Issue #14 ‘Tanzania/giraffe’ has arrived, you can buy a copy from our online store or subscribe now. Available July 31…
In times gone by, there were ‘greats’, or heroes who walked among us. These people were gifted with extraordinary skills – they were brilliant minds, they were brave, they were bold. They were often charismatic leaders blessed by fortune. These ‘greats’ were our folk heroes, our legends. We modelled ourselves on them. We told our children about them. We hoped that over time, with practice, we could adopt some of their extraordinary qualities.
Today in place of the hero or great we have the ‘celebrity’ – a made-to-order media creation, much like a puppet show. Here is the celebrity, watch it jig, watch it cry.
A celebrity is a person who is well known because she is well known. ‘Celebrities’ come armed – not with talent or genius – but with a public relations officer, a person who gets paid to place this person in the news. Indeed, many may think that fame comes from being in the right place at the right time, being ‘discovered’ (like the model ‘discovered’ at a bus stop, or shopping mall, that’s a typical public relations script) or that journalists are ploughing the streets looking for talent.
Almost all ‘famous’ people pay public relations agents to be placed in the spotlight. And why would it be any other way? We live in a system in which money buys everything, including fame. Today, our visual landscape is littered with these ‘famous’. Little people made big by virtue of the printing press.
From the 1920s onwards, celebrities oozed from the entertainment industry. A celebrity could be made overnight by placing multiple pictures of the person in print. It was a tough gig for a publicist – innumerable calls, considerable administration – but not for the celebrity, who simply had to pay the publicist for the job. Today the great bulk of celebrities come from no particular field at all. In fact, the more tradeable the celebrity, the better – so utterly unskilled, run-of-the mill people tend to fit the mould.
The demise of the great and the rise of the celebrity is a sad fact of modern life. These bumbling media creations walk among us; their names etched in our minds; their stunts, their spills, their antics, we know it all. Our children try to mimic them. But what comes of it all? Nothing but a society led by fools.
“The qualities which now commonly make a man or woman into a ‘nationally advertised brand’ are in fact a new category of human emptiness,” writes Daniel J. Boorstin in The Image. Indeed, celebrities can’t fi ll us with purpose, because purpose they have not. They do not extend our horizon because the celebrity is a commodity, a packaged good with an expiry date.
One of the sadder facts about the celebrity is the flesh and blood people under the mask. Celebrities, plucked from obscurity by the media machine and thrown into the spotlight, will try their darnedest to become the heroes that they purport to be. But lacking the skills of greatness – the extraordinary talents of oration or leadership – they stutter, say the wrong thing, look weak or dejected, and invariably break down, all under the constant fear of somehow being found out. It’s not surprising that depression, anxiety, and substance abuse is the common plight of our most well-known.
This sight of pathos is most keenly felt when a celebrity’s star is fading. It is here the celebrity will do their utmost to keep the nation tuned in. Humiliating to witness, the celebrity, stripped naked like a prisoner of war, will bare everything, do anything rather than be placed back where they naturally belong. But unknown to the celebrity, the next model is already standing in the showroom.
“We try to make our celebrities stand for the heroes we no longer have – or for those who have been pushed out of our view,” writes Boorstin. “And we imitate them as if they were cast in the mould of greatness.” We have been willingly misled into believing that fame – or ‘celebrity’ – is a hallmark of greatness.
Today we are presented with a range of stereotypical celebrities – model, actress, singer, entrepreneur, socialite, CEO. With no real giants to look up to, we’re stuck with the motley crew promoted by PR agents the world over. It’s hardly surprising that many women feel utterly uninspired by the lot.
It’s not until we turn our heads away from ‘celebrities’ that we will realise that heroes are not those put forward by the media. Indeed, it is only by rejecting these false gods that we will have any chance of finding the greats once more.