Monday, December 02, 2002

Things I don’t understand: What Are Famous People For?

I guess Vanity Fair is out there…somewhere. I haven’t read it in years. I remember the last time I read it was during the early ‘90s. The thing that amazed me the most about it was the way that they could glorify virtually anything…as long as it was a characteristic of someone who was famous. If your parents owned a gas station, that was glamorous. If you had gone insane, that was glamorous. If you spent Saturday night at home popping your zits and watching info-mercials that was both charming and glamorous. But only if you were famous.

I didn’t read many magazines like this for quite some time but since I’ve been going to a swankier gym lately I’ve been reading magazines about celebrities and watching TV shows about them (sometimes at virtually the same time!)

My recent intake of Entertainment Tonight and People Magazine has left me very puzzled: I don’t understand why anyone would allow himself to become famous. Have you ever lived in a small town? Everyone knows everyone and worst of all--everyone knows you. It’s awful. You have to give a fake name at the sandwich shop to avoid having them call out your real name loudly and alerting others to your presence.

What about a small liberal arts college? Remember how people you’d never even met had already ‘heard about you’? Creepy. And your attempts to avoid attention by hiding in the library stacks eating candy bars rather than going to that dining hall where you would have been accosted by dozens of acquaintances only attracted further attention, did it not? (The more you try to hide, the more people want to bug you.)

Being famous is even worse than this. Much worse.

So even though we are obscure it is easy to imagine that being famous is like a horrible nightmare where everywhere you go and everything you do, people are spying on you every second. (It’s probably true that most of what people believe about you is false—but isn’t that even more horrible?)

It makes me feel better that most famous people are also rich. They never have to answer the phone or reply to email. (Not only that—they have assistants to return the phone call!) They don’t have to ride in crowded planes where annoying seatmates reach out their grubby hands, offering you sweaty packages of unopened peanuts as a gesture of friendship.

Yet it can’t be only to avoid answering phone calls and sitting next to sweaty people that one becomes famous as there are other ways to become rich without the torment of fame.

Wondering why anyone would subject himself to such a reduced existence, I’ve begun to imagine that celebrities must be making a kind of tremendous sacrifice for us. Why do they put themselves in this terrible position? Is it altruism? A heroic act of generosity? A noble sacrifice for the good of humankind?

The only problem with this line of reasoning is that it seems like celebrities don’t really do anything for us at all. Their misery and suffering is all in vain. So why do they make this dreadful sacrifice?

I think it can’t be the case that people would go to such lengths to achieve something that was simply pointless. Only an act of great moral courage could inspire such striving, such dedication. This truth of this is borne out by the level of admiration many people have for celebrities. I think that famous people must serve some function—some noble and heroic purpose. Are they really all for nothing? Is there really no point to the truly astounding amount of resources poured by our culture into the maintenance of fame?

What Famous People Are For

Hypothesis #1: As we stumble through life in a dim awareness of what we are supposed to do with ourselves, celebrities seem to know what to do with themselves. They seem to do everything right. In the stark terror of absolute freedom, we are deeply, deeply reassured by the thought that there is someone out there doing everything right (even if they do everything right by definition in virtue of their celebrity-hood).

Hypothesis # 1A: Celebrities don’t have to suffer the consequences of their actions. They get to be immune to the ordinary proclivities of life. It gives us pleasure and comfort to imagine that someone is immune to traffic jams, still spoken well of by those whose lives he has destroyed and whose hearts he has broken, has bodyguards to protect him from common crime, is above the law, what have you.

Hypothesis #2: To sell us things. Very important things that we might fail to purchase without their urging. Things we only believe we don’t need but upon acquiring them find that our lives were much poorer without them.

Hypothesis #3 (from el chico): They’re all archetypes—like the archetypes in Greek plays or myths. They play out a never-ending but often didactic drama. There are too many people in the world to keep track of. They give us a focal point to imagine what it is to be human.

Hypothesis #4: To populate our fantasies and to inspire us to higher levels of personal hygiene. It’s true that looking upon the faces of the famous and beautiful can be calming and aesthetically pleasing. The beauty of some borders on the sublime. Like the mythic heroes of old they are there to inspire us to greater heights of aesthetic achievement.

But this is the explanation I think is ultimately closest to the truth…The True Purpose Of Famous People is: Celebrities are there to teach us about transience, the decay of the body and the inevitable death that awaits us all. They are living documents to the ravages of time. In fact, the more odd things they do to themselves to slow the aging process, the more effective is the lesson when the end finally comes.


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