Tuesday, March 28, 2023

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From 'The Iliad' to 'Us Weekly': The History of Celebrity Gossip – The Atlantic

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I am going to tell you a deep, dark secret. When I was 14 years old, Courtney Love was my idol. I got dressed every morning before high school by carefully layering ripped fishnets over purple tights, fastening the clasps on my vintage baby doll dress, combing out my peroxided hair, and adjusting my nose ring. The goal was this: if Courtney Love were to come to my high school and pick the coolest person there, she would surely pick me. It never occurred to me to wonder why she would be dropping by a small town in Rhode Island, or why, if she did so, she would hold some kind of high school fashion show. I knew only that I was dressing to impress.
Bear in mind please, that this was 1994 Courtney Love. Surely there were better role models at the time, but there were also worse. Kurt Cobain, Love’s husband, had only just recently killed himself by shooting himself in the head in a small room above the family garage. This act of violence and finality shocked and bewildered me, and I remember feeling somewhat complicit in his death. He’d stated many times he didn’t want to be a rock star. But I wanted him to be. As a confused and lonely teenager, I needed him to be. So my special relationship to Courtney Love was a kind of mourning, an atonement for a terrible act I had been powerless to prevent. If I could not save Kurt, I could be best friends with Courtney, and dressing just like her would prove how right we were for one another.
In Tom Payne’s new book FAME: What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity, he makes the argument that this kind of celebrity worship is anything but new. From Greek and Roman mythology to the tales of Dr. Faustus, Marie Antoinette, and the Christian martyrs, Payne shows how humans have been obsessed with fame and stardom throughout civilization. For all the contemporary hand-wringing over a culture overwhelmed by media gossip, Payne takes a well measured step back to argue that, “The media, they’re us. Or at least the media are the people who buy newspapers and magazines…our tastes and desires affect how we take in the world around us.”
Whereas once those tastes and desires might have been delighted by an epic poem such as the Iliad, filled with scenes of bloody battle, today we can take in the latest Michael Bay movie. Whereas once a virgin might have offered her shorn hair and bloodied bed sheets as proof to the public that a marriage had been well consummated, today a “leaked” sex tape has the potential to rocket even the lowliest D-lister to stardom by showing what goes on behind closed doors. It seems it has always been human nature to raise people up, to make them “stars”, and just as human to delight in their destruction.
Just as I was not alone in my grief over the death of Kurt Cobain, I was not alone, years later, in my astonishment over the unexpected death of actor Heath Ledger—whose life Payne juxtaposes alongside the tale of Dr. Faustus. And neither were these emotions new. As Payne points out, a quick look at the short lives of the romantic poets (Keats dead at 26, Shelley at 29, Byron at 36) reveals that we have often preferred that the famous among us die young and beautiful. The most talented seem to have made a kind of Faustian bargain. Their lives are spectacular and filled with wonder, but, like the epic hero Achilles, their lives are also temporary. In this way we never see them grow old. We never seem them grasping at youth or jumping around on Oprah’s couch like Tom Cruise. It can be hard to believe that a celebrity who seems to have it all could want to end his life (or take not quite enough care with it, in the case of Ledger) but it happens again and again. And just as we elevated them to stardom, so we comfort ourselves in their untimely deaths by reminding ourselves that they were only human after all.
It is this way of seeing celebrities as simultaneously human and god-like that can motivate us to do things like imitate their clothing. My desire to dress like Courtney Love was driven by many of the same impulses as women in the early Roman Empire who mimicked the hairstyle (” a coiffure that crested like a wave emerging from her crown”) of Valeria Messalina, the wife of the emperor Claudius. Later, Marie-Antoinette would bring the highly architectural “pouf” into fashion. Today we can smell like Mariah Carey or Sarah Jessica Parker, if we are willing to pay for their branded fragrance.
And all along, this celebrity imitation has been satirized and moralized. As Payne writes, this kind of criticism comes from “an economical sort of misogyny: If you attack the trendsetter then you can attack womanhood in general for being fickle and female enough to follow her.” And so, while I may look back and cringe a bit at my teenage devotion, it also makes a kind of sense to me. When I could not turn to my parents and felt alienated among my peers, Courtney Love provided guidance and a sort of comfort. As an angst-ridden teen, I admired (however naively) her public struggles. And by emulating her, I began to understand the ways in which I myself was a unique human being.
Because it can be perilous at times to navigate this life, to move from work to home, to the grocery store and the post office, keeping it all together, believing that these tediums and stresses are necessary and good for us. And so we have celebrities. We can mourn with and cheer for them; we can be safely invested in their spectacular successes and even greater failures, and in this way we can examine, from a safe distance, what it is, and always has been, to be human.


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