Entry from May 31, 2002

The joint tour of Africa Paul O’Neill, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Irish pop star who calls himself Bono may represent the wave of the future. Politicians have been hanging out with the stars for some time now, of course, hoping that a little of their glamour will rub off, but until recently they were still slightly shamefaced about it. As in so many other ways, the Clinton administration knocked down the old barriers of decorum and dignity that once were thought to go with being a politician (remember the word “distinguished”?) by its shamelessness in courting celebrities. Now politicians of both parties are expected to go on Letterman and Leno and show us that they are regular guys. It was only a matter of time before this kind of showing off and pretending to be celebrities themselves became institutionalized as a regular part of a government’s reaching out to the people.

In fact, Bono has already made the trip to Africa, which he calls “the birthplace of cool” (you can imagine the Africans saying to one another, “I guess he doesn’t live around here”) with Senator Frist of Tennessee. Where in the days of Warren Beatty and Barbra Streisand, entertainers might have wanted to associate with politicians in order to be thought the possessors of a certain gravitas, now it is my impression that it is the politicians who are much more eager to associate with the stars in order to be thought the possessors of — well, whatever it is that the stars have that makes them stars. Of course, as the New York Times breathlessly reports, “Some Republicans acknowledge privately that working with Bono is attractive to them because he gives them credibility with younger, more liberal voters, who are not their natural constituents,” but it is not as if the Democrats would send him back to his music either.

Such is the nature of celebrity, which we are also seeing in the Ozzy Osbourne phenomenon. The whole of the celebrity culture is about the domestication of terror and mystery. . . From the birth of the celebrity culture in the movie magazines of the 1920s and 1930s there has been the same object. To humanize the gods of the big screen. As it spread from movie stars and sports heroes it has tried to do the same to politicians and statesmen, authors and philanthropists, tycoons and religious leaders. First they are mystified by fame, then they are demystified by all those who prey upon the famous.

Ozzy is a special case. Someone who might otherwise have been deemed suitable for Fox’s “Celebrity Boxing,” since he is a fading celebrity. Or was. But MTV’s version of “Celebrity Boxing” proved much more successful than Fox’s at renewing and regenerating fame, and this is because it is a better fit with the celebrity culture as a whole. True, there is something pleasingly degrading about seeing half-forgotten famous people pummel each other in order to remind us of who they are, but the celebrity culture always walks a fine line between the grossly vulgar and the more tastefully vulgar, and Ozzy is the latter. Ozzy’s home is hardly any more real than Olga Korbutt and Darva Conger in the ring together (Darva won, by the way). It is merely closer to our own experience and has some things in common with it. So we buy it as reality.

Coincidentally, Simon Jenkins writes in The Times today about the excitement in Britain over the discovery of a possible “relationship” between T.E. Lawrence — who, as “Lawrence of Arabia” was among the first of the modern-style celebrities — and an American nurse called Virginia Bryant who has recently died.

We demand that fame be familiar. We need to find in the famous not differences but points of contact. The mirror must reflect the face of the viewer. Hence perhaps the craze for celebrity trivia in popular magazines. They help to people our dreams with flesh and blood, preferably blood. The intrusion reveals not more of others to us, but more of us to ourselves. Thus Lawrence the Arabian club bore [which he might have become had he lived] would never have been news. Lawrence the martyr to his psyche is Everyman.

Lawrence of course was a pioneer of the celebrity pose of dodging his celebrity and pretending he doesn’t want it — and so making himself even more of a celebrity. It seems to work as well as ever. So I notice in today’s Telegraph an interview with the newest sensation among youthful American novelists, a recent Princeton grad called Jonathan Foer whose first novel, Everything is Illuminated is being hailed as (in the words of one of his predecessors) “a breathtaking work of astounding genius.” What does he say about his own sudden celebrity? “I hate all the performances I have to make now, because performances are necessarily false, and writing is a chance not to be false — to be authentic.” Atta boy! That’s the way to keep ‘em interested. Perhaps he should go off to Africa on the next trip.

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