The end of celebrity: notoriety for its own sake has lost its power. The famous serve mainly as our emotional guinea pigs

The end of celebrity: notoriety for its own sake has lost its power. The famous serve mainly as our emotional guinea pigs – includes 2 related articles

Dan Hurley


NOTORIETY FOR ITS OWN SAKE HAS LOST ITS POWER. THE FAMOUS SERVE MAINLY AS OUR EMOTIONAL GUINEA PIGS. “WE JUST WANT TO MAKE SURE you don’t ask Vanna any questions about what color underwear she wears, or that sort of thing,” said Renee, who works with Vanna White’s agent in Beverly Hills. She was explaining to me why my phone interview with one of the more inexplicable celebrities in the history of fame would have to follow the preapproved questions I had sent by express mail a few days earlier.

I had decided to seek an interview with Vanna, who turns letters on the television game show Wheel of Fortune, after speaking with Jib Fowles, professor of media studies at the University of Houston in Clear Lake. “The fact that we have given Vanna White celebrity is a key to seeing our society today,” Fowles told me. “Stars often lead us into new social trends. We select them to resolve our needs. But very little serious thinking or research has gone into this field. Which is amazing, considering how important stars are to our society.”

Vanna, whom Fowles has written a scholarly article about for Television Quarterly, “is a sweet thing. She’s a harbinger of the re-emergence of traditional feminine behavior. She’s mute, obliging and servile. She’s also busty, which is important. When family formation is important, as it was in the 1950s and is becoming again today, we begin to see larger breast sizes in our stars.”

Speaking with Fowles convinced me to go in search of the meaning of America’s celebrities today. Along the way I spoke with “Mayflower Madam” Sidney Biddle Barrows, Sen. Gary Hart, author Tama Janowitz, artist Keith Haring, 1960s singer Tiny Tim, The Cosby Show’s Malcolm-Jamal Warner, People managing editor Jim Gaines, gossip columnist Liz Smith and a host of serious researchers. The confluence of opinion was that America has shifted in the past year or two from a decade-old obsession with fun, youth, celebrities, fantasy, nightclub, “recreational” drugs and the single life to a more serious, “real-life” zeitgeist: family, relationships, gardening and “just say no.” As Cher and Jane Fonda were “Me Generation” stars, Vanna symbolizes heart and home, the “We Generation.” And so as my interviews drew to a close and my deadline loomed, I was left with one consuming question: When would I be allowed to speak with Vanna?

Possibly the only quantitative studies of fame published to date are by psychologist Victor Goertzel and his wife, Mildred, in Cradles of Eminence, and in Three Hundred Eminent Personalities: A Psychosocial Analysis of the Famous, written with their son, Ted. Their surveys of biographies written since 1962 found more women (such as Colette and Simone de Beauvoir), more revolutionaries (such as Fidel Castro), more Third World figures (such as Ho Chi Minh), more suicides (such as Marilyn Monroe), fewer pacifists (such as Mahatma Gandhi) and fewer explorers. “As the climate of the times changes, different people are chosen for eminence,” they say. Studying these changes in celebrities “gives us a way of assessing changes in American culture, changes in values that make people worthy of social recognition.”

Daniel J. Boorstin was one of the first writers in modern times to take fame seriously, and he didn’t like what he saw. The modern celebrity, he wrote, is “a person who is known for his well-knownness…. He is the human pseudo-event.” By confusing hero worship with celebrity worship, he wrote, “we come dangerously close to depriving ourselves of all real models. We lose sight of the men and women who do not simply seem great because they are famous, but who are famous because they are great.”

Boorstin’s attack against “degrading all fame into notoriety” seems prescient today in light of Hart’s ruined Presidential run after Miami Herald reporters staked out his home and found he had spent the night with model Donna Rice. When I reached Hart at his Colorado law office, he told me, “Political figures have been moved into the role of movie stars. People vicariously live out their lives through celebrities, and you can’t do that unless you know more about them. Hollywood’s reaction was the destruction of the star system. But in politics you destroy a lot more. We are, in Barbara Tuchman’s words, trivializing our leaders. You destroy the individual’s credibility and his ability to govern.”

The loss of privacy among public figures can also “deter good people from seeking public office,” according to Hart. “The story in the 1988 Presidential election was not who ran but who didn’t run. A lot of people decided not to run for President; it could have been that they decided not to expose their families to rumor and gossip. The net result of this increasing sensationalization is a diminished quality of leadership.”

A 1985 U.S. News & World Report survey of young people’s heroes seemed to fulfill Boorstin’s and Hart’s worst fears about our heroes’ being replaced by mere celebrities. The top three heroes were Clint Eastwood, Eddie Murphy and Ronald Reagan. Of course, it could be that the kids were simply confusing the various levels of fame: There are gods, there are saints, there are heroes, there are stars, there are celebrities, there are celebutantes, there are the little people.

And then there is Elvis, who is the subject of a best-seller questioning whether he ever really died. “He is a bigger star right now than he ever was in life,” explains Todd Morgan, communications manager of Graceland, Elvis’s home until he died–or just went to that home where Marilyn Monroe and John Lennon also live. Currently, Elvis merchandise is reaping $50 million a year, Morgan says. “Something happened in 1987. Elvis seemed to reach a new stature. He no longer breathes and walks this planet, but Elvis is very much alive.”

When I asked him why Elvis has become a secular saint, a modern pharaoh, Morgan answered. “Somebody had to be Elvis. Somebody had to do the job. Somebody had to be the central figure in a cultural and social revolution. And Elvis did it well.”

Gossip columnist Liz Smith explains the intricacies of telling a star from a celebrity. “Vanna White is not a real star,” Smith told me. “She’s just a very big celebrity. A star has to have some talent. Take Sylvester Stallone: A lot of people think he’s a joke, but he is truly talented in his own genre. You can’t say a man who wrote his own script, got the backing for it and starred in it [as he did for Rocky] is the same as Vanna White.”

To some, Vanna’s lack of real achievement is a sign of the emptiness of our culture, but to Leo Braudy, a professor of literature at the University of Southern California. Vanna’s fame is a symbol of our democracy. “The unspoken thought is that if she can be famous. I can too,” says Braudy, author of The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History. “To admire someone like her keeps alive the log cabin-to-the-White House story. Vanna White is an inspiration.”

Nobody’s going to tell Braudy that the culture of fame popped out of nowhere in postwar America. “Fame sits at the crossroads of personal psychology, social context and historical tradition,” he wrote in Frenzy, in which he traced the history of fame back to Alexander the Great, Caesar, Cicero and Virgil. Cicero, for his part, “not only wanted fame, but wrote about his desire constantly.” While admitting that fame in contemporary America has become a “national obsession.” Braudy insists that the pursuit of fame is part of the history of Western culture’s ideal of personal freedom and self-expression.

Can it be, then, that our most ordinary television shows and their stars carry significant social messages? Definitely, says Steven Levitt, president of Marketing Evaluations/TVQ, which surveys 6,000 people across the country each year to find out who their favorite 1,450 stars are. Last year, he learned, the three most popular performers among children were all found in traditional family shows: Michael J. Fox, Bill Cosby and Malcolm-Jamal Warner. By playing the role of Bill Cosby’s son. Theo Huxtable, Warner “is setting one hell of an example,” Levitt says. “He’s a substantial, good-natured, well-mannered kid who has a fine relationship with his parents. He’s licensed therapist in California, “The stress doesn’t come from being famous, it comes from the fear of not being famous anymore. To make a million one year and be broke the next, to no longer have people flock around them in public–that’s where the frustration comes in.” With a 30-year reputation for treating celebrities, and a recent marriage to actress Florence Henderson, Kappas calmly asserts, “If a psychologist tells you that famous people can’t stand it, he hasn’t dealt with famous people. They live for the applause.”

Tiny Tim agrees that when his fame began to decline, “It was very tough. Everything dropped: The marriage started to shake and eventually fell apart. Sometimes walking down the street I’d hear someone taunt, `Tiptoe through the tulips.'” While a declining career would of course upset anyone, he says, “if you lose your work, the only people who know are your friends and family. If I lose my work, the whole world knows.”

A study by Jib Fowles, professor of media studies at the University of Houston in Clear Lake, found that the 164 stars who died between 1964 and 1983 were four times more likely to commit suicide than the average American was. Another study of 81 famous women found that only seven had combined their careers with a successful marriage and children.

Ultimately, Cronson says, “These problems cut across from people who are nationally known to those who are prominent in their local community. Even the son of the high school football coach in a small Texas town can feel the sense of intrusion by the public. The families who do better are the ones who have a realistic sense of just how involved with the family the famous parent can be, who work out the roles and expectations.”

Even a popular cheerleader can have problems in her hometown, especially if she grows up to become Vanna White. “I was back home in South Carolina one time after I became famous,” Vanna says, “and one of the cheerleaders who had been on the squad with me asked me for my autograph. I laughed and said, `Come on, you know me.'” She’s glad to be famous and enjoys bringing entertainment to so many people, but, says Vanna, “The more money you make, the more famous you become, life gets harder.”

COPYRIGHT 1988 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group