Homemaking goddess Martha Stewart takes an ungodly interest in the disposition of one foundering little chunk of stock among her vast holdings—as if selling on insider information, and lying about it, as the Feds maintain she did, is just as proper and artful as applying toile and acorns to a picture frame with a hot-glue gun.
Goody-goody Lakers guard Kobe Bryant allegedly turns into an arrogant kiss-my-prick sexual predator (or at least a clueless pickup artist who can’t fathom that not every woman wants to fuck him—his way).
Sadistic right-wing radio blabbermouth Rush Limbaugh is struck suddenly silent when the news gets out that he’s addicted to white-trash heroin OxyContin, which, it turns out, he used the help—his maid/dealer!—to secure for him.
Robert Blake molders in Hollywood, muttering slurs about his murdered wife, hoping Baretta will save the day.
And good old M.J.: It’s déjà vu all over again, because, remember, he bought his way out of boy-trouble almost exactly ten years ago. (At least, so far, there doesn’t appear to be video documenting his love life. His colleague R. Kelly—Michael was filming his new music video with R. in Sin City when the sheriff put out the warrant for his arrest—isn’t so lucky. His alleged trysts with a 14-year-old girl, documented by a camcorder, are sure to air in court.)
There’s a compulsiveness that these stars exhibit, making mistakes, sometimes over and over again, that are entirely in character—effectively branding their misbehavior.
We’re supposed to pretend to be shocked?
Of course, part of the reason the Church of Celebrity stopped beatifying saints—there will never be another Audrey Hepburn or Jimmy Stewart—is because it gave away every last one of its mythmaking secrets. There are no more certified miracles in Hollywood.
Anti-glamour, or deconstructed glamour—or pure roguishness—sells now partly because mere glamour (already in oversupply) doesn’t really sell on its own anymore. It almost always comes with myth-busting backstory.
As recently as the early nineties, the mechanics of glamour were largely opaque to the culture at large. Celebrity stylists and colorists and personal trainers and plastic surgeons were not celebrities themselves. InStyle—and before InStyle, the Condé Nast beauty magazine Allure—were just beginning to advance the do-it-yourself, do-try-this-at-home approach to celebrity glamour.
But since then, so many celebrities have let themselves unwittingly become walking infomercials—allowing the narrative that surrounds them to be about not only their “beauty secrets” but their conspicuous consumption and luxury-product choices—that celebrity, the word itself, has taken on its own stand-alone brand value. Drugstores stock the Hollywood Celebrity Diet and Celebrity White tooth bleach, and we understand implicitly what’s being sold. Celebrity isn’t about talent, it’s about getting what you want—now.
The InStyle mentality, spread through-out celebrity culture, leaves the net impression that even the seemingly natural Hollywood beauty is actually a confection, a collage. To be in InStyle (or its many imitators), you must confess (without, it seems, even really apprehending that you’re confessing) that you’re the sum total of your hair and makeup and wardrobe. You are your image—what the image-makers on your payroll dreamed up. You are, in a word, a construct.
A construct that can come apart at the seams at any moment the media decide to part the curtain, it turns out. All the celebrity weeklies have done scalpel-happy cover stories this year—the most recent being Us Weekly clone In Touch Weekly’s plastic surgery secrets package (MEG RYAN: BATTLING RUMORS ABOUT HER LIPS; PAMELA ANDERSON: REGRETS BREAST IMPLANTS?).
And just in time for Thanksgiving (though, really, it felt like an early Christmas gift), Star magazine’s STARS WITHOUT MAKEUP! COVER. A smaller headline reads LOTS MORE SHOCKING PHOTOS INSIDE!, but the photos, at this point, aren’t all that shocking (Britney Spears is a little ragged, Cameron Diaz is plain, Renée Zellweger is blotchy, and Barbra Streisand is a hag).
Which doesn’t make them any less irresistible, or at least salable. The makeup-less cover is already one of Star’s best-selling covers of the year—the tabloid’s editor, Bonnie Fuller, is reportedly set to get a $10,000 bonus for hitting a new circulation high with it.
Bonnie, of course, is the celebrity editor who is most widely credited with masterminding the new celebrity “journalism” paradigm. Her current reign was enabled by Jann Wenner, who, in an inspired moment in early 2002, hired her to run Us Weekly. Never a corporate loyalist, she quit Us this past summer to run the Star and American Media’s other tabloids for $3 mil a year.
The net effect of her tenure so far has been to reinforce the idea that not only is your average celebrity “just like us” (to use Bonnie’s signature Us Weekly–era phrase), but that he or she is badly in need of an intervention. Of Britney Spears, a “source” (probably the mailroom guy at the Star) observes, “She looks very tired.” The solution suggested: L’Oréal Touch-On Colour, Shimmering Bronze (just $8.99 at Walgreens). “Apply it,” a makeup artist helpfully explains in the magazine, “on the forehead, nose, cheeks, and chin.”
For the moment, the most perfectly realized form of celebrity—an old-school, untainted, high-glamour type of celebrity that allows the media, once again, to engage in undiluted hagiography—is the reality-TV celebrity. Us Weekly gives “Bachelor Bob,” of ABC’s The Bachelor, a cover and asks WHOSE HEART WILL HE BREAK? He’s holding a red rose.
Johnny Depp, this year’s “Sexiest Man Alive,” is half-crowded off the cover of People by Bachelor Bob and his chosen mate, Estella. “We want to make it last,” Estella coos in a big headline.
In Touch declares Trista and Ryan, of The Bachelorette, 2003’s “Most Romantic Couple.” (Jennifer Aniston, of Brad & Jen fame, is merely “Most Talked About.”) ABC is giving the reality-TV couple’s marriage—the culmination of their “televised true love story” from last season—royal-wedding treatment in a prime-time ceremony.
And just before Thanksgiving, Fox aired the American Idol Christmas special—starring Clay Aiken, Ruben Studdard, Kelly Clarkson, and Tamyra Gray—which, in its treacle and glee, recalled nothing so much as The Lawrence Welk Show.
Meanwhile, non-reality-TV stars—mere celebrity actors and singers who worked really, really hard to get where they are today—must continue their yeoman’s duty of serving as avatars of dysfunction (even if it means moonwalking to jail).
We keep them on as temp workers—watching their TV shows and movies or not, buying their albums or not, depending on our whims. We not-so-secretly hope they’ll crash big-time. (Ben and J.Lo. Gigli.) Until Clay succumbs to an autoerotic misadventure, or Bachelor Bob cheats on Estella (preferably with the paperboy), or Estella’s sex video (preferably with Tamyra) ends up on the Internet, they’re all we have.