Celebrity Conquers America

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If celebrity death tells us about celebrity life, then one great celebrity death of 1997 was a mother lode of information. The untimeliness contributed to the universal sense of shock, as did the violence, while the unsolved mysteries of the case added a macabre police-blotter spell. But a quick, rough, unexplained end alone did not account for the emotions that were unleashed—from Elton John’s distress at the funeral to the many flowers left at the death site of Gianni Versace.

 

If celebrity death tells us about celebrity life, then one great celebrity death of 1997 was a mother lode of information. The untimeliness contributed to the universal sense of shock, as did the violence, while the unsolved mysteries of the case added a macabre police-blotter spell. But a quick, rough, unexplained end alone did not account for the emotions that were unleashed—from Elton John’s distress at the funeral to the many flowers left at the death site of Gianni Versace.

Who? Right, the last celebrity dead person of 1997 before Princess Diana. Before ,him were Marshall Applewhite and the members of the Heaven’s Gate cult. After her, on the last day of the year, was Michael Kennedy. They followed one another like jumbo jets lined up to land at O’Hare Airport. They did not exercise equivalent power over us: Heaven’s Gate has already become a trivia question; Gianni Versace will be relegated to subcultures—crime and fashion buffs and gays. Princess Di and Michael Kennedy belong to ongoing sagas. But more deaths will come—Sonny Bono’s already has—each at the moment of impact sharing the same plane of celebrity.

Celebrity deaths punctuate a continuous flow of celebrity life, which, because it involves celebrities, is larger than life. Some of the actors on this stage have been performing there for a lifetime (Elizabeth Taylor). Some have been performing for longer (Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, JFK, Hitler). Some enjoy only moments. Memo to the Spice Girls: Where is Cyndi Lauper now? Hint: Mike Tyson is finding out.

A few celebrities are traditional figures of authority—royalty, politicians, military men (remember Colin PowelPs book tour). Many belong to another category of long standing, what Thomas Jefferson called the “aristocracy of talent” —though these days the aristocrats include basketball players and popular entertainers, which might have surprised Jefferson. Many people who make the grade, however, belong to neither category, and even those celebrities who are powerful or skilled often maintain their places in the pantheon for reasons that have little to do with their skill or power. Rudolph Giuliani is a minor celebrity. He is mayor of the nation’s largest city and a noted crime fighter. But his celebrity depends equally (maybe primarily) on his Letterman appearances, his maladroit drag acts, and a personality like a nutmeg grater.

 
 
 
 

There have always been celebrities in America, but have they always been like this? How did we get here? Is it a good place to be?

A celebrity is a famous person to whom one feels attached. Our attachment to him makes him “celebrated.” Mikhail Gorbachev was an American celebrity ten years ago. He is still famous—his doings get written up in Time and Newsweek —but he is no longer a celebrity. To be a celebrity, it is not enough to be known; one must also be vivid.

Another way of defining celebrities is to say that they are the people we think about even though we do not directly know them. Most of the time we think about our families, our neighborhoods, and our jobs. But unless we are Windsors, or work in Hollywood, the men and women we encounter in the daily walks of life are not celebrities. Celebrities are virtual acquaintances, not just for us but for masses of people.

Two hundred and fifty years ago celebrities in the Thirteen Colonies earned their status by the age-old means of rank and accomplishment. The powerful (most of whom had been born to power) sought to ensure celebrityhood by keeping their names and faces before the public. The King of England was on every coin, and prayers for him and his family were offered every Sunday in every Anglican church. In the colonies there were few circulating coins, and not everyone was an Anglican, but the king was universally known, and royal celebrity status was open to every monarch. To grasp it, the monarch had to add some extraordinary quality or deed. Commoners, who started from farther back, could achieve celebrity by even more extraordinary deeds.

The first three celebrities in American history—the first people who had, during their lifetimes, a powerful hold on virtually everyone—all were named George: George III, George Whitefield, and George Washington.