Television - Andrew Billen asks who is the biggest star of all, after two documentaries on fame
The first question the papers asked about Jonny Wilkinson, Britain's most recently sprouted celebrity (did you know who he was a month ago?), was how much he was now worth. The Daily Mail guessed £5m - and that was before England won. In olden days when someone entered the public eye, editors would ask: "What are they like?" Sometimes they'd even get me to interview them and find out. Now, I fear, my day job is being ceded to business-page journalists, just as I sometimes think that television reviewing will be replaced, as it has already been in the American press, by analysis of ratings and advertising revenues.
In the first of his new series, The Importance of Being Famous (Tuesdays, 9pm, Channel 4), Piers Morgan arrived at the formula that celebrity equals the power to sell a product, though he failed to mention that one of the products celebrities sell is the paper he edits, the Daily Mirror. Fortunately, he had no difficulty in thinking of other examples, from Beckham and sunglasses to Caprice and lingerie (named Caprice Lingerie). The marketing men he spoke to, Julian Henry of Henry's House and James Hall of Saatchi & Saatchi, obliged by including the word "brand" in their soundbites, but were capped by Simon Cowell of Pop Idol, who said J.Lo wasn't a singer but "a brand, 100 per cent about making money". Jeremy Schwartz, responsible for "direct brand" marketing at Sainsbury's, explained that its use of Jamie Oliver in its commercials was "an emotional payback" to his customers for "associating with us". Gee, thanks.
In a long sequence - the programme showed a sometimes desperate craving for actuality - we attended an Andre Agassi press conference for an aftershave he was endorsing. Invited to describe Aramis Life in three words, he threw the question and a tennis ball back at his interlocutor. Morgan smugly punned on all the balls and commented that he had seen quite a few press conferences in his time but few "as inane or cretinous as this one". He made what he clearly thought was a killer connection between Agassi's spotless private life and the purity of Aramis Life. The company's president conceded that, although he could probably laugh off a "Hugh Grant on Sunset Strip" incident, if Agassi were found injecting cocaine into his arm "it would be a little harder". The tennis player's reward for this restriction on his recreational options was "in the ball park" of $3m to $4m.
Despite the rewards, Morgan, and this is always a hard trick for a tabloid journalist to pull off, managed to make us feel sorry for the real people inhabiting the brands. The downside of fame, he explained, is the constant worry that you'll be chucked out of paradise - or, as his interviewee Melinda Messenger eloquently elaborated: "We've gorged on fame. We'll soon be sick and I'll probably be the first to be vomited out." He even shed a few crocodile tears over Vinnie Jones, who nearly killed himself when Morgan sacked him from his column on the News of the World for attempting to bite off a rival newspaperman's nose.
In an interview with his old employee, Jones said he would prefer never to be mentioned in the press again than have his next misdeed reported. Morgan did not look as if he believed this, especially since Jones had filled a whole book with his misdeeds. Indeed, central to the Morgan thesis was that celebrity brands have periodically to cleanse themselves in candid autobiographies that spill secrets they would previously have gone to court to keep out of the papers. The critic Paul Morley saw all this as evidence of the "psychic damage" fame causes celebs (to add to the other things their flesh is apparently heir to: liver and kidney disease, ulcers, accidents, murder and suicide).
Two days later on BBC2, the financial "guru" Alvin Hall continued the con- ceit of celebrity as a commodity in The World's Most Powerful - Celebrity (Thursdays, 9.50pm, BBC2). The candidates competing in this mad contest were Oprah Winfrey and Madonna. The winner was Madonna, an obvious conclusion reached through a tortuous procedure subdivided by headings such as "Seeds of Power" ("At this stage I feel Oprah is ahead, having overcome such adversity"), "Party Power" (Madonna's wedding was a bigger do than Oprah's 40th) and "Selling Power" (really silly this one, since he compared Madge's unpaid endorsement of Timothy Taylor's ale on Tonight With Jonathan Ross with Oprah's getting a bill passed to set up a national register of paedophiles). Madonna won on the strange grounds that she "remained a risk- taker" rather than that she was a pop icon and not a chat-show host.
This cynical exercise was barely a step up from BBC3's Celebdaq, and certainly did not deserve its BBC2 slot. Interestingly, however, neither woman resembled Morgan's definition of celebrity as damaged goods. As owners of their own production companies, both have taken charge of their careers and images. Any psychic damage occurred a long time ago.
So who was the bigger star? Piers Morgan, for overcoming the adversity of editing the Mirror to become a patronising TV reporter, or Alvin Hall, for escaping the ghetto of financial tips and making it to Hollywood with a camera crew? It's a hard one, but I think Morgan has it. I think he wants it more.
Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times