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Celebrity and Its Discontents

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The camera doesn’t lie, you were in this place at that time, Jennifer Garner is clearly many months pregnant and having a shotgun wedding to Ben Affleck at Parrot Cay, but then there’s the backstory too. (Are you really happy? Do you hate that Ben smokes? Are you secretly terrified of J.Lo?) Paparazzi, more than ever, are the sources on text accompanying photographs. Exaggeration is what tabloids traffic in, and photographers can be happy to oblige—they often submit text to editors along with their photos, text that can be phoned in from a place called Imagination.

If not paparazzi, there’s always someone else to sell you out. Even your own publicist. “Some publicists are part of the problem,” says Ken Sunshine of Sunshine Consultants. “To get attention for their unknowns, people sell out their A-list clients, who are too dumb and too naïve to realize this is being done to them. The income stream is a volume business.”

Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton have both claimed to have excommunicated friends whom they set up with false information that later appeared in print. (No word if each was the other’s friend.)

Finally, as any reader of the supermarket tabloids can tell you, truth and falsehood are beside the point. There’s a phantom being, a doppelgänger, out there with your name on it, and you can’t control the way it’s behaving. Once you have been cast in a story line, there is no way out. It’s been a year since the tabs first wondered if Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson were going to break up, and the cover of last week’s Star magazine still asks, nick & jessica: over by xmas? It is now necessary for Jennifer Aniston to bounce back from her divorce and engage in a deep friendship with Vince Vaughn, her co-star in a new movie called, of course, The Breakup. Inevitably, in the next news cycle, Jen collapses on the way to dinner with friends because the divorce process is “taking an unmistakable toll.”

In the final indignity, the same photo of Aniston walking her dog may be used one week to show her independence—she’s enjoying things for herself!—and the next week to demonstrate her unhappiness (“She tried to relax by taking her dog, Norman, on a long walk”).

Of course, this is only the stuff that gets printed. Any bit of information posted on a blog flies across the Internet and sticks. The gaze is intense and permanent. “My clients are concerned about speed,” says Leslee Dart of the Dart Group. “You print a false rumor, and within an hour, it’s disseminated worldwide. The ability to set the record straight has become impossible.” The expanding world market needs to be fed: When I was with Griffin, he got a call from his distributor about a new account in Croatia. “There you go,” he crowed. “A few years ago, they’re slaughtering each other, and now they’re buying pictures of Britney Spears’s crotch.”

These days, we talk about celebrities like they’re our friends—or former friends. On a recent night at Koi, the trendiest sushi restaurant in all L.A., Kato Kaelin, older, ruddy-cheeked, in a fringed leather jacket, is the only celebrity inside.

A middle-aged woman in a yellow pantsuit comes out of the restaurant and takes a picture of the paparazzi with her cameraphone. A tall couple in slightly too dressy evening attire slither toward the valet. “Who did we miss in there?” they ask each other.

“Angelina and Brad,” jokes the woman. “He’s got her on the table. He’s like, ‘I love sushi!’ ”

“Sa-shimi!” says the man.

It’s so hard to be a star—and no one cares. Stars are not just like us. According to researchers, celebrities are four times as likely to commit suicide as noncelebrities and live, on average, thirteen years less than Joe and Jane Sixpack. Celebrities may receive substandard treatment at hospitals, victims of deferred medical tests or competition between surgeons for the honor of operating on a celebrity. Celebrities may experience more insomnia, migraines, and irritable-bowel syndrome. Celebrities are twice as likely to develop a serious alcohol problem.

And who’s to blame for this tale of famous woe? Well, Mommie Dearest, of course. “In every autobiography of a famous person, you find that a parent has either died, been punishing, or been terribly neglecting,” says Sue Erikson Bloland, a psychoanalyst in private practice and daughter of ego psychologist Erik Erikson, whose childhood followed a similar pattern. This void is then filled by a mentoring figure, a grandparent or teacher or even the other parent, who makes a narcissistic investment in the star. The child grabs the chance at love, but it’s a trap. Jessica Simpson’s lifetime of encouragement from her father, the one who pushed her to sing and also made her promise to remain a virgin (his virgin) until she married, is all about reducing her to his puppet (a pretty puppet).


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