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Celebrity Death Watch

Could the country’s insane fame fixation maybe, finally—fingers crossed—be coming to an end? One hopeful sign: Paris Hilton.

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Illustration by Darrow  

On a scale of one to ten, one being the least possible interest in famous entertainers qua famous entertainers, and ten being the most, I’m about a six. Until I recently gorged for days on end, it had been years since I had touched a copy of People or Us Weekly. I skipped the Tonys and Grammys and Emmys. But I do skim three or four New York newspaper gossip columns most weekdays, and I watched E!’s Golden Globes red-carpet preshow, and, of course, I tuned in to the Academy Awards telecast. For years, I’ve thought that the intense fascination with famous people must be about to end—and I’ve been repeatedly, egregiously mistaken. But now—truly, finally—I believe that we are at the apogee, the zenith, the plateau, the top of the market. After 30 years, this cycle of American celebrity mania has peaked. I think. I hope.

Of course, at the newsstand and on TV, the unprecedented frenzy seems to be proceeding apace. The dozen women appearing on the big women’s magazines in any recent month (Lindsay Lohan, Hilary Duff, Madonna, Keira Knightley, Ashlee Simpson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kate Beckinsale, Natalie Portman, etcetera) will be pretty much the same ones next month, unless Jennifer Aniston or Angelina Jolie deigns to make herself available.

Magazine editors gripe about the rings they have to jump through to book the hottest possible celebrities (“The PR people,” one complained to me, “are really such fucking fuckbrains”), but they still do whatever’s necessary. And the jonesing for any speck of celebrity pixie dust can have a crack-whore quality. An editor of one upscale magazine was genuinely thrilled last year that she had persuaded Julie Delpy to pose for her cover. “Who is Julie Delpy?” I asked. The editor and I each considered the other deeply, tragically out of it.

The increasing celebrotropism of general-interest magazines and news shows, though, has been a steady, gradual thing. But what’s new is the critical mass of highly visible media devoted to enabling the celebrity-besotted Everyperson’s fantasy that she is intimately acquainted with celebrities (People, In Touch, Access, ET)—no, even more intimate (Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica, VH1’s “Celebreality” shows); that she’s really no different from the celebrities (Us, Star); that as the virtual pal of the renowned it’s only natural that she know which brand of seltzer and skin cleanser and earrings and panties they buy (In Style, Life & Style, Celebrity Living), so that she can purchase the very same ones for herself; and that an ordinary schmo like her might actually be embraced by the quasi-famous (Dancing With the Stars, Skating With Celebrities) or even become famous herself (American Idol).

We don’t yet have the technology to create a collective fantasy realm with the seamless verisimilitude of The Matrix, but this is another large beta step in that direction. Today as never before, tens of millions of American women inhabit Celebrity World. “My generation,” says Us Weekly editor Janice Min, who’s 35, “thinks of celebrities as their peers—like neighbors, or people you went to high school with. They’re on a first-name basis with them.” And for her generation, an iconic movie was Single White Female, in which Jennifer Jason Leigh’s nutty character appropriates Bridget Fonda’s clothes and look and life.

How did it come to this? As recently as the seventies, magazines all about celebrities were beneath contempt for respectable people, a small, nearly invisible media ghetto—or, rather, media trailer park. One bought a copy of the National Enquirer (ELVIS TO MARRY CHER!) only as a bit of jokey slumming. The movie-star magazines that had been born with Hollywood—the Modern Screens and the Photoplays —were fading away. In the age of Vietnam and rock and roll and revolution, they seemed preposterously cheesy and irrelevant.

Then came the new zero year, 1974. The Enquirer went legit, the National Star was launched, and Time Inc. created People. Us and Entertainment Tonight followed soon after. The national hunger was not slaked, however, but turned into a 24/7 binge. In 1999, there was just one glossy celebrity weekly. Now there are seven. As the rest of print hunkers down, resisting or resigning itself to the end of a media century, it seems as if the only new publications are about celebrities, like an algae bloom—chartreuse scum!—suddenly covering the surface of an old, sick pond.

In some ways, the weeklies are all alike. In the glossies, everyone but superstars (Oprah, Howard Stern) disappears after 50, so given the enormous maw that must be fed, celebrity has been defined down. Ellen Pompeo? Joshua Jackson? Stacy Keibler, a pro wrestler and one of the “stars” on Dancing With the Stars, was the subject of lifestyle features in two magazines the same week. And if those people count as celebrities, then the most banal details of the lives of actual stars count as news. Sharon Stone shopped at a flooring store. Luke Wilson parked at a meter on the street. Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn did not attend a comedy show in Las Vegas. Astonishingly, each of those dull, mingy bits of color were enough to justify a stand-alone item.


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