Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Independent since 1920

Fame Fatale

Roberta Klimt investigates the fickle world of the celebrity and wonders what lies behind the rehab doors and the layers of make-upIn the words of Morrissey himself: to say the least, I was truly disappointed. Having leapt aboard the X90 early on the morning of Friday 25th January, arrived at Camden’s Roundhouse theatre with oh, let’s say, seven hours to spare until the great man was due to take the stage, and been lucky enough to stand fourth from the front of the queue, I could have been forgiven for allowing myself a little elation. Pressed up against the barrier, almost as close to La Moz as a gal can get, I couldn’t help but feel as if the evening was going well – a sentiment I rued when, after completing just three songs, Morrissey’s voice went and then so did he. After my dismay at this turn of events had somewhat died down, along with my astonishment at the announcement of it by the surreal trio of David Walliams, Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, I began to reflect upon whether some of my fellow audience members hadn’t been a little precious in their shooting of the messengers relating Morrissey’s desertion. There is an entertaining video on Youtube of Brand being pelted by irate Mozophiles with drinks and foodstuffs and told in no uncertain terms to hie him hence by people indignant at having paid handsome sums of money for a gig which was then cut so short. My behaviour, on the other hand, as my sister lovingly pointed out, bore less of a resemblance to that of these angry folk than that of the forty-something, paunchy men gently weeping into the necks of their girlfriends.Either way, though, the Morrissey throat infection/gig cancellation débacle set me thinking about celebrities and their effect on us. Why had the irate and the beer-bellied and I felt so terribly, personally let down at the Roundhouse by the no-show, or the so-so-show, of someone whose music we enjoy, yes, but whom we have never even met? It appears that ‘fame can play hideous tricks on the brain’ not only of the famous, but of those who have made them so – and to cite from Morrissey’s oeuvre one more time …If we are looking to pinpoint the psychological need bespoken by today’s so-called ‘cult of celebrity’, the first thing to point out is that it is not such a new thing after all. Back in the day it was heartthrobs like Rudolph Valentino over whom the ladies really swooned, but society magazines used also to feature gentrified folk going to balls and country house parties, which – if the 1970s classic Edwardian drama  is anything to go by, and you can be pretty sure it is – servants below stairs in grand Belgravia houses would read as eagerly as some now pore over PerezHilton.com. Clearly there is an aspirational tendency in human beings which makes finding out about the daredevil exploits of the rich and famous attractive to us; there is also an extent to which observing the ‘hot mess’ (as I believe Perez terms it) which, by the law of averages and arguably by virtue of their high-pressure lifestyles, at least some of these celebrities manage to make of their lives, allows us vicariously to experience with all of the drama and none of the trauma some of the more extreme possibilities life has to offer. It is also noticeable that ‘civilians’, as Liz Hurley calls us non-celebs, can become fired up by the achievements or misdemeanours of the famous as they can by little else. We as a nation might be basically good-willed towards celebrities who seem to have done the right thing by a cause or a charity – Brangelina, Bob Geldof, Billy Connolly all get the thumbs-up in that regard – but we do also have a mighty store of wrath to unleash upon those who palpably have not done the right thing. Unfaithful husbands, shrewish ex-wives, no-good, drug-addicted boyfriends come in for a lot of public censure, considering their utter unknownness to most of the people commenting on their actions. Free commuter reading material like the London Lite or The London Paper (superior; it has much better horoscopes) are filled to bursting with pictures of Lily Allen, Paris Hilton, Mischa Barton et al going to clubs or theatres or art openings in London, and at least one member of Girls Aloud stumbling inebriatedly around town. These features allow us to ogle and covet these people’s beautiful clothes, marvel at their hair and make-up, and then sneer, if we’ve a mind to do so, at their more questionable life-choices. The gamut of emotions is provided for us to run. I don’t doubt, either, that this has been the case for as long as there have been social hierarchies of any sort: Henry VIII’s subjects too were probably highly entertained by his marital exploits (though maybe not by the resultant threat of war with Spain), but I’m guessing they were glad to miss out on actually having to live his gout-riddled, winch-dependent life. Considering the fragility of the human ego, the need for bolstering and affirmation, recognition and praise from which even the non-famous among us occasionally suffer, it makes sense that those who receive such plaudits just because of their job will be the object of our envy. It need hardly be said that part of what makes the notion of celebrity so attractive is the removed quality of these people from our everyday lives, which allows for the maintenance of their illusory perfection; there is nothing worse than meeting your favourite celebrity only to find them indifferent or impolite, or simply uninteresting.  To an extent, although this is hardly fair on the celebrities themselves, it holds true that the less we think or them as ordinary people with ordinary frailties (as distinct from extraordinary and somehow glamorous self-destructive proclivities à la Amy Winehouse or Kate Moss), the more curious we are about them.But the crucial difference between the issue of celebrity in our era and in that of, say, the silent movie stars, is one of multiplicity – both in the sense of there being a far greater number of stars for us to worship now than there has ever been, and that there is now a far greater number of ways in which we are exposed to them.  This is not the place to bemoan the fact that now someone can be famous without being talented or even remotely interesting.  But it is worth thinking about the fact that now we can officially be fans, in all the autograph-hunting, mobile-phone-picture-taking modern-day splendour of that term, not only of actors and actresses, but also singers and dancers, writers, photogenic politicians (O David Miliband, when are you coming to speak at the Union?), stand-up comics and reality TV stars.  Celebrity is a bigger business now than it has ever been.  And what I realised with a start at this failed gig was that despite having seen Morrissey live a good six times already, owning all his albums and DVDs and having  instant access to all his recent performances on Youtube, should I desire them, I still wanted more and was crushed when I didn’t get it.  And so were all the other fans, many of whom had an air about them of being an awful lot loonier about Morrissey than I am.  Clearly, celebrities’ availability has not devalued their impact on us. Can this all be the result of the consumerist tenor of these modern times in which we dwell?  Was the admirers’ ire at a few cancelled shows merely the consequence of our living in a society so materialistic that, the internet be damned, we could only look upon a tickle in the throat of the Mancunian miserabilist in terms of what it had cost us to see him appear live?  Does the sheer scale of the media’s intrusion into the world of our favourite stars only make us hungrier, in a rapacious and capitalistic sense, to find out more about them?  Maybe.  But maybe not also.  There is a scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall where the Allen character takes a vapid young woman on a date to see the Maharishi in New York City.  She observes breathily that ‘this man is God!  He has millions of followers who’d come from all over the world just to touch the hem of his garment,’ and Allen replies, ‘Really?  It must be a tremendous hem.’  That, I would suggest, is how best to view the proliferation of celebrity-proffering media which currently besets us – as an absurdly tremendous hem surrounding the same essential nucleus of desire and ambition.  The underlying prompt for our adulation of celebrities is not dependent for its existence on how many celebrities there are, or even how often we get to see and hear about them disporting themselves or releasing a new single, exercise DVD or Booky Wook.  These things might and probably do facilitate a tendency towards fandom, but they cannot alone sustain it. 
The bathetic end of the aforementioned scene from Annie Hall offers us the completion of this theory, when we see that the Maharishi has been for a quick bathroom break and Allen deflates his date by observing, ‘Look, there’s God coming out of the men’s room.’  What we really want from a celebrity is a combination of reticence and generosity – a plethora of public appearances, showing up unfailingly for signings, performances, and the like; and a holding back from manifesting the flaws or even just the ordinariness we all too readily glimpse in ourselves.  I suppose this is the real reason for which we Morrissey crazies were all so upset when our hero sore-throatedly flounced offstage in Chalk Farm a month ago, and why anyone is left disheartened by the failings of an idol: rather unfairly, for all our delight in those exploits of theirs which vivify the mundane, we cannot quite take in the fact that these characters, almost immortal to us, are actually human.
Rhian Harris is let down by feminist Shere HiteWhen I found out that Dr Shere Hite was coming to speak at the Oxford Union in January I was really excited. Hite is an outspoken feminist sexologist, who has written many influential books on female sexuality; and I am a keen feminist and was really interested in her research. When Cherwell offered me the opportunity to interview her naturally I was thrilled. I was due to interview and join her for dinner at the Union. I was warned that Hite was being somewhat ‘intense’ and had asked for my list of questions before the interview. Despite having only a day’s notice to do this, I prepared a comprehensive page of questions and e-mailed them to her. In the e-mail I admitted that I had not read her latest book, and said that I hoped it would not be a problem. The reply I received from Hite the next morning, the day I was due to interview her, asked me to buy and read one of her books that day, which I thought was a bit steep.When I arrived at the Oxford Union, Hite, a tiny figure, was perched on an armchair, surrounded by several men who all kept their distance from her – a valuable lesson I was about to learn. The Union member who had arranged the interview took me aside and informed me that there was a problem: Hite no longer wanted to do the interview. He thought that I should try to chat to her anyway, and perhaps then she might change her mind. ‘Chatting’ with Shere Hite hoever, was not a pleasant experience. She told me flatly that the reason she no longer wanted me to interview her was because I ‘had not read all of her books’. She has published at least ten. And besides, I had read a few. Hite said that she was afraid of being misquoted by ‘the media’. But it was she who had been asking for an interview with Cherwell in the first place, and it’s not as if I’m a hard-nosed hack from a tabloid eager for a news splash. From the books that I had read, I had expected her to warm to a female feminist journalist sympathetic to her cause – instead she proceeded to interrogate me on the last century of feminist literature and to belittle me; for example, after a completely incomprehensible monologue, he shrieked ‘did you understand anything I just said?’Hite proved herself to be a true celebrity ‘diva’ on a power trip. She became tetchy even when the coffee she had requested was slightly late arriving. Over dinner and when answering questions after her speech, she showed a complete unwillingness to consider anyone else’s point of view besides her own. Throughout the night there were many pointed references to my not having read all of her books, and I felt like I was being tested. Everyone around Shere Hite has to walk on egg-shells so as not to upset her or even disagree with her. Having been told that I could not interview her, I did not dare write anything down. The next morning, however, I received an e-mail saying that Hite thought my questions were ‘very intelligent’, and that they were happy for an article to be written. However, the article which has now been written is considerably different to the sympathetic article praising her research that I had planned to write. For a feminist, Hite prefers to tell other women what to think and to criticise them, rather than encouraging them to speak out and to achieve. So much for sisterhood.

Support student journalism

Student journalism does not come cheap. Now, more than ever, we need your support.

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles