I have a confession! I have eaten celebrity culture. I have read big pieces on Simon Cowell, Beyoncé and I even, despite my annual panic attack about the Best Dressed List, read Vanity Fair. Anyone who reads newspapers and magazines, or has a Yahoo! homepage must say the same. We are all customers buying the glory, and also the misery, of fame.
I must go further; I was once a gossip columnist. It was my job to go to parties, approach celebrities and solicit “amusing” information. That the celebrities attended the parties and wanted to appear in the press, to promote this or that, was obvious. And I still believe that if someone does not want to be famous, they do not have to be. If you don’t talk to the press, ever, you will not be in the press, ever, unless you shoot a US president (Lee Harvey Oswald).
If you wear very uninteresting outfits, as Madonna does when she is London, photographers will not follow you, because their pictures will add nothing to the photographs the newspapers already have on file, and they will not be bought. Steve Coogan is internationally famous because he talks to the press. Chris Morris, arguably the more talented comedian, is not, because he never does.
Humans have always created heroes and gods and they have always gossiped. I think it comes from an unwillingness to live in our own lives; from self-hatred, boredom, and from a desire to touch, and then say you don’t need the gilded things in life. It began as a psychological need. It became a business.
Humans have always gossiped. It started as a psychological need. It became a business
The market for celebrities has grown. Magazines solely dedicated to celebrities flourish and they are insatiable not only for more celebrities but for personal details that should only be shared among friends. So we see stories about sex lives, abortions, children’s illnesses and miscarriages.
Real lives are recast as 24-hour rolling news. And what happens to the victims? Some go very weird, and lock themselves behind impenetrable defences, both real and psychological. I met Tom Cruise in a press line once. He bounced with positive energy, armour designed to ward off the people who would devour him if they could. Others crack up – Michael Jackson, Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears. The paparazzi pack is an especially repulsive sight to see. I have watched one man stick a camera lens up Tara Palmer-Tompkinson’s skirt.
There may be a third type – the sane and happy celebrity – but I suspect this type is either of such long-standing fame they can handle it (Michael Caine doesn’t look like he cries) or is just talented, and rarely speaks publicly of anything other than work. But for a while press coverage for the fame game has been a waltz of ever-diminishing returns and where I would have once giggled, I now retch.
"Humans have always gossiped. It started as a psychological need. It became a business."
And so, when I saw Hugh Grant on Question Time, slamming the phone-hacking scandal, and Steve Coogan on Newsnight, doing the same, I didn’t laugh as I might have done before. To empathise with Hugh Grant is not always easy, but I admired him for doing something his enemies would deride and for speaking up for himself rather than the celebrity-serious-coverage-of-choice-story, charity work. He did look absurd on the panel, but that is because we are so used to seeing celebrities look ridiculous, that when they do something normal, it seems odd. But he was right to speak, and has as much right to self-defence as anyone.
As the celebrity wave has risen, it seems more and more like a drug to me – for us, and also for the madder celebrities. It is a compulsive behaviour. It brings out the darkness in people. But if this looks like utter degradation of our species, it could also be an opportunity. We have never had so much access to information; nothing is private anymore. We should use this information to better our world. There have been too many headlines about sex lives, and too many ruined lives. It is time for the era of celebrity to die.
What's your view? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Stylist's regular columnist Lucy Mangan is on maternity leave.