Stephen Tudor explores the nature of modern fame and how its simple shallow water became polluted.
When I was growing up in the 80s fame was a simple and straightforward concept.
The public understood implicitly the vacuous nature of stardom and seemed content to merely skim the surface of it realising there was very little of interest beneath. We cooed at the dresses of princesses and politely enquired whether a footballer listened to Luther Vandross or enjoyed a pre-match steak and chips; anything beyond that felt like prying into a private life we had no business knowing. Without the intrusion and malice of today the well-known were free to enjoy their feted lives and I recall that the sight of celebrities smiling was commonplace. I mean really smiling. Happy smiling.
Fictional New York stage school students wanted to learn how to fly to experience this rarefied air inhabited by pop, soap and film stars, along with those gifted with sporting prowess, who were venerated or disliked depending on individual taste and this all occurred within an easy-to-follow two tier system of the class and the trash. Hollywood royalty and actual royalty were regarded with genuine respect but there was also Chinawhites, page 3 girls with zeppelin chests and a sweet girl-next-door visage and the occasional scandal involving newsreaders and whips. Really, it was all so innocent that even fame’s seedy underbelly was portrayed like a saucy seaside postcard.
Bar the occasional ‘bonk’ footballers were kept to the back pages while the front was the exclusive reserve of that thing that used to hold prominence in newspapers – news – and if you wanted to make a splash and feature beneath the masthead it had to be truly earned, either with an extraordinary achievement or by contracting a new and deadly disease.
On occasion an oddity broke through – a person briefly experiencing Warhol’s fifteen minute prophecy despite the absence of talent – but these strange creatures were usually treated as figures of fun then sent on their merry way back to obscurity. When Eddie the Eagle ski jumped into the nation’s hearts he was rewarded with a Specsavers advert and a ten minute slot on Wogan. Then he was gone, returned safely back to normality with our best wishes. There was no Celebrity Big Brother stint, staged coupling with a micro-skirted wannabe or tales of a fluctuating weight hell splattered in Heat magazine. There was no clinging desperately to the foothills of fame because no such foothills existed back then. There were four terrestrial channels and The Sun and that was pretty much it.
In the intervening years of course everything has changed so dramatically and depressingly.
Now the proliferation of media means there are more outlets to discuss the cult of celebrity than there are actual celebrities so more and more are manufactured and placed before our bemused eyes usually devoid of anything other than naïve desperation to be recognised. Precious few possess even the rudimentary qualifications for the job – namely outstanding ability in a certain field or personality – but while it is easy to blame all this on reality TV shows and half of a newsagents being full of gossip magazines the celebrity-obsessed shallow waters we now find ourselves berthed in can be directly sourced back to those naïve, seemingly innocent times.
Those dresses adorned by Diana that our mothers so admired over her cornflakes…well, soon we wanted more than that. The glamorous frocks were one thing, but what did our future queen wear away from the film premieres and charity events? Indeed what was the person like behind the designer sunglasses? Was she happy? This basic well-intentioned intrigue begat an every decreasing circle that ultimately led to a desire to know her very soul. It changed a phalanx of flashbulbs outside the Leicester Odeon to a telescopic lens poking from a window of a paparazzi’s Range Rover. And it spawned consequences that has had a profound impact upon our culture and, to an extent, our lives ever since.
Firstly our pulling back of the curtain of Oz revealed not a sparkling, effervescent being but a perfectly ordinary and damaged individual just like the rest of us. Instead of being disappointed at this discovery however it only enamoured Diana to us further. She was just like us. She was one of us only living in exceptional circumstances.
Having the scales fall from our eyes in relation to how we perceive the rich and famous was perhaps a positive and necessary advancement. For far too long we had looked up in awe at these mysterious entities who were no more worthy or deserving of the acclaim than you or I. But the false bond that it formed – a feeling of connection – brought with it a sense of entitlement to know every detail of their lives.
From this derived a bastardised, skewed perception of ownership that changed the relationship between ‘us’ and ‘them’ forever.
Once the famous were smiling faces in newspaper gossip columns. Now they were our pets.
Worse yet we found that our appetite for such knowledge was voracious. Where once knowing their favourite film or city sufficed now we demanded the inside scoop on every thought in their head and sordid detail of their sex lives. Our unceasing fascination with Diana spread across the mediums and forged a bizarre belief that we had the right to know the famous intimately simply because we bought their records and watched them act. They belonged to us and so, it misguidedly followed, did their secrets.
Following Diana Spenser’s tragic death in 1997 she was coined the ‘People’s Princess’. The possessive connotation of that phrase should not be forgotten.
Our unrelenting obsession with the woman was such that it tilted the entire power structure of fame in our favour so that we were now in charge and calling the shots – it’s really no wonder that the Queen disliked her so – and her legacy can now be seen in every candid interview given by a desperate star or wannabe as they attempt to hold our fleeting, fickle attention. It is a switching of power that has led to an eternal raising of the ante as celebrities reveal, confess and make exhibitions of themselves for our consideration, whether it be a ‘leaked’ sex tape or a sad c-lister scoffing herself fat so she can later release a keep fit DVD. Whatever their pathetic tactic all have one thing in common – none appear to be happy, and their smiles are frozen.
In 1990, around the time Diana-mania was peaking – thereby supposedly legitimising the tabloids to hound her remorselessly – the England football squad embarked upon a world cup campaign in Italy.
We were not expected to do well either on or off the pitch with the team rooted to a ponderous 4-4-2. Our supporters meanwhile were quarantined in Sicily for fear they might spread the ‘English disease’.
Yet something rather wonderful happened. The hooligans who had sullied our national game throughout the preceding decade were largely consigned to a cameo role as the nation became fixated on the drama and sensationalism of each match. England were not just progressing through the tournament but were doing so with fluid and inventive panache. It was all so….continental. They held and gave and did it at the right time. They expressed themselves and got round the back.
After years of viewing the game as if it was dog s*** on societies soul the mainstream rediscovered its love for football. Encounters with Holland, Belgium, Cameroon and Germany enthralled a nation and at the heart of it all was a man called Gascoigne, a child called Paul, and a creation called Gazza.
He played with a playground exuberance, his portly frame distended with pride as he dribbled and harried, his face flushed with callow emotion. This daft as a brush man-child had the front and bravado to Cruyff-spin the Dutch and once the tears flowed in Turin that was it. We had taken him to our collective hearts. He was ours.
There’s that possessive connotation again and just like Diana he was now viewed as the property of the public.
But behind the sparkling, effervescent football was a perfectly ordinary and damaged individual just like the rest of us…
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