Tag Archives: celebrity culture

WHY SEX SCANDALS DIDN’T HURT DONALD TRUMP

Donald Trump

A well-publicized bout of illicit sex never did any celebrity’s reputation harm; often, a lot of good. But how does it affect a politician’s? Up to last week, you’d probably say: ruinously. But the election of Donald Trump (pictured above) amid a tsunami of accusations from women who claim he either touched or propositioned them inappropriately has forced us to change our minds.

It’s at least possible that, far from being damaged by the allegations, Trump actually profited from them. For a while he looked almost like a victim: someone whose every wink and flirtatious gesture over the past thirty years had suddenly returned as a baleful curse. Practically every day for about a fortnight, fresh grievances appeared; women, who had been silent for years, decided it was time to make their claims public.

After a while, it seemed Trump’s denials were useless and that his presidential campaign was wrecked. At least according to many journalists. But maybe there was a rebound in public sympathy with voters who doubted the authenticity of the claimants, lending their support to the beleaguered Trump.

He wasn’t the first US President or prospective President to have extricated himself from a potentially career-wrecking sex scandal and perhaps Trump owes his survival to the strategy adopted by none other than the husband of his presidential rival.

Bill Clinton is a liminal figure, occupying a position on both sides of the celebrity politician divide: he had a successful political career as governor of Arkansas, 1979-81, and 1983-93, before becoming president. Clinton cut a beguiling figure en route to the presidency: telegenic and good-looking, he also had the sheen of authenticity, appearing natural and relaxed on television.

Clinton arrived at the White House in 1993 in the middle of a media revolution, with cable television providing a 24-hour news cycle. His arrival also coincided with a voyeurism diffusing through the population: consumers’ interest in private lives practically commissioned the media’s intrusive approach and obliged even presidents to expose themselves. On one memorable occasion in 1992, Clinton donned Ray-Bans and played saxophone on a late night talk show. Yet there was more celebrity to Clinton than anyone dared to imagine and, in 1998, he became the central figure of a sex scandal bigger than anything dreamt up by Madonna.

There was a stunning moment shortly after the scandal broke when Clinton appeared on national television and affirmed: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” That woman was Monica Lewinsky, White House aide, and her account of her relationship with the President was somewhat different. The US President is always a figure of great interest by virtue of his position (there’s never been a female President), and this and the several other allegations of sexual peccadilloes that followed marked Clinton out as someone worthy of even greater interest.

Clinton was the US President for two terms of office and, for a while, under threat of impeachment. So the scandal could have had wider-reaching repercussions than it actually did. And the fact that Lewinsky actually worked in politics gave it added relevance. As the concupiscent details of the case unfurled — the semen-stained dress, the cigar, the secretly recorded phone conversations — interest built and, for the final two years of the twentieth century, Lewinsky was one of the most famous women in the world. Her celebrity status manifested in several books about her, an assortment of well-paid endorsement deals, her own line of accessories and a reality tv program in which she featured. She then faded from view.

The affair should have hurt, even destroyed Clinton. Why didn’t it? He had narrowly avoided a controversy about his wilder years as a student, when he issued his famous “I did not inhale” notice about his supposed marijuana smoking. The Lewinsky denial could have undermined his credibility.

In December 1998, within months of the denial, Clinton achieved his career highest approval rating of 73. His average approval rating during his term of office was 55.1, below John F. Kennedy, but above Reagan, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, among others. He enjoyed a consistently high approval rating among the “baby boomer” generation (those born in the immediate post-second world war period). An experts’ poll in 2011 placed Clinton at 19 in the all-time list of presidents. Maybe honesty was no longer part of the Presidential job description.

Clinton remained as President till 2001, when he left office after serving his complete second term. He also acquired a status distinct from that of other politicians, who leave legacies. Clinton could have been remembered for bringing together Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Front on the White House lawn in 1993, or signing the 1994 Kremlin Accords that stopped the preprogrammed nuclear missiles, or organizing peace talks for Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995, or ordering cruise missile strikes on Afghanistan in 1998. He could also be remembered as the first president to have solicited the public’s favour in spite of deeds that would have damned politicians from earlier eras.

Clinton though was a politician for the celebrity era. Squeaky-clean politicians whose worst vice was an extra-marital fling were, by the 1990s, remnants of another age. Compare his experience with that of former civil-rights leader and Washington DC mayor Marion Barry, who in 1990, was convicted of cocaine possession. A female friend had lured him into a police sting: at their assignation, hidden cameras captured him smoking crack. During his six-week trial, accounts of his sex and drug binges, backed by evidence from a pimps and pushers, were relayed to homes via television. He served six months in jail, but two months after his release, he returned to the city council and, within three years, was re-elected Mayor. In another sex-related case, New York governor Eliot Spitzer resigned after being implicated in a federal investigation into inter-state prostitution in 2008. He barely broke stride, returning in his own television show, his credibility in tact.

John Edwards, a 2004 vice presidential candidate, had an affair with a woman while his wife was dying with cancer. This was scandal enough to blow him off course in his bid for president in 2007, but he would probably have navigated his way back had it not been for allegations that he masterminded a $1 million cover-up of his affair, mis-using funds from two wealthy campaign donors. Substance abuse, carnal activities and sundry other deviant behaviours are, it seems, forgivable; in a way, they humanize a politician, exposing a few of the kind of flaws all of us secrete.

Clinton sailed close to the wind; but it blew in his favour. The political culture in which he prospered had lost the stiffness and propriety of earlier eras and his sexual misconduct was not thought venal. Clinton brought a sense of showmanship and his occasional peccadillo only intensified the drama of his presidency. Even in the midst of the Lewinsky scandal, he battled on like a rock star in his fifties, determined to show his audience he had a few good songs in him. Clinton may not have been the greatest President, but he was surely the most consumable and, as if to prove this, he still tours the world, giving guest lectures, signing copies of his own books, receiving invitations to do spots on tv shows and doing what celebrities do – appear.

There’s no evidence at that Trump studied Clinton’s expertly manoeuvred strategy. But you can be sure the people surrounding him were aware that a resolve to remain unforthcoming, distant and aloofly silent about the allegations was the only response realistically available to their man. Denial would have just led to further accusations, implicating him in a vortex of claim and counter-claim. Speechlessness effectively killed the narrative. A stream of allegations became repetitive and uninteresting after a while.

Is there irony in this? After all, most celebrities revel in sex scandals. It reminds us that political celebrities – and Trump is now arguably the paragon of these – are different from other celebs. They still need to engage with us in a way that reminds us that they have that indefinable quality of ordinariness; they also need to keep us in close contact via social aswell as traditional media; and they need to surrender their private lives to us – after all, we feel entitled not just to know but to own celebrities.

Yet politicians don’t just entertain us: they make decisions that affect our material lives and, possibly, those of our children. We like to know that, for all their flaws and foibles, they have our interests in mind. Trump has skilfully persuaded Americans that, for all his reputed dalliances, he is a man who can be trusted to put his followers’ interests before his own. This is a rare feat for a politician today.

Picture courtesy of Gage Skidmore, via Flickr

 

GIANT: THREE MORTALS ON THEIR WAY TO IMMORTALITY

Giant-Movie

Q: It’s sixty years this month since the release of the film Giant (40th anniversary poster above). This was a big film in the 1950s, but never ranks among the likes of The Godfather, Casablanca, or Gone With The Wind as a twentieth century classic. But I know you’re going to tell us that it has cultural significance that escapes most of us.
A: It’s only what you’d expect from me, isn’t it? You can see a half-century of popular culture in Giant. Three mortal figures advance towards immortality in this film.
Q: Well, that’s quite a claim. Continue.
A: First, the story. Edna Ferber’s book Giant concerns an oil-and-ranching family modeled on the Kleberg family, who ran (and still run today) the vast King Ranch in South Texas. Giant is the story a simple cowhand who becomes a conniving, bigoted oil tycoon and cattle baron and his strong-willed wife, transplanted from the greenery of her native Maryland, who curbs his Southern vulgarities with her Eastern civility. Serialized in Ladies’ Home Journal beginning in the spring of 1952, Giant was released that fall to immense sales, quickly leaping onto the New York Times best-seller list. But the film based on the novel secretes another story. Warner Brothers, having secured the rights – amid much competition from other studios – to Ferber’s work, cast Rock Hudson in the central role of Bick Benedict, the Texas rancher, Hudson, then 29, was what was known in the mid-1950s as “beefcake,” meaning an outstandingly handsome and muscular man who radiated heterosexual attractiveness. Montgomery Clift, also possessed of exceptional good looks, was earmarked for the role of Jett Rink, the poor dirt farmer who strikes it rich, thought to be based on Glenn McCarthy, who was a flamboyant oil millionaire, known as “King of the Wildcatters” (a wildcatter is a prospector who sinks exploratory oil wells). But the producers were suspicious of his drinking and opted for the then relatively untested method actor James Dean, who made East of Eden (1955) and seemed an acceptable risk. Dean was also handsome, but, in his case, haunted-looking, which was fashionably impressive – he looked, to use a term that originated at the time and has persisted since, cool.
Q: And the role of Leslie?
A: Grace Kelly was a natural for the role of Bick’s wife. The humble, blonde Philadelphia beauty who became Hollywood star had not yet fled to become a European princess and looked perfect. She was about as hot as it was possible to be at the time. She’d been in High Noon, Dial M for Murder and To Catch a Thief. The film’s director George Stevens had briefly considered Elizabeth Taylor, but, at 23, she seemed too young (Kelly was nearly two-and-a-half years older). The story goes that Hudson, possibly wary that hugely popular Kelly might steal his thunder, argued Taylor’s case and eventually got his way. Remember: Taylor was not yet the scandalizing hellcat she became, though, she had gone through her first unruly marriage and was now married to English actor Michael Wilding. But she had not yet taken on a role that was truly adult and the role demanded that she age an improbable twenty-five years over the course of Ferber’s saga.
Q: Now, you describe Hudson as beefcake. But he later became the first Hollywood star to die from Aids. He was gay, if memory serves. So?
A: This was the 1950s. America hadn’t even started contemplating repealing its sodomy laws, as they called them. Hudson was shut tight in the closet. In fact he was married to his agent’s assistant. In those days, they were called “lavender marriages,” meaning they were designed to remove suspicions about an actor’s sexual preferences.
Q: So, there were suspicions about Hudson?
A: In the film industry, for sure. But don’t forget, in the 1950s, Hollywood operated a smooth-functioning publicity operation and allowed only the information it wanted released to escape to the outside world. Had it become known that Hudson was gay – and he didn’t come out until only weeks before his death in 1985 – it would have killed off his professional career instantly.
Q: Did Taylor know?
A: Almost certainly. And, if she didn’t when they started filming, she would have known soon enough, if only because he didn’t make a move on her. She was one of the most desirable women in the world at the time and her marriage was apparently on the rocks. If there had been social media back then, we would have all got rolling reports on them.
Q: And Dean?
A: Well his heterosexual credentials were also called into question, though not as conspicuously as Hudson’s of course. Then again, there the gossip, rumour and hearsay surrounding Dean has never ceased. When someone dies, especially prematurely, it seems to provide the world with licence to think, say and share whatever they choose. Dean was killed in a road accident before filming had even finished. He’d completed his scenes and was driving his Porsche Spyder in Cholame, California. This was 1955. Dean (who was born in 1931), like Marlon Brando (born 1924) was one of those mid-20th century glamor-rebels challenging a society in the throes of a social, cultural and psychological adjustment to peacetime. Their political aspirations were captured in Brando’s answer to, “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” in The Wild One (1953). “What’ve you got?” Elvis was another pin-up rebel without a cause, conviction or purpose. Dean, perhaps more than the others, encoded the mood of his generation. It was a generation that had not yet assimilated changes in the cultural politics of sex: Dean was unequivocally male and that meant his glazed handsomeness was intended to excite young women. It did. But that was just the visible tip of Dean’s ultra cool iceberg. The Dean myth grew bigger, appreciably bigger, than the man. Check this picture of him in crucifiorm mode, with Taylor looking at him almost worshipfully.

 

Giant

 

Q: Let me pause briefly to reflect: the film featured Hudson, who was, for all the world knew, a straight lady’s man, but who later took on iconic importance when he became the first Aids victim from the Hollywood A-list. There was also Taylor, who, at that time, was still four years away from her scandalous affair with Eddie Fisher, who was best man at her third wedding, and married to one of the world’s most popular girl-next-door types, Debbie Reynolds — and father of her children. And Dean, who died young and handsome and whose image was to adorn millions of posters, tee-shirts, coffee mugs and who was to become the subject of books and movies. He was one of those characters who, as they say, captured the zeitgeist.
A: Correct.
Q: I get it: they were all, in their own ways, icons of the late twentieth century.
A: Yes, though the affair with Fisher was only the start of the Taylor’s notoriety. In the early 1960s, she meet Richard Burton in Italy on the set of Cleopatra (see below). Still married to Fisher, she became involved with the Welsh actor, himself married and with children. The timing of the clandestine affair was perfect in a sense. The Italian photojournalists who later became known to us all as paparazzi were just beginning their exploits and caught Taylor and Burton in flagrante. The image quickly circulated around the world, heralding the arrival of a new type of journalism.

 

Elizabeth Taylor, 1932-2011

 

Q: And ultimately, the rise of what we now recognize as celebrity culture.
A: I’d say so. Now do you understand what I mean when I say Hudson, Taylor and Dean were three mortals advancing towards immortality? In a way, all three have left their impressions on our culture.
Q: What made you think of this?
A: I claim no credit. An American journalist Amanda Champagne, who writes for Closer, asked me to comment on the film as we approach its anniversary and, as I was thinking about the production, it occurred to me that the three main actors were far from cultural behemoths in 1956 when the film was released. But, over subsequent decades, each became colossally significant in completely different ways.

MYTH-MAKING: Elizabeth Taylor, Liz Smith and the birth of celebrity culture

Ellis Cashmore discusses reactions to his new book with his commissioning editor at Bloomsbury, Katie Gallof.

Media of Elizabeth Taylor

Katie Gallof: Well your new book on Elizabeth Taylor is provoking some reaction, isn’t it? It seems you’ve captivated some reviewers, and infuriated others. Liz Smith, in particular, has moved from the first response to the second. What goes on here?

Ellis Cashmore: First let me introduce Liz Smith, @LizSmth, who, in all probability doesn’t need much of an introduction. She’s the most experienced and arguably most respected society journalist in the world and, even in her nineties, files an influential column called New York Social Diary in which she chronicles the lives of celebrities. To call her a gossip columnist – which I do in the book – is really like describing the Sistine Chapel as a church. She is the doyen of celebrity journalists.

KG: She was a friend of Elizabeth Taylor, right?

EC: Absolutely. A confidante too, I would surmise. Certainly, Liz Smith covered Elizabeth Taylor’s career in depth and for a period of time that qualifies her to comment authoritatively on virtually any aspect of her life.

KG: And your book is, of course, about Taylor’s life, but also the cultural changes she both lived through and, in her way, instigated.

EC: Yes, my argument is that Taylor ushered in what we now call celebrity culture: audiences were as fascinated by her private life as they were by her dramatic performances and she was adept at manipulating the media in a way that suited her own ends perfectly. In a genuine sense, she helped cultivate our appetite for scandal, particularly with her tempestuous romance with Richard Burton. We take this for granted now, of course. But La Liz, as Liz Smith calls her, was the first Hollywood star to capture fans in this way. Incidentally, Liz Smith wrote about Taylor and Burton: ““They trusted me and eventually I became the only journalist who could get to them.”

KG: So what did Liz Smith think about your book?

EC: In her column New York Social Diary, she offered her view that I “intelligently and dramatically” address the changing status of fame, specifically how Taylor benefited from scandals that would have ruined lesser stars, whether Taylor deliberately started those scandals, if she delighted in or squirmed from the global fame she acquired and how she turned her fame to her own purposes. In a lovely phrase, Liz Smith notes my analysis of “How she [Taylor] made mythology out of her travails and happiness.” You can imagine how thrilled I was when she concluded: “I found myself agreeing with most of his conclusions, perhaps because I myself had come to believe, and had written those same conclusions, over the many, many years I knew and had unprecedented access to the star of stars.”

KG: Praise indeed from someone who has been writing about the stars for at least four decades. I understand she launched her renowned New York Daily News column in 1976.

EC: Yes. In fact, she implicitly invited me to contact her for further information when she wrote that her input could have “made his good book better.” I don’t doubt this.

KG: So what’s changed?

EC: Three days later in another New York Social Diary column, Liz Smith wrote that the more she thought about my book’s references to her, the more “pissed-off” she became. Naturally, it wasn’t my intention to upset her and I don’t think there was any inaccuracy in my account. But I recorded how she was present at many pivotal events in Taylor’s career and was closer to her than any other journalist. This led some writers to assume she lost some objectivity and became too chummy. This wasn’t my criticism: in fact, it came from Ann Gerhart, who, in 1993, wrote critically after Liz Smith had emceed a press conference at which Taylor introduced her range of fragrances: “Now, the veteran gossip columnist is a celebrity in her own right, by virtue of her years of access and hefty salary, and many times she has hosted various functions to raise money for charity. But a journalist serving as a flack, helping an interview subject hustle a commercial venture, that’s something entirely different and smacked, to us, of ethics violations.”

KG: That was certainly a stinging censure.

EC: It was, though, in a sense, journalists can, indeed have to become familiar, if not friendly with their subjects. Remember Gerhart’s remarks were 23 years ago. Today, we consumers expect journalists to provide insider accounts of the most personal details of celebrities’ private lives. This is not sycophancy, but Liz Smith was ahead of her time in this respect.  I know she grumbles that many critics have given her “bitchy write-ups,” but I’m hoping she doesn’t include me. In writing the book, I’ve tried to be analytical and detached.

KG: I notice that, at the end of the book, you include her in the roll of influential individuals who, in their own way, shaped Taylor and, in turn, the world in which she lived.

EC: Indeed I do. The whole book is as much about times of Elizabeth Taylor, as well as her life. She was inseparable from her cultural context and, of course, Liz Smith was part of that context. I quote her poignant phrase after Taylor died: “She was only 79, but had lived a thousand years, had fired up and exhausted endless fantasies for herself and the millions who watched her.”

 

Katie Gallof is Bloomsbury’s Senior Commissioning Editor for Film and Media Studies. She’s based in New York. katie.gallof@bloomsbury.com  @BloomsburyMedia

Ellis Cashmore is author of Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption and Beyond Black: Race and Celebrity in Obama’s America. He is a visiting professor of sociology at Aston University  e.cashmore1@aston.ac.uk.  @elliscashmore

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN CELEBRITIES DIE?

Prince

Q: Prince (pictured above) is the latest in an incredible series of celebrity deaths this year. The unexpected death of David Bowie was an ominous start to 2016. Since then we’ve lost Harry Potter star Alan Rickmam, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Harper Lee, Glenn Frey of the Eagles, and renowned singer Natalie Cole, among others.

A: And don’t forget Lemmy, of Motörhead, who died last December. These are all people who have, in some way, helped shape all of our lives. The impact of some, particularly Bowie, has been substantial. It’s hard to imagine anyone between the ages of, say, 50 and 70 who hasn’t been affected by him. The response to his death was one of those great “outpourings,” as we now call them, following the aftermath of the death of Princess of Diana in 1998.

Q: Hang on. Surely we’ve always grieved when famous figures have died.

A: Not so publicly. Nowadays, there’s an exhibitionist quality about our grieving. We feel almost a sense of obligation, as if we’re participating in a ritual. There’s nothing wrong or artificial about it: it’s just part of a more generic cultural shift towards expressing everything, including our innermost feelings. It reminds us that even the personal is actually social.

Q: I’m not sure exactly what you mean by that, but I assume you’re hinting that the emotions we presume are instinctive states of mind and distinguishable from our outward expressions are not as private as we think.

A: That’s pretty much it, yes. Everything we are is made possible by our participation in society.

Q: OK, let me push you towards answering a more specific question about the meaning of celebrity deaths.

A: Here’s the thing: celebrities today are not like the Hollywood stars of the 1940s or 1950s or, earlier, the great political, military or even religious leaders, all of whom stood above us on pedestals. We put them there, of course; but we were comfortable looking up to them – as if they were godlike creatures; untouchable and inaccessible. Today, celebs are just like us: we communicate with them via twitter and Instagram, we learn their “secrets,” we invest part of our own lives in theirs. In sum, we treat them as ordinary human beings, except they are in the media. We might respect some of them; others we might just like; still others we might hate. As long as they somehow elicit a reaction from us, we follow them. To use a term of today, they engage us. That’s all a celebrity needs to do.

Q: And when they die, they remind us that they’re just flesh and blood like the rest of us, right?

A: You’re ahead of me. That’s exactly right: death is the ultimate reminder of mortality. We don’t wish our celebrities to be dead, of course; but we are macabrely reassured by their passing.

Q: I guess illness functions similarly.

A: Yes. As you know, my recent book Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption approaches the star as a harbinger — a person or thing that announces or signals the approach of another era, in Taylor’s case celebrity culture. Throughout her life, she was bedeviled by serious illness. Everyone knew this because every bout of sickness was generously covered by the media. She became ill publicly. As the consummate celebrity, Taylor knew exactly how to use this to her advantage: she manipulated the media perfectly in a way designed to squeeze the maximum amount of sympathy from her public. She actually advised her friend Michael Jackson that he could exploit his own illnesses. My point is that, when we hear of the ill health of celebrities, it is, again, one of those reminders that they’re just as susceptible to sickness as anyone else. And we find that comforting. It sounds perverse, but that’s just one of a number of perversities in celebrity culture.

TV TALENT SHOWS: TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING?

Q: Simon Cowell’s blood must be boiling: he gave Gary Barlow a job on The X Factor, while he was away between 2011 and 2013, and now Barlow is planning a rival talent show for BBC. We won’t be able to move for talent shows.   At the moment we’re reaching the business end of The Voice (below). Once that concludes, we’ll have Britain’s Got Talent, then Cowell’s mainstay The X Factor. Can we take this much talent?

The Voice

 A: I think the concept has plenty of mileage, but The X Factor is showing its age and could founder after another series, especially if the mooted Barlow series succeeds. We shouldn’t underestimate The X Factor, of course: the once-monumental show was, and perhaps still is, a television phenomenon. No programme has consistently pulled in audiences like Cowell’s show. At its peak, in 2010, it drew 19.4 million viewers — that’s over 30 percent of the UK’s total population. But it’s been sliding since and, last year, one of its programmes drew just 5.25m, the lowest since X Factor’s first ever show in September 2004. And remember, it straddles the whole demographic spectrum, bringing viewers of all ages and both genders to their screens for Saturday nights.
Q: I confess I find it simultaneously kind and cruel. It gives wannabes their chance but often uses them simply to mock. I know this was deliberate and, in a sense, this was part of the show’s attraction. But other talent shows are not so vicious. I mean, there are no lacerating put-downs on The Voice and criticism on BGT tends to be good-humoured.
A: And I wonder if that’s the problem. We enjoy critique. We even enjoy Cowell’s likening of some singers to karaoke performers or cabaret artists — as if these were the lowest of the low. And this has been part of the X Factor narrative. Yet familiarity is not always a good thing. Perhaps BBC is thinking along the same lines. Barlow is a constructive critic: he doesn’t pull his punches, but he’s nowhere near as acerbic as Cowell (below).

simon_cowell (1)

Q: Personally, I like Cowell’s disparagement: it’s blunt, honest and a rebuff for the narcissistic culture that encourages an anyone-can-make-it attitude among young people. Some of the contestants are chillingly reminded that, while everyone wants to be a celebrity, some of us are destined to remain anonymous.
A: I tend to agree; but tastes change. At least, the decline in ratings suggest so. Reality tv broadly continues to prosper, mainly because we find authenticity rewarding. The X Factor welded this authenticity to what we nowadays call fandom — that is, the collective of admirers or followers of the famous. Cowell took an old idea and gave fans the ability to decide who should win. The X Factor has more in common with sport than conventional entertainment: every week voting fans democratically decide who gets eliminated until, like a Darwinian struggle, whoever they think is the strongest survives.
Q: There’s something else: the voters are actually doing market research for Cowell. They tell him who they like and who they don’t like. So when he launched One Direction, Olly Murs and Leona Lewis, it was in the certain knowledge that they’d already created huge fan bases.
A: True. But the show has had its fair show of flops and The Voice seems to be an end-point for winners. Fans vote for them, but then turn away. Perhaps that’s really what the want. Leanne Mitchell had poor album sales  and  Jermain Jackman‘s first single limped only to 75 in the chart.
Q: Let me get this straight: you mean audiences like X Factor winners when they are on the show, but don’t like the prospect of them becoming world-conquering superstars independently?
A: Maybe. I think the failure of X Factor’s 2014 winner Ben Haenow could be a sign that fans like the feeling that they control the destiny of singers. Once the show is over, they just have to sit back and watch the likes of Harry Styles et al. becoming huge stars without their support. It’s like electing someone Prime Minister, then feeling helpless while they rule the country. I’ll be surprised if any future winners of The X Factor or any other talent show, duplicate the success of 1D, Leona Lewis (both from The X Factor) or Susan Boyle, who leapt to fame from BGT.
Q: The redtop newspapers love talent shows, don’t they?
A: It’s not only the redtop newspapers. The Sun and the Mirror certainly give most coverage to the shows, particularly any scandal, no matter how minor, surrounding the panel or the contestants; but all the newspapers grant them space. The relationship is symbiotic: the newspapers get a steady supply of stories, while the shows benefit from the exposure. And it’s not just traditional media.
Q: Social media wasn’t really around when The X Factor started, was it?
A: Not on any great scale. Today, twitter can help new artists and allow established stars to thrive. I think twitter, together with Vine and Instagram, can short circuit talent shows. This makes me think that, in future, talent shows — at least the ones that are going to flourish — will need to integrate television and social media. I don’t think this is just a case of hashtagging   and so on. I think the shows’ producers will have to exercise their minds creatively to come up with a closer interaction, cooperation or joint engagement. The alternative is to look old-fashioned and — dare I say it? — irrelevant. I don’t underestimate the ingenuity of the shows’ producers: I suspect they will innovate in a way that keeps us glued to our tvs on Saturday nights, though I think the days of 15m+ tv viewers has passed. Of course, tv itself may be passing too: all the signs are that we’re watching content via our tablets, smartphones or whatever portable devices will appear in the future. We’re also watching whenever we please: catchup tv means that we can choose the time to watch. I imagine all the shows are grappling with a form flexible enough to accommodate new viewing habits. The challenge is to retain the democratic character: the audience feels in control of talent shows at the moment. They can elevate someone to stardom or consign them to oblivion. I think this is important in separating talent shows from ordinary entertainment programmes.
Q: You sound ambivalent about the future of talent shows. Are you?
A: Well, I’m mindful that American Idol, which is the US equivalent of The X Factor, and features Cowell on its panel, is currently in its final run. It’s been going for 15-years. The show originated as a version of the UK’s Pop Idol, which played for two series between 2001-03, before The X Factor started up. An American version of The X Factor lasted only two years, 2011 to 2013, while American Idol thrived, at one point drawing 40 million viewers (for comparison, last January’s Super Bowl drew an average of 114.4 million viewers).
Q: And you think this presages problems for the talent shows?
A: Like any other television genre, there’s a point where you can have too much of a good thing. There are, at the last count, 147 versions of The X Factor around the world, for example. But we live at a time when people demand constant change and renewal; they want novelty, freshness and originality. Talent shows had all these. Now they’re looking a bit stale. Shows are going to have to mutate and adapt to new environments. Those that change in a way we find agreeable, will continue; but I think others will struggle. At the moment the landscape is very congested: we have talent shows almost every week of the year. I think The Voice, when revamped by ITV, will be interesting. I also think The X Factor will come back fighting after the worst year in its history. Whether BGT and the new Gary Barlow series will respond remains to be seen. The battle between the shows could be more interesting than the on-stage battles.

 

CAN BEYONCÉ SELL THE END OF RACISM?

Q: In your book Beyond Black, you argued that Beyoncé was the epitome of today’s celebrity-as-commodity: someone who has almost surrendered her humanity to turn herself into an all-purpose industry that can sell practically any product. There’s no doubt about that. But, after her apparently newfound blackness (as revealed at the halftime Super Bowl show, see above), I have a new question: can she sell the end racism?

A: There’s a short answer and a long one. Let me start with the short: No. Beyoncé Knowles-Carter is a phenomenon, someone who has lived her life as a business; every move she makes is scrupulously thought-through,  every decision is subject to rigorous analysis, every interview   she gives (and there are precious few) is subject to her approval. This is a woman to whom spontaneity and randomness are like crosses to a vampire. She likes control over every aspect of her industry — and she is an industry, of course. She can sell anything, whether Samsung phones, L’Oréal lipstick, American Express cards … the list goes on. Oh yes, and her own music, of course. Since 2006, when Destiny’s Child split up, she has sold 118 million records worldwide.

Q: But, as I recall, your argument was that Bey’s avoidance of getting involved in any social issue that is even faintly controversial is the key to her commercial success. You also said that all black celebrities have conditional status in the sense that they are kind of allowed to be successful on the condition that they don’t get talk too loudly about social issues. In particular about racism. This seems to have changed now. Beyoncé appears to have some sort of epiphany —  a moment of sudden revelation — and is prepared to define herself as black. This is something she’s never done before.

A: You’re right: Beyoncé has never openly described herself as black and has even explicitly denied that she is on the same cultural landscape as the rest of us. In a 2009 interview with Vogue asked her “if she had ever experienced any of the racism in the music business.” She answered: “My father had to fight those battles. I didn’t. And now I’m large enough—I’m universal—that no one’s paying attention to what race I am. I’ve kind of proven myself. I’m past that.” Now she seems to have decided that the time is right to open up on this issue. In her new video Formation, she addresses the race issue, straddling a New Orleans police car, which eventually gets submerged (with her on its roof) And at the end of the video, a line of riot-gear-clad police officers surrender, hands raised, to a dancing black child in a hoodie, and the camera then pans over a graffito: Stop Shooting Us. She released the track just before her show the Super Bowl’s half-time; her performance was loaded with black power symbols and what some interpreted as a protest against the police’s treatment of blacks in America (see below).

Q: Since the Trayvon Martin shooting in 2012, there has been a series of encounters involving unarmed African Americans on the losing end of a gun or a confrontation with police. Jordan Davis, 17, was shot and killed in 2012. Renisha McBride, 19, shot and killed in 2013. Eric Garner, 43, was killed in chokehold New York City in 2014, by police officer Daniel Pantaleo. John Crawford, 22, was shot and killed by police in 2014. Michael Brown shot and killed in Ferguson in 2014, by then-police officer Darren Wilson. Tamir Rice, 12, was killed in Cleveland in, 2014, by police officer Timothy A. Loehmann. The killers of Davis and McBride were found guilty and are in prison. The police officers involved in the killings of Crawford, Garner and Brown were not indicted. The officer who killed Tamir is on restricted duty.

A: And everyone in America and beyond knows about these killings and understands the ill-feeling they have created.  I think this is why Beyoncé has incorporated black emblems into her music: it became artificial for her to keep insisting racial issues didn’t interest her, or she transcended these kinds of matters. My guess is that her advisors suggested it was time for her to make some kind of statement, however stylized it may be. Rather than give interviews on the subject of police and black people, she’s woven them in her music and onstage performances. As a result, the world has been taken by surprise, Bey has attracted global publicity and she finds herself in a huge controversy — just as tickets go on sale for her world tour (it kicks off in Sunderland in June, by the way) and releases her new Formation album.

Q: Surely you can’t be suggesting that this is just a marketing strategy.

A: Perhaps not just a marketing strategy, but certainly a development that’s beneficial for her marketing strategy. I’ve no idea what Beyoncé genuinely thinks and feels. Who does? Her interviews are typically not enlightening and she is not discussing either the Super Bowl show or the video. As in the past, she lets others generate publicity for her.  The former Mayor of New York Rudy Giulani screamed it was “outrageous” she used the Super Bowl “to attack police officers, who are the people who protect her and protect us and keep us alive”.  America’s Saturday Night Live show has parodied her with its “Where were you ?

Q: As you’ve argued before, celebrities today thrive on controversy and the kind of scandals that would have ruined the careers of film stars and rock singers in the twentieth century. Presumably, this is no different.

A: I suspect this is a calculation more than a gamble. Beyoncé is so globally adored that it’s difficult to think of any kind of scandal that would hurt her. She can say or do pretty much as she pleases and get away with it. The kind of conditional status that applies to most other black celebrities simply doesn’t work with her. She’s never said she is black, anyway. I’ve no doubt that she won’t clarify her intentions any time soon. Anyway, she’s too busy selling us stuff. But stuff isn’t the same as an end to racism — and this is my long answer to the main question. Celebrities can draw attention to big issues and can, in some cases, force the media to take notice. But there are limits to their influence. Beyoncé is a prodigious seller of merchandise, but thoughts are harder to sell than lipstick and breakfast cereal.

Beyoncé - Formation

PRIVACY? THAT’S SO 20th CENTURY!

Q: I want to start by asking you about your relationship with your mother. I believe you had a somewhat troubled childhood and that there was tension between …

A: Hang on! This is a bit personal, isn’t it? What are we doing here?

Q: Those were Robert Downey Jr’s very words just before he walked out on Channel 4’s interviewer Krishnan Guru-Murthy the other day (interview is above).

A: Oh, I’m with you now: Downey thought he was just appearing to promote his new movie  Avengers: Age of Ultron (below) and he got upset when Guru-Murthy pressed him on more personal issues, including his past use of drugs and alcohol. In fact, he got so upset, he just pulled a face, said “goodbye,” yanked off his microphone and walked out, mumbling, “it was getting a bit Diane Sawyer” — a reference to the American interviewer who tends to probe into private lives.

Q: So has Downey any right to restrict his interview to promoting his new film and refusing to talk about his private life?

A: In my opinion, anyone who is either an A-list celebrity — as Downey clearly is — or has aspirations to becoming a celeb of some distinction has to come to terms early on with the fact that they have no private life that they can keep offlimits: everything in their past and present is fair game, not just for the traditional media, but for everyone. Social media, twitter in particular, has pretty much made privacy redundant. But even before twitter started (it launched in 2006), celebrities had entered into a new kind of arrangement in which they agreed to cough up any details of their lives the media wanted to know about. And, of course, the media are our proxy: they probe because we consumers want them to probe.

Q: When did all this start then? Because I can’t imagine the Hollywood stars of the 1950s or even 1960s surrendered their right to a private life. In fact, my reading of the old stars is that the film industry kept a very tight control over the information they released to the media. What changed?

A: After the rise of Madonna in the 1980s, anyone who aspired to be famous had to stay mindful of the sacrifice she made. She may not have slaughtered an animal or child as an offering to god, but she gave up something that had been regarded as important to previous entertainers: her privacy. Had social media been around, she would have had no choice. But in the days when traditional media were dominant, she opted to start a process that would eventually turn privacy inside out. Eventually, fans, instead of relying on what the media provided, asserted themselves. But they needed assistance. Consumers have no need to depend on traditional media for information on celebrities’ lives now: they can access it for themselves; and, if they can’t do that, they will make it up. Either way, it satisfies the voyeuristic impulse.

Q: Voyeuristic impulse? You mean we take pleasure from watching other people? Are you saying that we are all voyeurs nowadays?

A: Actually voyeurism doesn’t quite catch it: it sounds too one-directional, as if one group is peeping at another through a keyhole; celebrities supply raw material to eager followers. Madonna certainly delivered a product in the 1980s, but she was forced to change. The relationship between celebrities and fans became progressively more fluid, involving a collaboration and exchange of ideas between celeb and audience (reaching an unedifying point in 2012 when Justin Bieber’s fans elected via twitter to name his penis “Jerry”). It’s difficult to imagine unapproachable, unreachable, untouchable stars, such as Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and their contemporaries in the 1950s and 1960s, tweeting. But, if they were around in times of 360 degrees connectivity, they would be obliged to do exactly that (though probably not sharing nomenclature of genitalia).

Q: I guess twitter and Instagram have changed the way we understand privacy completely then.

A: Yes, it’s a kind of two-way situation: we follow others’ lives, but we don’t mind sharing our own. The kind of material people put on the two sites you mention would have made people shrink in embarrassment twenty years ago. But think about how relaxed everyone is about sharing what used to be called private information today. The Jerry Springer Show is one of the most important shows in television history: it really captured the zeitgeist when it debuted in 1991. Audiences could hardly believe they were watching and listening to people air their dirty linen in public, and, of course, the public was in millions. It was, in many ways, an incredible   show and paved the way for so many others, including our own Jeremy Kyle Show. We’ve become so used to eavesdropping on other people’s lives that we feel no guilt. We even discuss others’ behaviour in a way that turns us into judges. I mean that quite literally, we make moral evaluations about how other people live. That’s what I mean by the voyeuristic impulse.

Q: So I come back to my initial question. Downey: right or wrong?

A: Ah, I see you want me to make my own moral evaluation on him. Well, I think he has become such an interesting guy because of his checkered background. It looked for a while as if he would be cast out into the wilderness. In the 1990s, he was in and out of rehab and jail for drugs issues. At earlier periods in the twentieth century, this would have been ruinous for an actor, but when Downey got into trouble, audiences were not simply interested on what they saw on the screen, so his various travails made him a fascinating character. He got a part on the tv show Ally McBeal and was so good that he got big movie parts. Presumably, he’s aware that his troubled background has in a perverse way contributed to his success, but just wants to put it all behind him now. It’s understandable, though it suggests he may not quite understand that every time he’s giving an interview audiences are not just interested in his roles in Iron Man or Avengers: they’re actually more interested in Robert Downey Jr.

THE TWO JEREMYS

Q: Last week was one for Jeremys. First we heard that Jeremy Clarkson (pictured below) got dropped by BBC, then Jeremy Paxman dominated his interviews with the two main political candidates in the General Election. Let me start with JC: I heard you on radio recently talking about how we licence celebrities to break rules the rest of us stick to. I disagree. It’s nothing to do with us if the likes of Clarkson goes about trampling on people’s feelings and assaulting his colleagues. So your argument is pretty much like everything else you pontificate on: BS. No disrespect.

Jeremy Clarkson

A: Think of all the wellknown figures we follow devoutly but have crossed the boundaries at some point. It doesn’t make them any less fascinating; quite the opposite in fact. Take Tiger Woods’ transgression, as he called it: we actually found him more interesting as a result of his philandering. We thought David Beckham was wholesome family man who would never dare look at another woman before the Rebecca Loos affair. But the episode gave him a bit of devilry as far as we were concerned and that sort of humanized his public image.

Q: So you don’t think because we see a high profile celeb violating acceptable codes of behaviour, we tend to emulate them? After all they are role models, aren’t they?

A: No. Just because Clarkson hits his producer doesn’t mean his millions of devoted fans will ape his aggression. In any case, just think: people who break rules at one point in history are often seen retrospectively as pioneers. It wasn’t so long ago that being gay was a serious violation of social norms, and domestic abuse was seen as a private matter. At the same time, bullying at work was not seen as such a big deal. Now the first is not an issue at all, the second is a matter of social concern and the third is met with, in Clarkson’s case, a dismissal. History doesn’t stand still and nor do social rules.

Q: Which leads me to Paxman (pictured below): he was the star of the show when interviewing David Cameron and Ed Miliband. He dominated the exchanges and pressured Miliband so strongly that he asked, “Are you alright, Ed?” at the end of the interview. Is he a bully?

The Paxman stare

A: Not at all. He’s a self-important figure and he always makes sure no politician is going to steal his thunder. But you have to remember, he’s grilling the men who are aspiring to be the leader of the UK. So I think Paxman is our proxy.

Q: What’s that mean?

A: He’s acting on our behalf. So he’s asking difficult questions and expects the likes of Cameron and Miliband to be able to answer them. OK, he’s got a research team behind him to design his questions. But we want to see how politicians handle them. Asking Cameron if he knew how many food banks there were was a mischievous one because it’s doubtful if any other politician, or anybody else for that matter, would have the answer at the ready. His insistence on repeating one of the audience’s questions about Miliband’s brother was also below the belt. I mean, Ed is there to answer questions about himself, not whether his brother would make a more credible candidate. But this is Paxman’s stagecraft: he manages to entertain rather than educate us. It was an enjoyable programme, though I can’t say we learnt much more about the two candidates than we already knew.

Q: Is that what you think these televised political debates are for then? Entertainment?

A: You’ll recall I wrote a blog a week or so ago about how politics has been hijacked by tv. Bill Clinton was the first politician to master the transition to pure showman. I don’t think our main candidates are in Clinton’s class. Not yet anyway. Both take their cues from him mind.  Take a look at this from 1992: Clinton is brilliant. I think we learn a bit, though not much, about the politicians’ skills. But the main effect is to entertain us, yes. Television is a wonderful medium for this. I know some think it is an instrument of enlightenment and, on occasion, it can be; but its primary effect on politics is to make them more entertaining. That’s no bad thing, mind: if it gets people engaged, then it’s done its job.

Q: Before you go, what about Zayn Malik? I’ve never heard such a fuss about a guy leaving a boyband. What on earth is all that about?

A: I haven’t got time to explain here, but I’ll refer you to something I wrote the day after the split. See what you think. You’ll probably think it’s more BS! Click here.

ELECTION 2015: IS POLITICS PART OF CELEBRITY CULTURE?

Q: Just over seven weeks to go before the General Election. Already there are a couple of media controversies, with Prime Minister David Cameron (pictured below) refusing to participate in a tv debate unless there is a seven-way format with other party leaders involved, and the Conservatives launching a poster featuring Labour leader Ed Miliband in Scottish Nationalist Party’s Alex Salmond’s top pocket (pictured further below). It’s almost as if the presentation of leaders in the media has become more important than the policies they promise to implement. Is it?

A: There is a kind of parallel Election in which the parties are fighting for supremacy in the media. This is the Election most of us will engage with, if only by watching tv, checking twitter and other social media, browsing around the internet and just looking around us at posters and hoardings. Politicians realize that nowadays, policies will be influential, but the impressions they make on voters through their public presentations are probably going to be more decisive.

David Cameron at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham

Q: Wait a minute. That’s an awful indictment of democracy; are you saying there is a kind of political celebrity culture in which politicians try to attract our attention, entertain us, persuade us that they’re worth voting for and well … engage us just like pop stars, rock musicians and reality tv stars? Surely we voters are not so gullible to be misled by images. Are we?

A: “The camera never lies.” It’s a well-known saying, though not a very reliable one. Since the famous televised John F. Kennedy-Richard M. Nixon US presidential debates of 1960, there has been little doubt that the camera can overwhelm truth. Nixon held his own in the discussions and the majority of those who listened to the debates on radio believed he came out on top. But on tv, his ghostly pallor and jowly cheeks made him appear a less attractive candidate than his handsome, fresh-faced opponent who emerged triumphant in the election. At the time of the Kennedy-Nixon debates, the printed medium was the most credible source of news. Despite its domestic growth over the previous decade, television was still something of a novelty and lacked the punch of newspapers and journals. Since then, we have since grown evermore reliant on television for our political information, as we have for all kinds of information. Kennedy was the first modern politician to realize the potential of television in politics.

Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond's pocket would mean chaos for Britain

Q: OK, but that was the 1960s, before we’d even heard the term “celebrity culture.” Surely something else has happened.

A: You’re right: after JKF, the politicians who made most impact were the ones who made most effective use of the media. But it wasn’t until 1992 that Bill Clinton (pictured below, recently) arrived and decided that this wasn’t enough to emulate, imitate, or reproduce the style and manner of popular entertainers: politicians had to become entertainers in their own right. He was the first genuine celebrity politician. Clinton is a transitional figure, occupying a position on both sides of the celebrity divide: he had a successful political career as governor of Arkansas before becoming president. He cut quite a figure en route to the presidency: telegenic and good-looking, he also had the sheen of authenticity, appearing natural and relaxed on television. He studied the way in which tv performers established a rapport with audiences and replicated this quite brilliantly. Self-presentation became all-important.

Bill Clinton signs autographs

Q: Of course, Clinton became more like a showbiz celebrity than he ever guessed he would be.

A: You’re referring to his scandal. I doubt if Clinton anticipated his own career would follow that of some other entertainers, but his relationship with one of his aides, Monica Lewinsky, became an international scandal in 1998, and almost ruined his political aspirations. Interestingly though, it’s added to his legacy. Clinton is not known for any single achievement, nor for one great defining moment that would linger in everyone’s memory. But he remains an exceptionally popular media figure and, of course, a very well-paid speaker (his  haul in speaking fees since leaving the White House to $106 million, about £72m, according to CNN)

Q: Like Tony Blair.

A: Blair was, in a sense, Clinton’s most studious pupil. He mimicked Clinton in almost every detail. It’s possible that, in the process, Blair lost that touch of humanity that was so integral to Clinton’s persona, that is those aspects of his character that were visible to others. But his political record (three General Election wins) and his lucrative career after politics (the company he set up turns over £14m per year) suggests the project worked.

Q: Which I suppose convinced the politicians that followed Clinton and Blair that they needed to follow their example.

A: Barack Obama obviously thought so. Both his Presidential wins were preceded by stunningly effective media campaigns. Obama took the novel step of employing social media to engage with his potential supporters. This made him approachable and, in a way, genuine: voters felt they had an authentic line of communication with him. I think British politicians have realized how effective twitter in particular can be, though I’m still not sure they have grasped how best to use it to their own advantage.

Q: And celebrity endorsements?

A: Obama enjoyed arguably the most persuasive celebrity endorsement in history when Oprah Winfrey backed him. She is an immensely popular figure, but also one with a certain gravitas, by which I mean a weighty authority. I’m not sure if there is a celebrity over here who has that kind of influence. I mean, David Beckham is incredibly popular and can influence the way people dress and do their hair, but would his political views have any authority? Joanna Lumley (pictured below, campaigning for the charity Prospect Burma) has been very effective in campaigning for human rights and she is a popular figure but without influence across the whole spectrum. One thing is for sure: over the next few weeks, we’ll see parties recruiting all manner of celebrities to endorse them.

Joanna Lumley Namaste

Q: So now showbiz values have penetrated politics and, politics is, by definition, a public sphere. Perhaps more public than ever … and more personal than ever, wouldn’t you say?

A: I agree: as well as being able to relay news instantly from every part of the world to every part of the world, the media enables viewers to scrutinize their political leaders to an extent unheard of as recently as the 1990s. The surveillance carried out by new media is more invasive and perhaps more meddling than ever. Celebrity culture itself is, in some senses, an accommodation of this, celebrities surrendering any trace of a private life in exchange for publicity. Politicians too have had to strike the bargain. They play by the same rules as all other celebrities. All of which makes the next few weeks very interesting. People may hate the way in which politics has been sucked into celebrity culture, but the effects are intriguing. Campaigns are personal, mudslinging is inevitable and bickering is bound to become nasty. But imagine how much we knew about our politicians in the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s. Very little. Some might argue that all we need to know is how they intend to govern the country. Fair enough, but today’s voters have different appetites and sensibilities: we demand to know our politicians up close-and-personal. In seven weeks time, we’ll know a lot more about Cameron and the others than we do now. 

 

WHY DO FANS HURT THE ONES THEY LOVE?

 

Q: We’re approaching the 34th anniversary of the killing of John Lennon. It seems hardly any time at all, but I guess a complete generation has passed. What’s always made that case so bizarre to me was that Mark David Chapman, the killer, was actually a fan of Lennon’s and had even got his autograph. He also said he received instructions through the central character in J. D. Salinger’s novel Catcher in the Rye. “I kind of felt I kind of was him,” Chapman speculated. Years later, he changed his motive slightly, saying: “I felt that by killing John Lennon I would become somebody and instead of that I became a murderer, and murderers are not somebodies.” But he’s never expressed anger towards Lennon and appears to have been a fan, albeit a very unusual one.

A: Well, not that unusual actually. You have to think about fans as points on a spectrum: at the one end, there are those who admire at distance; while, at the other, there are those who love and identify so completely with the artist that they have strong, sometimes overwhelming, passions that either they can’t control or don’t want to control. For example, Nathan Gale was an intense fan of the heavy metal band Pantera. After the band split up in 2003, Gale carried on following the former band members. He went to a gig at Columbus, Ohio. The band playing was Damageplan, one of the splinter bands. Former Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell Abbott was on stage performing, when Gale opened fire and killed him. No one quite knows why he did it because he was killed himself in the ensuing melee. He could have blamed Abbott for Pantera’s breakup, but we’ll never know. The timing of the killing December 8 2008 was surely not accident, being the 24th anniversary of Lennon’s death. There’s actual footage of the incident here:

Q: Can we still call them fans when they have such motivations?

A: I agree that we are stretching the term, but we have to acknowledge a few uncomfortable truths. First, a biological one: love and hate are intimately linked in the human brain, according to a study that has discovered the biological basis for the two most intense emotions. Loathing and adoring can result in similar acts of extreme behavior, such as killing. Fans are prone to emotion, which can feed love or hatred. Second, a sociological fact: the media has changed the way we engage with famous people. At one time, we used to read about them, but now we feel almost intimate with them. That’s because the media, especially social media, has closed the distance between us. The third point is that the passions that celebrities excite in us are, for the most part, controllable: most fans manage their habits and practices; but some manage them in a way that is destructive.

Q: I see what you mean. But, when a fan loves a celebrity so much and manages their passion in a constructive way, what makes them switch to a destructive mode? I’m thinking of that Björk fan who wanted to kill her — and himself.

A: That was Ricardo Lopez who, in 1996, sent the singer a package that, if opened, would have exploded with sulfuric acid and who videotaped himself committing suicide in a perverse supplication. The grim and tragic episode dispensed a reminder that fans can be disturbed by potentially anything. While Lopez’s motives can’t be interrogated, it was thought he became upset on learning Björk was seeing the British artist Goldie. You can see Lopez’s video diary here, but, be warned, it makes for uncomfortable viewing:

Q: I’m reminded of the scene in the 1976 movie The Omen, when the nanny throws herself out of the window with a noose around her neck after telling young Damien she loves him: “Look at me Damien … it’s all for you.” She hangs herself as self-sacrifice.

A: Yes, that seems to be the motive, except that this guy wanted to take the object of his love with him. In the event, he killed himself, but the parcel bomb never got to Björk.

Q: Maybe Lopez had somehow arrived at the thought that Björk was interested in him; does this ever happen?

A: All the time. Let me spell this out. Erotomania describes a condition in which someone believes that another, usually a person of higher social status (sometimes older), is in love with him or her. Such beliefs when held by some fans are resistant to extinction. Fans often actively create conditions under which they appear “true”: they rationalize them, making them seem perfectly reasonable. In this sense, obsessive fans control their own destinies, though only with the unwilling cooperation of celebrities. Facing one such fan, Robert Hoskins, across a California courtroom in 1996, Madonna said of his trial: “I feel it made his fantasies come true. I’m sitting in front of him and that’s what he wants.” Hoskins had made three approaches onto Madonna’s property and was shot twice by a security guard. Sometimes fans remain engrossed for years. Mark Bailey broke into the home of Brooke Shields in 1985, seven years after her film début as a 12-year-old nymphet in Pretty Baby. He was put on five years probation, surfacing again in 1992 when he made threats to Shields. Seven months imprisonment did little to stifle him. A legal order in 1998 prohibited him from ever contacting Shields, though he continued to write to her, prompting his arrest in 2000. He was carrying a three-page letter for Shields, a greeting card and a .25-caliber automatic. Occasionally, fans threaten partners. Catherine Zeta-Jones, wife of Michael Douglas, was threatened by a fan who became convinced she stood between herself and Douglas. The fan claimed she met Douglas at a party in Miami in 1999 and had a two-year relationship with him. In one of her letters to Douglas, she referred to Zeta-Jones: “We are going to slice her up like meat on a bone and feed her to the dogs.” She was jailed for three years in 2005.

Q: Incredible. The Michael Douglas case reminds of the guy in Germany who was fixated on Steffi Graf.

A: You mean Gunther Parche, an unemployed lathe operator from Germany, who was obsessed with the tennis player Steffi Graf. At his home, he built an altar in her honor. When Monica Seles replaced Graf as the world’s leading female player, Parche was stung into devising a way of restoring his idol to her rightful place. When Graf met her rival in the German Open of 1993, Parche ran onto the court and stabbed Seles, putting her out of action. During her inactivity, Graf resumed her place as the world’s number one. Parche ended up in prison, but he accomplished his mission. Graf took the number one spot. The footage of the stabbing has been taken down, but you can view the aftermath here:

Q: I bet that other tennis player Anna Kournikova had her fair share of fans too, eh?

A: Oh, too many to mention, but one in particular made big news. William Lepeska, in 2005, tracked Kournikova to within three doors of her Miami Beach residence and settled down naked at a poolside to wait for her. When police apprehended him, he implored the tennis pro-turned-model “Anna, save me!” and later explained: “I had all kinds of delusional assumptions about Anna’s feelings toward me.” Previously, Lepeska had written letters and posted messages on her webpage and though his communication was unrequited, Kournikova, like most other globally known celebrities made herself or, at least, her representations widely accessible (see below). Dave Gahan had a male fan who kept an all-night vigil outside the Depeche Mode singer’s Hollywood home. Gahan ended up headbutting the fan who then sued, claiming brain damage.

Q: Both erotomaniacs, presumably.

A: Lepeska for sure. Gahan’s fan, possibly: gay fans have much the same motivations as all others, remember. But in all the cases, the fans had got into their heads that the celeb was, in some way, reciprocating their intense feelings. Nowadays there is no shortage of media coverage, in print and broadcast, so we have raw material. So we can imaginatively make up narratives about celebs. Most of us create harmless narratives. Some clearly don’t.

Q: So, have fans just turned ugly since the rise of celebrity culture and the media that’s fuelled it, or are there historical examples?

A: Well, in 1949, American baseball player Eddie Waitkus ensured himself a dubious place in history when a female fan shot him. The obsessive fan, Ruth Ann Steinhagen, died last year (see below). All the same, the preponderance of intense fans does seem to be the result of media coverage: we know celebs much more closely than at any time in history. Being a fan today involves watching, hearing and talking about celebrities, empathizing, perhaps even over-identifying with them and compulsively collecting items, like pictures, souvenirs or other artifacts. Fans often labeled obsessive-compulsives, stalkers or even full-on headcases, do not, on this account, do anything that other fans don’t typically do. Fans who crave a special relationship with celebrities can tolerate ambiguous experiences or interpret events that buttress their personally held beliefs. Potentially damaging episodes can be neutralized, setting in motion a kind of irrefutable, self-perpetuating cycle. Compulsive behavior and obsessive tendencies characterize the fans we’ve discussed already. The point to bear in mind is there might be much more psychological resemblance between this type of fan and those who enthuse over celebs but without expressing any thoughts or behavior that might be considered inappropriate.

Q: So let’s return to Lennon’s assassin.

A: Chapman has much in common John Hinckley Jr, who attempted to assassinate U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Both Chapman and Hinckley believed they were acting as proxies for others when they embarked on their missions to kill John Lennon and wound President Ronald Reagan respectively. Chapman, as I said earlier, said he received instructions through Catcher in the Rye, while Hinckley was motivated by his erotomaniacal fixation with Jodie Foster. In these two extreme cases we can discern qualities common to most other kinds of fans, albeit taken to extremes. Hinckley in particular shares much with the fans of Björk, Graf and Kournikova, in both their spurious romantic attributions and in their delusion that they were responding to the caprice of others. “The obsessive fan who camps on the star’s doorstep has the potential to become either a murderer or a marriage partner,” the media psychologist David Giles reminds us. “The difference between the devoted admirer and the dangerous ‘stalker’ may be alarmingly narrow.” Giles was writing before the rise of social media. Armed with the force of digitized communications, fans who are vengeful, unwittingly fearsome, or perhaps just plan creepy have found a conduit for their words and images. The practice of communicating deliberately hurtful and malicious messages through social media became known as trolling, and the perpetrators, trolls; though, as Giles’s point makes clear, the difference between deliberately harmful trolls and sycophantic devotees may be narrow. Fans are blissfully aware that they share a pseudoenvironment – in this case, in cyberspace – with others, some of whom will be more virtuous, others more nefarious than themselves. Their judgments are directed at those who either are or purport to be celebrities, not each other.