August 24, 2008

Celebrities Don’t Deserve This Hatred

By Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

MADONNA'S WORLD concert tour started with a whimper in Cardiff's Millennium Stadium. It didn't sell out. Shock! Horror! As she toned up vigorously the following dawn, I imagine her killing the punch bags and smashing her long-suffering treadmill. That is if she feels this was the first tumble of her fall back on to the rocky, inclement spot where ex-celebs lie still. It is the payback for too much fame and extravagant adoration.

Looked at differently, however, the night confirmed Madonna is quite, quite extraordinary. With steely ambition, after decades she still thrives in the celebrity jungle replete with snapping predators and poisonous reptiles, more perilous than ever before. (Is she happy though?) The fittest survive through superhuman effort and there aren't many of them.

The rest, you watch as they swagger then stagger, sometimes vanish from sight, or, like Anthea Turner, lurk on the edges, reeking of self pity. Some slowly disintegrate, naked in front of our eyes, even when at the top of the fame tree. Amy Winehouse is the latest casualty. Others are kicked away to relative obscurity by amoral market forces. And so it has come to pass that Trinny and Susannah are watched no more.

Delighted commentators ( themselves desperate for celeb status) have penned unseemly obituaries of these two posh ladies who, in truth, did little harm to anyone. In fact from their earlier programmes, I learnt some sartorial tricks to enhance my best bits and elegantly hide the rest. Yet some malevolent maggots call on their blogs for the two to be hanged or worse. In comes the gay ( in both senses) and stylish Gok Wan, who presents How to Look Good Naked, again a good friend to those of us who feel physically flawed. When will they carry out his lithe corpse you wonder?

Way back in 1989, John Updike wrote: "Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face." Prescient words for the hideous Eighties, even more so for this century. Although it was ever thus - Byron, Oscar Wilde, Rita Hayworth, Diana etc, etc - there are vastly more celebs today, many talentless but nevertheless hideously popular. Like the unfortunate Jade, who was just informed on TV that she has cancer. The glut demands rapid turnovers and self immolation.

At the Edinburgh festival last week, I saw Matthew Bourne's Dorian Gray, a beautiful and perfect, wordless essay on these lives and times, in dance. A male supermodel who looks like Beckham, has it all, breaks it all, then those who touch him and finally himself. On the set, posters of his face look down on us and a large replica of Damian Hirst's diamond skull revolves, casting light on the beautiful and damned.

None of this is inevitable. Some who make it do manage to keep their personal integrity. Think of Helen Mirren, David Tennant, Stephen Berkoff (whose On The Waterfront also had audiences rapt in Edinburgh), Juliet Stephenson, Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow. They don't need constant public exposure to feel they matter. Tragically, too many others do.

In Andrew O'Hagan's affecting novel Personality, based on the life of child star Lena Zavaroni, who died of anorexia, a fictionalised Hughie Green describes a meeting with Marilyn Monroe who asks him if he thinks she is beautiful. He replies: "Honey the whole world thinks you're beautiful, but the question is what do you think?" That, indeed is the question, and one rarely asked by our fast-rising and falling celebs.

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