A Celebration of Lost Stardom
Copyright © 2002 All Rights Reserved
In Neil Gaiman's comic The Sandman, gods of past cultures struggle to stay alive in this day and age by any conventional means necessary. Ishtar, once the ultimate Goddess of Love, dances in a strip club to obtain what passes for worship from her leering admirers.
I was glancing through the concert listings in a local independent paper, and I saw that tickets were being sold for what was touted as a "Birthday Bash" for an '80's Tiger Beat actor who is now more famous for his fast living than for any of his teen comedies, none of which were particularly memorable. The listing was accompanied by a picture of him taken at what was probably the height of his career, which has since degenerated into obscurity and token appearances on "where are they now?" shows. I wondered how many people were going to show up and pay good money for what was most likely a tribute to faded glory. There was no description of what was going to happen at this birthday celebration, which made me intensely curious.
I imagined it as some bleak, slightly tawdry affair, maybe not so much because of what actually went on at the event than because of its probable reasons, which I speculated might amount to desperate financial straits and a desperate desire to recapture the past and feel the warmth of admiration one more time, even in a relatively unhip place like Colorado. The point was, it was just desperation. One can hardly blame the poor guy, really. From what I've read in interviews with stars and seen on celebrity biography TV programs, fame is a vampire whose gift makes one feel eternally young, beautiful and admired, but like the blood-sucking undead, it takes something of you in return.
Judging from the way we treat modern celebrities, the rewards often don't seem to be worth the sacrifices. And there are always sacrifices - privacy,freedom, peace of mind, even personal safety. You can't just go down to the grocery store and anonymously pick up some Haagen-Dazs when you're, say, Cameron Diaz. There's always someone lurking to photograph you in the act, with your sweatpants flopping and hair a mess, and the photo turns up later in the magazines or papers with speculations as to whether you're pregnant or just letting yourself go - when all you wanted was a lousy pint of ice cream to eat while watching TV. Everything you say or do, covertly or otherwise, is analyzed and whispered about and hinted at in gossip rags; nothing is taken at face value. Weirdoes send you love letters; people want to know you simply because you're famous, and whether you're a sweet, caring human or an utter asshole makes no difference to them. Then again, having instant service at restaurants, obsequious shop girls rushing to do your bidding, tickets to elite events, people constantly coming up and saying how they loved your movie/record album/whatever, and being able to command respect from simply standing there breathing must make some of the inconvenience worthwhile.
Fame also allows you instant forgiveness for your sins. Tell the public they're hoping to take some time off, and it becomes a license for people to say they're shooting heroin, beating their kids, and checking into rehab. Of course, it could very well be true that the celeb-in-question is a heroin-shooting child-abuser, in which case he or she can later appear on some talk show in earnest tears, telling the sympathetic host about your struggle, and people will be passionately interested in your story anmd almost unanimously and instantaneously forgiving.
Because ordinary junkies and neighborhood child-beaters don't have quite the same Úlan or fascination now do they? But fame allows a kind of immunity; these more-than-mortals are somehow above the moral and ethical laws that belabor the rest of us. This is all an educated guess; I've never been famous and probably never will be, and I'd likely have to do something vile or at least totally humiliating in order to achieve that lofty state. In the last few decades, fame has shifted its focus from achievement to notoriety. O.J. Simpson, Amy Fisher, . Patty Hearst. Now, half the actors we idolize can't act, half the singers can't sing, and models pretty much just stand there looking hot and sexy without even trying, so there are a lot of people who are famous for being famous, more or less. In earlier days, people achieved the dream after a lot of hard work or the display of exceptional talent. Some still do, but now fame is more often granted by an even fickler media; we're told who to admire and who to worship and who to discuss around the coffee pot at work, and by its silences on others, the media tells us who isn't worth admiring or talking about any more.
Dealing with fame seems to rely on separating your real self-identity from the images and ideas projected about you by your own design or the hysteria of others. Our birthday boy, for example, may not have been able to do that when he was at the height of his popularity, and look at him now. By contrast, I've seen interviews with people like Lita Ford, an '80s heavy metal star who now lives quietly and apparently quite happily on the money she made during her career as a musician, and doesn't seem to miss those bygone days of glory too much. The lesson we can glean from people like her seems to be, if you're going to be famous, be famous, but remember who you are before, during, and after - and nine times out of ten, there will be an "after."
If I were to be offered fame, it'd have to be on my terms. Having my face on magazine covers doesn't seem attractive to me, but I'm only human, and the desire to be admired and respected by the teaming masses is one that is almost universally shared by all. It all comes down to what you value the most. For me, it's privacy. Not having crazy people stalking me claiming I was married to them in 1989, or obsessed fans trying to snip off bits of my hair or steal items from my laundry bag at hotels. Not being sneered at in the papers for gaining ten pounds or gossiped about for being drunk in a bar and calling someone an idiot. Not having to watch what I say and do lest it get blown into a scandal, or putting up with hangers-on and backstabbers. And since being famous is addictive, there's also not having to worry that one day, the music will die off and the dancers will stop moving and I'll be standing there in the middle of the party wondering why everybody's leaving and nobody seems to know who I am anymore, or if they do, it's with a vague nod and a smile, or worse, a kind of pitying contempt. Some people, like this actor appearing in Denver, apparently do not learn to live a life that doesn't revolve around everybody knowing their names, but I have to wonder if I'd do any better. Would I be able to go back to being Jane Doe, or would I wind up selling tickets to my own birthday celebration?
All in all, I couldn't picture this event as being anything but morbidly humorous and possibly extremely sad, so I didn't make the drive to Denver and I didn't buy a ticket, and I don't know what really happened.
Though she herself never experienced fame, Emily Dickinson had an excellent point,. It was probably fortunate for her; she couldn't even deal with ordinary life, and kept herself shut away from all but her immediate family. Dickinson only achieved eternity when her poems were published after her death, and it's somewhat debatable as to whether she'd have been pleased that all her private, meticulously and beautifully crafted thoughts were later exposed for the world to read and dissect. On the other hand, this actor and lots of other celebrities like him seem to be metaphorical as much as (sometimes) literal junkies - having tasted the fickle food, even stuffed themselves with it, they hunger for it forever and chase it around the shifting plates of their lives.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elizabeth Vong once pursued anthropology as a career. She started churning out short stories for her own amusement and subsequently decided that writing was more rewarding than academia. Despite her change of plans, she is still fascinated by human beings and the way they think and behave. Elizabeth has lived most of her life in Oklahoma and now resides in Colorado. This is her first published work.