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Trained leeches

Celebrity: How Entertainers Took Over the World and Why We
Need an Exit Strategy
Marina Hyde
Har

In 2005, the American movie actor Bruce Willis placed a personal bounty of $1m on the head of Osama Bin Laden. Emboldened by the praise he received for his largesse, he offered another such bounty for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was promptly ambushed and killed, following tip-offs from Iraqi civilians. “Can you even imagine Brucie’s delight?” asks Marina Hyde, whose writing voice is as withering as the north wind. “Can you imagine the speed with which he dived for his chequebook? . . . Yes. Yes you probably can.”

The broken promises of Bruce Willis, the medical malapropisms of Sharon Stone (cured of cancer by eliminating caffeine from her diet, would you believe), the anti-nuclear chanting (just repeat “Chernobyl” under your breath) promulgated by Madonna during her many petitions to Whitehall – all these are presented in this modern Dunciad, this catalogue of celebrity idiocy. The tone is jaunty but the indignation is savage.

Perhaps a little too savage. This book pretends to be morally outraged by celebrity inanities, but it is outraged at such length, and in such gleefully saleable detail, that it reminds you of a kerb crawler who claims to be doing humanitarian research. Marina Hyde argues earnestly that celebrities cause harm because they divert attention away from important current affairs issues. However true this may be, it is hard to take from the Guardian’s Lost in Showbiz columnist; and writers who lure you into the Humour section of your bookshop with shiny red paperbacks entitled Celebrity cannot really afford to moralise or cast stones.

To write a book reviling celebrities is essentially a parasitic endeavour (as I know only too well, having co-written, with William Donaldson, an entirely gratuitous work of reference called The Dictionary of National Celebrity). Harping on about celebrities automatically makes you part of their food chain, yet another entertainer – but you can forgive this book its slightly off self-righteousness because it is so funny, and so sharp.

“It isn’t that the tail is wagging the dog,” Hyde says despairingly of celebrity culture. “The fleas are running the kennel.” How this happened is briefly represented, with little backward glances to key dates in celebrity’s ghastly transformation from tame recreation into the beast that has broken out of its cage. In 1910, arguably the first celebrity perfume, Mary Garden, was launched in honour of the opera singer whose Salome had entranced Al Capone. Thus began the custom of cashing in on fame that would ultimately lead to the star-endorsed credit card (“Our records show you are an Usher Raymond IV debit card holder . . . Have you heard about these fantastic sub-prime mortgages?”) and, for the ultimate fan, the Kiss Kasket, the perfect coffin for the hard-rock korpse.

Another watershed occurred in 1985 when the US congressional committee on agriculture tabled a hearing called “The Plight of the Family Farmer”. Since the 1940s, Congress had occasionally called celebrity witnesses to draw a crowd, but this time the invitees were Sissy Spacek, Sally Field and Jane Fonda. “It should be perfectly obvious why,” writes Hyde. “They had all played farm wives in the movies.”

By 2002, the concept of the expert witness had widened to include Kevin Richardson (of the boy band Backstreet Boys, hence well qualified to sit backwards on a chair and harmonise; less well qualified to testify before the US Senate on environmental degradation in his home state of Kentucky) and Elmo, a Sesame Street puppet who was the first – and, to date, last – congressional expert witness made of fun fur (in 2002, to urge increased funding for music education, should you be interested). Truly, we are trapped in a relentless celeb expandio ad absurdum.

Then there is the do-gooder celebrity, so painfully earnest, so maladroit. In 1973, Marlon Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather in full Apache dress to the Academy Awards to decline his Oscar for The Godfather, in protest at the poor treatment of Native Americans. Unfortunately, Littlefeather was actually an actress masquerading as an oppressed native. And thus began the concept of the campaigning celeb. From there, it was only a slippery slope to fundraisers on the lawn at the UN to raise the joint profile of Aids charities in Malawi and Gucci handbags.

Hyde reserves a special level of scorn for celeb philanthropy. When Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie went on an orphan-seeking mission to Namibia in 2005, the country was temporarily declared a no-fly zone. (“Congratulations, Namibia. You have ceded control of your airspace to the star of Tomb Raider.”) Hyde notes that this restriction was hardly consistent with Angelina’s prized belief “Know your rights”, a phrase that she has tattooed across the back of her neck, but the irony of this feels laboured, the observation malicious. Ultimately, mocking good intentions so insistently sours; and, after all, Brangelina’s adoption mission was sincere – as sincere, no doubt, as Hyde’s desire to register in the bestseller charts. But then all is forgiven when, expatiating on the folio of tattoos that covers Jolie’s largest organ, Hyde appends a delicious mock-footnote: “*Actually, her skin is not the largest organ. The largest is her heart.”

When an actor goes on record with a political opinion, Hyde becomes screechy: “Pick a lane, all of you!” Does she really think that being an actor, or, as she condescendingly puts it, “someone who pretends to be other people for a living”, makes you exempt from political responsibility? That the power of fame should always be disengaged from politics? It is hard to imagine her case standing up against slightly more difficult targets, such as the Redgrave dynasty, or Ronald Reagan.

But when her ire is justified, it is spectacularly effective. The collective memory of celebrity tabloids is short – publicists encourage amnesia by rewarding the rags with access – so the most successful magazines are the ones that can’t remember what celebs said last week, let alone whom they married. Hyde’s scrutiny is a welcome corrective. Take, for example, her excoriation of Paris Hilton’s penitential performance on Larry King Live.

Emerging from prison after a brief incarceration for drink-driving, Hilton announced that she was “a new person” and promised to establish two philanthropic foundations: a transitional home for women released from jail, to help break the recidivist cycle, and a Paris Hilton playhouse, where sick children would enjoy clothes and toys donated by Paris and friends. Hyde’s baroque imagination fleetingly conjures up young sufferers donning Nicole Ritchie’s cast-off Manolos, playing at falling drunkenly out of Wendy houses, and crashing little pedal cars into strategically placed shrubbery . . . but it was not to be. Hyde breaks the news faux-gently: “This is going to be painful for all of us. But you need to understand that sometimes celebrities say things they don’t mean. Sometimes they say them because they’re tired, or upset, or on Larry King Live . . . Listen, the short answer is that Paris remains busy with other stuff, OK?”

Perhaps the bottom line of this story is not so very surprising: Paris Hilton makes empty promises – what a shocker! And Hyde sure milks a story of every last drop of irony. But her prose is crocodile-snappy, and certain tags are so glorious (“beach-based polymath David Hasselhoff”) that you remember them from when they appeared the first time round in her column. This is what is known as being so sharp, you cut yourself. Lost In Showbiz, Hyde’s weekly outing in the Guardian, is the uncredited source material for much of this book, online archiving having, it seems, killed the notion of selected journalism.

This book has a love/hate relationship with its own subjects. On the one hand, Celebrity suggests that they should be ignored, that they should zip it once and for all, and we should close our ears to the mumbo-jumbo they talk. But on the other hand, it can’t resist revelling in just what it was that Demi Moore said about detoxifying her blood. Tell me again? That she “optimised her health” by submitting to “highly trained medical leeches” (do they also do cartwheels?). Cue slightly smug laughter, the soundtrack throughout.

Celebrity would be a more valuable piece of work if it addressed the media cycles that supply and demand these sacred monsters. Instead, it sticks to a rather old-fashioned idea of them as pure personalities, Hindenberg-sized egos floating more or less solo. Instead of exposing the apparatus of celebrity, this book is actually part of its scaffolding.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rise of the Geek