Nigel Lythgoe: We need to end ‘disposable celebrity’ culture

The Oxford Union can be a disorganised place. Despite their having inviting the producer of So You Think You Can Dance, Blind Date and Gladiators Nigel Lythgoe, there seemed to be a confusion both with who is hosting the speaker and where the speech is going to be held. Lythgoe wasn’t impressed.

“Well, there are loads of things going on here internally at the moment, you see,” explained the Treasurer of the society.

“Well, I could have been here or at the Ritz,” quipped ‘Nasty Nigel’ demonstrating that since judging Popstars in 2000 neither his wit nor his straightforward nature have diminished.

Lythgoe doesn’t stay away from controversy. Recently, during season 4 of So You Think You Can Dance Lythgoe sparked outrage when he criticised male Ballroom couples. “I think you’d probably alienate a lot of our audience… I’m really one of those people that like to see guys be guys and girls be girls on stage. I don’t think I liked it, to be frank,” he said. But it didn’t start there: the tabloids first coined the ‘Nasty Nigel’ nickname when as a judge of Popstars he said to Kym Marsh, “Christmas has gone, but the goose is still fat”. No wonder the British public had a love/hate relationship with the predecessor of Simon Cowell.

But it wouldn’t be fair to form an opinion about Lythgoe judging by Daily Mail reports about his activities. The man himself complains about tabloids splashing about his supposed relationship with Jerry Hall – in fact they are only “really good friends”, and he has a girlfriend anyway.

We cannot forget that despite his youthful appearance, Lythgoe is 60 and was been there when the reality TV industry took off. He knows all too well how to manipulate the press. He has learnt far too much about “delusional contestants at talent shows”, has choreographed the “charming, gentlemanly” Gene Kelly and lived through the cut-throat aspects of the show business, just as Simon Cowell ripped off aspects of Pop Idol to form X-Factor. It is him who is more likely to manipulate the media (he concludes that he didn’t do anything about the Jerry Hall story, as it fuelled So You Think You Can Dance press coverage) than the media controlling him.

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But, after 10 years of experience, what has he to say about celebs? “The truth is”, he confesses, “most celebrities are media-whores who will do most anything to remain in the spotlight…Years ago it was believed you were famous…because you were great. Nowadays it appears you’re great…because you’re famous.” So far, no-brainer. However, he goes on to claim that Hollywood studios no longer protect their stars in the long-term. They are only focussed on the promotion of a single film or a CD and hence are quite happy to publish star’s dirty little secrets since it might help that one movie they’re working on. As a result, “Young movie stars are being cast aside at earlier and earlier ages. According to some observers, ‘Where once 30 was the ‘use-by’ age, it has now dropped to between 21 and 25′”. He adds, “Hollywood doesn’t need established players such as Julia Roberts or Brad Pitt to generate a hit. High profile stars can no longer be relied upon and are not as valued as they once were because they can be replaced so easily.”

Without a sign of guilt he admits that “disposable celebrity” (created by his own genre of TV), based on 15-minute-fame concept, needs to come to an end. It’s the role of Hollywood studios to “protect and serve” stars who have talent and potential. “If we don’t, then I believe we’ll be inconsistently successful with our projects and, eventually, without long-term plans, we will all crash and burn along with Warhol’s ‘surrogate children’. I do not see a future in disposability.”

That is a curious statement from a man who played a large roll in the creation of the reality TV cult in Britain and who introduced Pop Idol to America. He almost sounds hypocritical as he slams the short-term culture of the shows. But I don’t think he did go into TV for ‘higher’ cultural purposes in the first place. He did it for fun – he admits that his favourite TV show is “Gladiators” because of its sheer scale and fun factor. He probably did it also for the money (he is still jealous of Cowell’s money, he confessed to a national tabloid).

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Yes, he sees the flaws and the problems of the short-sighted TV but boy, it’s way too much fun to escape.