Celebrity Death Watch

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.

But each weekly also has its special flavor, which can be plotted along two axes—meanness and class. People is far and away the classiest and least mean, as well as the most old-school. In addition to coverage of Brad and Angelina, People runs pieces about Dick Cheney, the Alabama church fires, and Texas prison mothers.

Us Weekly was successfully reinvented four years ago as the flashier, shallower, bitchier kid sister to People. In Touch, on the other hand, passingly refers to Jennifer Garner as “ultrafit” and Ben Affleck as “buffer than ever.” The Star’s friendliness is more corporate: No other magazine runs as many purely promotional pictures and items about new movies and TV shows. The Brits behind the new Americanized OK! call what they do “relationship journalism,” which means 100 percent fulsomeness in the old mid-century fashion: “Angelina Opens Her Heart to OK!”

But none of the magazines (as opposed to the tabloids) seems gratuitously mean about stars except in the interest of reassuring the reader that celebrities are almost as flawed and ordinary as she is. In the Us Weekly photo section called “Stars—They’re Just Like Us!” every headline repeats the mantra as a kind of retard haiku: “They buy groceries!” (Anna Kournikova) and “They bite into hoagies!” (Nicole Richie). Star ran a startling pair of full-page photos of Calista Flockhart ungroomed and, six hours later, impeccably glamorized—and speculated about the specific L’Oréal and Maybelline products that may have transmuted Calista from an exhausted, scowling slug-like-them to a dazzling, girlish hottie.

This is postmodern democracy. The stars are brought down to the plebeians’ level—but now the plebes are also provided with exhaustive instructions for achieving the hallucination that they are just like the stars. In Style pioneered the back half of the equation, and still executes its upper-middlebrow, Uma-Gwyneth-Prada version impeccably. (Although I have a question: Did a Time Inc. fact-checker really confirm that Demi Moore wears a blue La Mystère embroidered-Swiss-tulle-lace bra?)

Dozens of pages of simulate-a-celebrity-lifestyle guides now appear in the magazines at every caste stratum. The same week Celebrity Living informed readers that celebrities were into skull motifs, Star was on the case, too: “Stars are boning up on fashion’s latest trend: skulls! They’re adding a cool edge to everything from cashmere tops to belts and bags.” You can suck the candy sucked by Mary-Kate Olsen. You can even buy the same battery charger the stars use.

Would you like to receive messages from (okay, about) your imaginary friends? People offers instant wireless “celebrity updates.” Enter the Matrix; embrace the fantasy. According to the Times, fashionable young women in cities like New York have now started wearing warm-weather clothes during the winter because they are unconsciously driven by ubiquitous “images of demiclad stars pushing strollers and sipping lattes” on “E! Entertainment and [in] celebrity magazines”—to make-believe they’re in Brentwood or Malibu.

It has gotten slightly insane. And I don’t mean figuratively.

But as I said at the outset, I have a hunch that the glut has finally reached a saturation point. The fever may be breaking.

The Nielsen ratings for this year’s Oscars were down 8 percent, and for the Grammys 11 percent. During the last half of 2005, the Enquirer’s newsstand sales were down by a quarter and Entertainment Weekly’s by 30 percent. The American OK! is said to be unwell, the magazine Inside TV was launched and killed last year, and a magazine called Star Shop was killed before it launched.

Like other American social tides, the fascination with celebrities has been cyclical, and after several decades of rising (as it also did from the twenties through the forties), perhaps it will now (as in the sixties) ebb. However, one difference this time is the fractured nature of mass culture: Because Americans no longer all watch the same TV shows and listen to the same music, they may feel a more desperate need to immerse themselves in the private lives of a few, almost arbitrary pseudo-superstars (Jessica Simpson?)—to feel the glamour by stalking the performers, since the performances don’t matter so much anymore.

But the designated media gatekeepers are saying that Paris Hilton, the very embodiment of modern celebrity black magic, is over. Maybe she’s the canary in the mine, whose end heralds the end of this extreme era. At the dénouement of our last celebrity-media-mad epoch, in the Sweet Smell of Success fifties, there was another sexy, slutty young Hilton whom the gossip rags obsessed over. Nicky Hilton, the great-uncle of Paris (and namesake of her sister), dated Mamie Van Doren, Natalie Wood, and Joan Collins, and married Elizabeth Taylor. By the time he died druggily in 1969, however, the public couldn’t have cared less, and the celebrity media that had made him briefly famous were dead or dying as well. So perhaps we won’t always have Paris.

E-mail: emailandersen@aol.com.

Celebrity Death Watch