A canny celebrity can put a self-protective patina of irony on this whole process—Kathy Griffin rose from C-list to B-list by publicly reinventing herself as D-list. And A-listers don’t get immunity. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie play the game, too; the difference is that they’re playing it at a high-stakes table in a secure VIP room. When they preemptively auction off pictures of their newborns to the British press for more than $10 million, it’s understood not as greed or self-promotion but as canny anti-paparazzi strategy, And if they tire of that particular blood sport, they both have actual talents to fall back on.
But how do you make it work financially when all you have to sell is your own desire to be bought? The D-listers may reside under the same dome as the genuinely famous, but they’re still a world away from them. If we’re on the outside looking in, they’re on the inside looking in; all their energy goes into holding their few square inches of turf, trying to stay under the lights until they can make something happen. They’re playing the short game, not the long game, and their fear of coming so close to realizing their desire only to miss their chance makes them both repellent and, sadly, relatable. They are truly “human pseudo-events,” like those science-class cutaway humans that render terrifyingly apparent all the monstrous viscera that make the machine run. Perhaps they fascinate us because they’re just like every other celebrity, minus the protective trappings—agents, publicists, handlers, spinners, business advisers, crisis managers—whose job it is to grease the wheels of commerce while making the effort behind it invisible. Money always matters, but the whole point of being A-list is that when, for instance, you decide to pick up some extra cash by working a paycheck gig for a Chechen despot or doing yogurt ads in Japan, nobody is supposed to see.
In a sense, celebrities with nothing to offer but their celebrity are no different from anyone else who’s been backed into a corner as we’ve morphed from an economy of production into an economy of consumption. But what it seems to mean for those of us who consume and are consumed by the famous is that as long as we get a steady diet of them, the particulars of that diet don’t matter all that much at any given moment; celebrity may be indispensable, but any individual celebrity is completely disposable. And considering that anybody is now a couple of clicks away from opening a Twitter account, acquiring followers, and keeping minute-to-minute track of their own fame, maybe the meaning of the word has become so porous as to be useless. Who, even a few years ago, could have foreseen a world that would offer the entertainment of fake Twitter accounts in which the non-famous imitate the slightly famous? Just a couple of weeks ago, an unreal version of New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani (@CriticMichiko) inspired the plaintive ire of another tweeter purporting to be the real Kakutani (@ActuallyNYTMK), who wrote, “Please stop impersonating me. I am me.” CriticMichiko curtly replied: “Existentially urgent, but unprovable.”
I should note here that I have no reason to believe, and some reason to doubt, that the “real” Michiko Kakutani in this exchange is any realer than the fake one. But either way, there’s no question that he/she has come up with the cri de coeur of the new age of celebrity: “I am me.”
This is where we’ve landed, 50 years after Boorstin’s long sigh. If “I am me” is all it takes to be a celebrity, then how do we come up with a workable post-Warholian definition of fame? Lacking any other yardstick, perhaps it’s time to start treating fame as an ecosystem of its own—and if you harbor dreams of glory (or at least a little face time on E!), you may want to take the stories here as both a user’s guide and a warning. “I am me” is a claim anyone can make. But if you can say, “I am me—and I can make you pay for it” … well, congratulations. You’ve just made it all the way up to the bottom rung.