Chiara de Blasio and Our Changing Notion of Political Celebrity

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray (R) hug their daughter, Chiara de Blasio (L), before she received a special recognition award at the National Council for Behavioral Health's Annual Conference at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center on May 6, 2014 in National Harbor, Maryland. The general session on Children's Mental Health Awareness Day helped bring awareness to mental health issues in young adults and children.
Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Chiara de Blasio, the mayor's 19-year-old daughter, published an essay yesterday on xoJane about her own depression and addiction, their consequences, and her own efforts to live a little more happily. It is moving and open, not very long, and worth reading in full. This captures its spirit:

"For my entire adolescence, I was miserable. Sure, there were happy moments, hours, days, weeks, or even months! But over the years, little to nothing changed. The way I saw it, the only change was that things were getting worse. That is the 50 percent genetic predisposition. As the only person who can diagnose myself, I believe that I was born with the disease of addiction … Perhaps you’re reading this and thinking that I was simply ungrateful. Yes, I was. But a lack of gratitude wasn’t my only problem. I was the problem. I was not born a happy person."

The reception to the essay has been very warm. Chiara de Blasio has been praised as brave, which she surely is. An essayist in Ebony credited her with having "jumpstarted a conversation that is long past due in the African-American community," which is no small thing. Yesterday, she received an award for mental-health advocacy in Washington, from the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius.

There is something new and remarkable about the de Blasios — their choice to live as public figures nakedly, with their struggles and conflicts exposed. It is hard to think of another political family that has made the same choice. It has something to do, surely, with the complicated and fascinating way that the family politics of racial and cultural identity gave Bill de Blasio's campaign an emotional depth that elevated his politics, and that it didn't otherwise have; he did derive a benefit from it. For the parents, at least, the family-transparency project seems to be clearly a choice. “You have to understand, our family is different in the way we think about things,” Mayor de Blasio told my colleague, the great Chris Smith, last fall, describing how his politics and his family were so intertwined as to be inseparable. “This is who we are, this is how we live, this is how we’ll always live.” 

It has been striking to see the contrast over the past few months between the way the de Blasios have begun to handle their public family persona and the vastly more guarded rollout of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, in which the most complicated emotion Clinton will cop to is eagerness at the prospect of becoming a grandmother. (Asked by an audience member at an event on Tuesday whether she had any guilty pleasures, Clinton paused. "I'm trying to think of the G-rated ones," she said, and then, dully, came up with "chocolate." There was that little flicker of interest, from her and the audience — there were PG-rated ones? R-rated ones? Secretary Clinton, do tell! — but it was quickly suppressed.)

Political celebrity is always brutal on the family. I'm not sure that Bill de Blasio's approach is necessarily easier on his family than Clinton's is on hers. As impressive as Chiara de Blasio has been, it is hard to watch her without feeling a little bit of grievance on her behalf: It feels pretty unfair to Chiara, still a teenager, that she has had to wrestle with some of the more complicated parts of her personality in extreme public view, simply because of the political ambitions of her father. 

Nevertheless the radical exposure of the de Blasio family does not feel at all like an accident. It also no longer feels like a cynical tactic for political gain, as was widely suggested when de Blasio made his son Dante a centerpiece of his campaign for mayor. The commitment is fuller than that, more interesting and, for the de Blasios themselves and particularly for the children, perhaps more fraught. It seems to express not an idea about politics but an idea about celebrity — about what a satisfying way to exist in the public eye might be. And in this, as in everything else, the de Blasios seem thoroughly, almost radically, modern.