Fame as Disease; Celebrity as Illness (part i)

“A pretty girl is like a malady,” quoth the poet.

Celebrity and its handmaiden, Publicity, have been with us ever since P.T. Barnum perfected the art and artifice, and Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. learned how to create ticket sales for a “celebrity” who nobody’d ever heard of, Anna Held, whom he stole from the Folies Bergere in Paris:

The 1896 Broadway revival of A Parlor Match had two musical highlights – the hit song “Daisy Bell” (also known as “A Bicycle Built for Two”), and Anna Held’s performance of the playful “Won’t You Come and Play With Me?”

To guarantee ongoing publicity, Ziegfeld let out word that Held took daily milk baths, and he won headlines by suing a popular dairy for sending sour milk. The outraged dairy owner soon revealed that it was all a hoax – Held bathed in scented water that just looked milky. The brouhaha succeeded in making Held a national celebrity. After a calculated brief run (guaranteeing too few tickets for the growing demand), Ziegfeld took A Parlor Match on tour for several months. Held’s continental style and lavish tastes added to her appeal, drawing curious audiences everywhere she performed.

Over the next twelve years, Ziegfeld produced seven Broadway musicals tailored to showcase Held’s charms. Each one ran for a few weeks in New York before touring. … Ziegfeld never missed an opportunity to get Held’s name in the papers. When she took a tumble while cycling through Brooklyn, Ziegfeld informed the press that Anna had leapt off her bike to stop a runaway carriage and save the life of a retired judge. Most of the press didn’t buy it, and one columnist wondered what drugs Ziegfeld was using to come up with such nonsense!

So, this isn’t anything new.

What IS new is the nature of the beast that produces “Anna Held”s by the bushel. And of the accelerating American mania for celebrity, the “look at me!” factor.

i. look at me, I’m famous!

Anna Held in 1890 publicity photo

Some milestones on that well-trod path to perdition:

Dave Thomas of Wendy’s and Lee Iacocca of bailed-out Chrysler motors deciding that nobody could be a better spokeman for their product than they, themselves, and, surrounded by none willing to challenge it, did.

Donald Trump’s edvolution from a headline whore in New York City to a national headline whore, then to TV star in the “reality” shows Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice — showing that fame was more important than money to The Donald.

Ted Turner’s long rise from billboard and crappy UHF channel heir to cable television and his coincident rise as the celebrity star of his own networks, until he sold the Turner Networks to Time-Warner, and took a seat on their board, found himself consistently outvoted and, save for his People Magazine marriage to Jane Fonda, has faded from the cable firmament, only memorialized by the names of his eponymous cable channels, TBS, TNT, TCM.

The story of American celebrity with a capital “T” you might say.

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And, on the other side, we have the anti-celebrities, who care not for their glare of the media spotlight, Casey Anthony, Heidi Fleiss, Joey Buttafuco, The Brothers Koch.

And straddling either side of the fame and infamy gulf, those who have gone from fame to infamy, like Anthony Weiner, O. J. Simpson, Bob Crane (posthumously), Richard M. Nixon, Jim Bakker, Jimmy “Fergive Me Ah Have SINNED!” Swaggart or Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Those three last are important, because, as Oscar Wilde noted “the only thing worse than being talked about is NOT being talked about,” and Bakker, Swaggart and Schwarzenegger seem to understand that fame and infamy are polarities of the same greed for need. In the case of the ministers, they are both back on the air since it has long been a hallmark of the old tent revival, sawdust circuit to present a reformed alcoholic or a reformed drug addict, prostitute, or, well, disgraced minister to moan for a long time about how terrible and evil they had been but now, thanks to the magic power of Redemption™, they are now godly and please pass the hat. Praise the Lord.*

[The current poster child would be Stephen Baldwin, who cannot have reformed from being an actor, since in order to claim it, you first have to have DONE it, so I believe that he has reformed from being a Hollywood Celebrity Star, and from being a Baldwin. Please pass the hat. Praise the Lord.]

Swaggart reportedly still has a multi-million-dollar conglomerate ministry. He’s on Dish Channel 257. Bakker’s on Dish, as well.

In the case of Ahhhhnuuuuld, well, movies are all about ticket sales, and scandals always equal ticket sales, so he seems to understand that you can move from fame to infamy, and from infamy to fame.

And there are lots of examples of that: Oliver North, G. Gordon Liddy, Charles Colson, Elliot Spitzer (who went from fame to infamy and is cycling back to fame), John Dean, Lindsay Lohan, Robert Downey, Jr. and on and on.

And then there are those, like Al Capone, who are both famous AND infamous at the same time.

Notorious tax evader Al Capone

There are many possible explanations for the phenomenon: that the doubling of population has left people feeling more and more anonymous; that the proliferation of cable TV, the internet, smart phones, et al. has swapped normal reality for a virtual reality in which you are someone if you’ve been on Oprah, and nobody if you haven’t been on TV. Perhaps, increasingly, our sole point of commonality is that glowing phosphor field, whether on a miniature device or a wall-sized screen: if you ain’t on it, you don’t exist.

Whether these, or other reasons are the explanation, there is no doubt that the Fame Industry has never seen boomier days. And, as with awards shows, the proliferation of categories of things to be famous for, famous from, famous in, famous “out” and famous for famous-people-one-has-known has exploded, exponentially. You might be “balloon boy,” or you could be a security guard at the Atlanta Olympics (the fastest fame to infamy curve in modern media history) named Richard Jewell. (Jewell died in 2007). You could be the Runaway Bride, the runaway TV Star, the new runway “Miss Thing,” or a former member of The Runaways.

But it’s that craving for fame (or the societal rape of uninvited ‘fame’) that has exploded with the proliferation of cable channels, and, now YouTube and related videos.

When television first did it, we got “Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour” in the 50s, “The Gong Show” in the 70s, “Star Search” in the 80s, “American Idol” (et al) in the 2000s, all of which are predicated on the notion that you can become FAMOUS overnight. And, just often enough, it proved to be true.

And now we have vertically integrated media monopolies that manufacture fame like so many sausages.

ii. If you want to be admired, do something admirable.

Carracci – The Choice of Hercules, 1596

… [KakiaVice] will regale you upon milk and nourish you with honey-comb, and how she will supply you with nectar and wings, whenever you want them; and how she will wheel in tripods, whenever you drink, and golden thrones; and you shall have no hard work to do, but everything will be flung unsought into your lap.

But [AreteVirtue] the other discipline insists that you must lie on the bare ground in squalor, and be seen to toil naked like ourselves; and that you must not find dear or sweet anything which you have not won by hard work; and that you must not be boastful, nor hunt after vanities and pursue pride; and that you must be on your guard against all dreams and visions which lift you off the earth. If then you really make the choice of Herakles, and steel your will resolutely neither to dishonour truth, nor to decline the simplicity of nature, then you may say that you have overcome many lions and have cut off the heads of many hydras and of monsters like Geryon and Nessos, and have accomplished all his other labours.”

Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 6. 10 (trans. Conybeare)

Fame and celebrity have their place, and in that place, they are positive things.

As social animals, we are successful because of our astonishing ability to mimic, to “conform” to a new behavior.

Take “the wave” that began appearing in stadiums in the 1980s. After the first time, it spread rapidly across the country and around the globe. It didn’t require any special training, and it was easy to “pick up on” if you are a newbie in the crowd.

When people have done astonishing things, or learned some new trick, some new dance, new song, new idea of the universe, it spreads like ink through water.

A guy named “Al” in 1912

Which is why we call great athletes “role models,” and great actors “model roles.”

As such, “fame” has always had an important social utility: you need never have been further East than Peoria to know about “Samson,” or “David,” or “Hercules,” “Odysseus,” “Joseph,” or “Moses.”

Or, for that matter “Sindbad the Sailor.”

The “Choice of Hercules” has been a moral tale that has affected readers as much since the Renaissance as before.

Or if you want something visual that’s not too abysmal
We could take in an old Steve Reeves movie

Our stories, our “admirable” persons, all serve the function of making us better human beings. Sometimes, we tell stories of famous people who failed, and we end up with “Oedipus,” and “MacBeth.”

Those are the values of fame. And, the burden of celebrity. Andy Rooney, encapsulated this when signing off from 60 Minutes last week:

I spent my first fifty years trying to become well known as a writer, and the next thirty trying to avoid being famous,” he said. “I walk down the street now or go to a football game and people shout, `Hey, Andy!’ And I hate that.”

So if you see him in a restaurant, Rooney said as he signed off, “please, just let me eat my dinner.”

Rooney: Hungry for anonymity

But when “fame” becomes the coin of the realm, celebrity becomes a disease, and “fame” an illness.

The social utility of the “fame” becomes secondary to the cash value of being famous, and the manufacture and sale of that commodity without regard to WHO is famous, or for what. Celebrity changes its nature from social vitamin to social parasite.

Which is where we have arrived.

Let’s go back to those Anna Held days.

[continued mañana]



A writer, published author, novelist, literary critic and political observer for a quarter of a quarter-century more than a quarter-century, Hart Williams has lived in the American West for his entire life. Having grown up in Wyoming, Kansas and New Mexico, a survivor of Texas and a veteran of Hollywood, Mr. Williams currently lives in Oregon, along with an astonishing amount of pollen. He has a lively blog His Vorpal Sword. This is cross-posted from his blog.

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About Hart Williams

Mr. Williams grew up in Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and New Mexico. He lived in Hollywood, California for many years. He has been published in The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, The Santa Fe Sun, The Los Angeles Free Press, Oui Magazine, New West, and many, many more. A published novelist and a filmed screenwriter, Mr. Williams eschews the decadence of Hollywood for the simple, wholesome goodness of the plain, honest people of the land. He enjoys Luis Buñuel documentaries immensely.
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