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Celebrity Conquers America
King George lost us; Princess Di won us back. Certain changes made this possible.
July/August 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 4
Innocuous quotidian details of private life also became a part of political discourse. Jefferson and his Democratic-party successors began the process, emphasizing their simple tastes. Andrew Jackson let his frontier friends trample the White House furniture in celebrating his inauguration in 1829. In 1840 the Whigs, smarting under repeated defeats, brought the process to perfection in their campaign for William Henry Harrison. Harrison’s campaign manager, Nicholas Biddle, laid down the ground rule: “Let him say not one single word about his principles, or his creed—let him say nothing—promise nothing. . . . Let the use of pen and ink be wholly forbidden as if he were a mad poet in Bedlam.” What replaced principles were Whig paeans to their man’s humble origins and way of life, so that Harrison became the “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” candidate. Never mind that these details were false (Harrison was the son of Benjamin Harrison V, a wealthy Virginia planter). Homespun mundanities, real and imagined, became a staple of political biography from then on. Parson Weems, multiplied, became the norm.
One thing more had to happen before the emergence of modern American celebrity. That was the collapse of authority. Authority is the recognition of someone’s right to rule and hence is always a problematic concept in a democracy, which is founded on vox populi, doubly so when the democracy has a market economy, which is also founded on that principle. Yet great men have managed to exercise authority over the country as a whole, or over its mediating institutions, through appeal to principles and creed and the manifest force of their character.
But when people choose their celebrities spontaneously, what do they look for? Beauty and the ability to entertain, obviously. Look at the covers on any magazine rack; check out Jay Leno’s guests. But these are only distant second- and third-place finishers. The winner, by a mile, will be companionship. People want celebrities they can feel close to, that they can take to bed and hug. (Hug, more than make love to; closeness is stronger and more primal than desire.) They want voices they can play in their inner ear. The Russian diplomat compared Washington’s pictures to icons; our celebrity icons, like those of the Orthodox Church, are meant to be kissed. Probably the craving for companionship is related to the loss of authority. If people don’t know what they are doing on earth, they at least want to know the people they see in the celebrity sky above them.
As it happened, companionship is the very thing that the ubiquitous media can most easily provide. Beauties come and go; entertainment is hit-or-miss. But companionship—nothing simpler. A system that is up and running, twenty-four hours a day, in word, image, and sound, can make you know anyone or anything better than you know your underwear. After all, you look at that less often.
Consider the real star of 1997, Princess Diana. What made her America’s, as well as England’s, rose? Was she beautiful? As beautiful as a tall, horsy millionairess who hinged on clothes could be. Entertaining? Somewhat. The line in the TV interview about her marriage being crowded was well delivered (undoubtedly it had been written for her). Were there traditional reasons for her stature? No achievements, apart from some fashionable charities. She was a royal.
Princess Diana had one true talent—she ate the lens—and one relevant habit—promiscuous self-revelation. So the world knew her and mourned her passing.
Are our means and our desires then the perfect fit, the psychic perpetual-motion machine? Not quite, for the companionship celebrities offer is a lie and a cheat. How could it be otherwise? We’ve never met. Since, unlike Washington or Whitefield, they have never saved our lives or our souls, they have never affected us. All we know about them is that we know them—and it turns out we don’t.
Celebrities are imaginary companions, like Calvin’s talking tiger, Hobbes. But unlike Calvin, we did not make up our celebrity companions, and we were told they were real. It mattered less that William Henry Harrison had never set foot in a log cabin except by accident; Presidents only last four years. (Poor Harrison, it turned out, only lasted thirty days.) Celebrities promise to be with us always, as a collective cast of companions, if not individually. But we all intuit, at some level, that they are never with us and that we have been diddled. The result is resentment.
That is why we like our celebrities wasted, addicted, or dead. Elizabeth Taylor is on the covers of supermarket tabloids because she has weight and alcohol problems, not in spite of them. Elvis impersonators overwhelmingly mimic the white-fringed bloated druggie. Marilyn Monroe moved to another level when she killed herself. Each of these celebrities had some genuine talent or quality—Taylor was beautiful, Elvis could sing, Marilyn could walk — but they entered celebrity heaven because of their woes, which simultaneously gratify us and relieve us of the burden of revenge.