Then, too, the notorious were invited to dine a the finest tables. Fanny Brice and mobster Nicky Arnstein became media idols. Bank robber Willie Sutton gave speeches at Rotary Club meetings across the nation. But then our admiration for the outlaw was tempered by moral and ethical strictures. Crimes of true villainy or violence were never condoned. As our sense of reality was undermined, so were our standards. In the 1930’s, kidnapping was considered one of the most heinous crimes. In the recent film, “King of Comedy,” it is through kidnapping that the protagonist achieves his dream of becoming a celebrity.

Because our diets are so glutted with reprocessed images and events, any vestige of spontaneous reality can create a sensation. In 1970, the writer Tom Wolfe noted the phenomenon of “radical chic,” whereby members of celebrity society associated with renegades in order to feel the shock of adrenalin that comes from experiencing the sensation of danger without any real threat. Wolfe equated this with the 19th-century French phenomenon of nostalgie de la boue, in which the aristocracy could be revitalized by taking on certain styles of the lower orders. But there has always been a clear understanding of who was the patron and who the patronized, and a certain moral code applied.

A recent poll conducted by Yankelovich, Skelly and White Inc. revealed that 63 percent of the American public is ambivalent about embracing a totally self-centered, self-fulfilled style of life, asserting that the old standards are still important. However, 80 percent admitted that they have been deeply affected by the new mentality and feel that their own need for sensation, novelty and ego fulfillment takes precedence over the needs of all other people.

Synthetic celebrities are, after all, but reflections of ourselves and in deifying them we are holding a mirror to our own foibles. This reflected image cannot illuminate, it can only destroy our capacity to take an interest in anything outside of ourselves. A society that exalts flights from reality sets a dangerous course. Only a culture that acknowledges power without moral obligation could spawn such celebrity monsters as Charles Manson and Rev. Jim Jones. John Lennon’s assassin, Mark David Chapman, wanted nothing more than forever to be identified with the singer he idolized. Now he is.

The meretricious aspects of synthetic celebrity have been consistently explored by the film director Marin Scorsese. The plot of his “Taxi Driver” revolves around Travis Bickle, a psychotic loser who sets out to assassinate a Presidential candidate but fails. He succeeds, however, in murdering three men. The movie’s penultimate scene shows Bickle’s bedroom wall covered with numerous newspaper articles about his heroism, as well as a fulsome note of gratitude from the parents of the young prostitute, played by Jodie Foster, whose pimp was one of those he murdered. In the closing frames of the film, a young woman who has been the object of Bickle’s sexual desires, a woman who has previously ignored him, now notices him. As a celebrity, he has become worthy of her attention.

When asked why he attempted to assassinate President Reagan, John W. Hinckley Jr., a young drifter, said he did it “to impress Jodie Foster.” Hinckley says he saw “Taxi Driver” 15 times and had absorbed its implicit message with stunning acuity: It isn’t what you do, it’s doing something that will impress enough to project you into the realm of celebrity.

Hinckley was judged not guilty by reason of insanity.

As our lives become more and more difficult to comprehend, we become so accustomed to retreating into our illusions that we forget we have created them ourselves. We treat them as if they were real and in so doing we make them real. Image supersedes reality. Synthetic celebrities become the personification of our hollow dreams.