A blog by Barry Edelson

It Should Happen to You

The Perils of a Celebrity Culture

On a chilly spring morning in Santa Fe 10 years ago, my wife and I stood on line with several dozen others waiting to enter the Georgia O'Keefe Museum. The doors were late in opening on that particular day because museum officials were giving a private tour to a visiting famous person. And who was this individual who was deemed important enough to justify allowing the "regular" visitors to shiver outside for a few minutes longer? A high-ranking government official, a foreign dignitary, a head of state? No, it was Bud Collins, a television sportscaster of moderate renown.

There is nothing critical to say of Mr. Collins on this account; for all I know, he may not even have asked for this special dispensation. Nor should we fault the people at the museum, who differ little from the rest of human society in considering it right and proper to bestow excessive attention on famous persons. But what does it say about human nature if a B-level celebrity, who has somehow managed to fabricate an entire career solely by giving verbose commentary a few times each year during the major events of a single sport (tennis), is placed upon a pedestal alongside industrialists and potentates, not to mention movies stars, rock musicians, and actual sports heroes?

There are two Americas:
those who have "made it"
and those who want to.

When politicians insist that there are "two Americas" — whether they truly believe it or are just furthering their own interests — they tend to draw the line in the wrong place. Undeniably, there are haves and have-nots in our society, but the perceived divisions and inequities are not solely economic. A vast number of us who struggle in obscurity and live by society's prescribed rules are motivated by a simple but compelling ambition: to cross the magical divide into the tantalizing realm of wealth, status and freedom. The two Americas are not rich vs. poor so much as those who have "made it" vs. those who want to.

We all know, of course, that wealth does not automatically confer status. There are many people who can afford to fly in first class who remain as obscure as the rest of us. Nor does freedom from daily labor automatically bestow happiness: the tabloid press ensures that we are ever aware of the many associated perils that accompany wealth and celebrity, including divorce, depression, alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide. On the other hand, we reason, this danse macabre is also the daily reality for many who cannot afford good lawyers or the Betty Ford Clinic. As Steve Martin once said in an interview, having a lot of money has made absolutely no difference in his life, except that he'll never have to worry about anything ever again. Even for many who find their relatively ordinary existences perfectly fulfilling, it is still thought preferable to be plucked from daily drudgery and set down in a sparkling landscape in which no one stands in line or folds his own laundry. "Making it" is the crowning achievement that crowds our idle fantasies. Even movies about the mafia borrow this same American verb to describe life's pinnacle: to be "a made man" means to be freed from the rules that govern other people.

Hero worship is as old as civilization itself, but in our post-industrial world, in which restraints on social mobility have almost entirely evaported, the idea that a common rube can be king is no longer an idle fantasy. Judy Holliday once starred in a movie called "It Should Happen to You", written by Garson Kanin and directed by George Cukor, in which a working girl from upstate New York saves up her money in order to put her name on a billboard in Columbus Circle. The movie makes a mockery of the phrase, "I want to make a name for myself", and of celebrity altogether, as the character, Gladys Glover, becomes famous literally because people know her name. The viewer is tempted to say, "It isn't that easy," and perhaps in 1954, when the movie was made, the idea was still outlandish enough to sustain the plot. In the intervening decades, however, the public has been witness to countless examples of people who have achieved celebrity for reasons that no one can remember, or for reasons that are utterly disproportionate to the attention they have drawn to themselves. Merely being famous has long been an occupation in itself; and as it is painfully apparent that any dolt can do it, there are no obstacles to the success of any talentless high school dropout.

There is a story in the news today about the billionaire founder of The Gap who wishes to build a large museum in the Presidio in San Francisco to house his large collection of modern art. Opponents accuse him of using his wealth and influence to force the city into a project that may not be in the public interest. What a surprise: imagine someone seeking to become wealthy and influential so they can have their way! All of us, rich or poor, want to have our way; the only difference is that the rich have a better chance of having it. Which is why naked appeals to class identity tend to fall on mostly deaf ears in our country, as the predominant feeling toward those who have "made it" is not hatred or resentment, but envy.

Merely being famous
has long been an
occupation in itself.

The peculiar thing about crossing the barrier from labor and obscurity to liberty and status is that it does not confer any special qualities upon those who manage the feat. Indeed, not only do all of humanity's unavoidable failings trail after the successful but, in the loosening of social regulation which normally acts to constrain the baser impulses, these failings often become monstrous. Moreover, the most unscrupulous and immoral among us are often the most likely to make the leap, indifferent as they are to whether others are hurt in the wake of their achievement. And yet, our envy blinds us to a contradiction at the heart of our beliefs about human society: we insist that the rich and powerful be held to same standards of law and decency to which we ordinary mortals are accountable, but we wish to join their ranks precisely to be freed from those standards. We, too, yearn to be in a position to leave a mess and have others clean it up, but are frequently shocked to discover that the people we've elected, or who have become wealthy from our patronage, are constantly leaving actual messes that we actually have to clean up ourselves.

The reason we are shocked, of course, is that those who have "made it" tend to live, at least in their own minds, by different rules. This explains why many politicians repeatedly use the same lame excuses for their misdeeds, or why some actors continue to drive drunk at excessive speeds on the roads around Los Angeles even after repeated arrests and public humiliations. Or why some feel they owe the public no explanation at all. They are faulted not so much for being immoral as for being tone-deaf. Having dragged all of their human baggage with them into stardom, only a few have acquired the wisdom to keep their lesser selves sufficiently hidden from the public's insatiable curiosity, or to hide their disdain for those lesser folk who just can't appreciate how tough life is for the rich and powerful.

In the end, there remains a real psychological barrier separating those who have achieved success and notoriety and those who have not. Those of us who have never been the head of a large company or organization, or been elected to anything, or won the lottery or an international prize or the World Series, see the world through a different lens from those who have. We enjoy the spectacle of super-achieving people, but we also relish the downfall of those who dare to break our rules or make their own. George Bernard Shaw's peerless moralist, Alfred Doolittle, after accidentally achieving an undesired notoriety for himself, famously lamented, "I have to live for others and not for myself; that's middle-class morality." Indeed, our morality is decidedly middle class: too expensive for the poor and irrelevant to the rich. And our fondest dream is to shed the bonds of our middle-class obligations and live for ourselves.

And who exactly constitutes the middle class? If you have to ask, you haven't made it.

March 30, 2008

Go to top of pageReturn to home page

Send an e-mail

All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.