If all the world’s a stage, then, for nearly the last hundred years, America’s been hogging the spotlight. And so it seems that, in tipping the scales in World War II and spreading its culture over Europe and Asia like butter over too much toast, America became an overnight celebrity. When Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election, there were Kenyans parading through the streets of Nairobi, and as he took the reins to a war that seemed all but impossible to tame, the world’s leaders leaned in a little closer, as if watching a rodeo clown tackle a bull. However, it is clear that this attention goes largely unreturned. America seems to only pay attention to itself (as should perhaps be expected of the archetypical celebrity). Americans are addicted to fame, and nowhere is that clearer than in our obsession with its own celebrities. The situation has gotten to the point that, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, American children might as well be heard answering: famous.
Answers like “fireman” and “astronaut” came from an admiration for men and women of action, for integrity and grit and red-bloodedness, while the celebrity lifestyle has always been more of a temptation, a seduction. Fame opens the door to what looks like a much more comfortable, almost paradisiacal world, a world not dissimilar to that of fairytale princesses and bloodlines running blue. Among America’s celebrities stand some of the world’s most beautiful people, and with their exotic outfits, practiced answers and sprawling entourages, it is all too easy to mistake them for royals, and assume that with fame comes prestige, power, or even happiness.
Similar to walls insulating medieval royalty from the common people, money separates celebrities from ordinary people, and, strangely, seems to fan the flames of our country’s obsession. That is not an act we are seeing on the red carpet. Those are not costumed puppets playing out some fantasy. That is real. Those are millionaires on parade. Their fantastical lifestyle, though polished for the public eye in mansion photo-shoots and poolside interviews, is no fantasy to them. It’s real. And it’s dark. Take, for example, the enduring media frenzy around one of America’s most famous (though least controversial), couples: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. As the fallout of headlines such “BRAD’s MISERY” and “GOING BACK TO BRENNIFER” gathered around them, Jolie went ahead and built a bomb shelter, of sorts, by buying her husband an island for his fiftieth birthday.
There looms the dark side of fame, the constant scrutiny that so many celebrities struggle to escape, be it by hiding away on faraway islands, or being hidden away in some southern Californian treatment facility. Envying the rich and famous is easy, but being a celebrity can be just as perilous a job as being an astronaut. Similar to how the vacuum of space can boil your brains until they blow out your eardrums, so can the enormous pressure of fame inflate your head until it pops off. Sometimes to be a celebrity is to exist in an environment as hostile as open space, with the paparazzi and tabloid magazines like little hammers tapping at the glass of your helmet. There comes controversy after controversy, and every year sees its share of tragedy. In the last decade, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston may have been the biggest names to be paired with the word “overdose,” and yet, even as the tabloids paid tribute to these casualties of fame, the swarm of paparazzi moved on, looking for the next juicy story, like flies from a burst fruit dried out in the sun.
The true character of a celebrity, living or dead, then becomes as shapeless as that of a god, as it is admired through so many different eyes, and celebrated in so many different voices. And when one stands on so many pedestals, it might seem as if the only way left to go is down, as if all the fans have just been watching for the inevitable fall. Humiliation goes hand in hand with this almost constant surveillance, and it does not take long for even the most deified celebrity to be painted as something ugly, something unattractive, that is somehow no less marketable.
The distasteful sells, and so tabloids thrive as their audiences rush after the thrill of disgust, and look into famous legs spread too wide, or pore over wardrobe malfunctions that everyday people could shrug off and forget in as long as it takes for the breeze to blow by. America was appalled when Britney Spears shaved her head and smashed in a car window. America was appalled by Mel Gibson’s profane rants. In the aftermath of these moments of weakness—of humanity—celebrities have seen their fantasy life collapse in around them, only to be left picking up the pieces once the media storm had passed. Distaste sells, and it seems as if no disgraced celebrity was ever as famous as they were infamous, though sometimes it is fame that follows infamy. When newcomer – and now worth more than forty million dollars – Kim Kardashian made her sex tape debut, Americans were appalled… and yet they wanted more.
Some celebrities come into fame like a lottery winner comes into his or her money, or royalty to their thrones. And now, with the rising popularity of reality television and the open floodgates of the Internet, it is as if the greatest actors, the most important minds, the most skillful musicians and even the most beautiful people are not the ones with the greatest claim to fame. Because for today’s America: fame need not come from admiration, or even envy, but from disgust.
It has never been more important that the United States shake off its addiction to celebrity, if only so that its children are not caught up in this fairy tale of the rich and famous, and instead admire the firemen and astronauts on whose shoulders the country sits. How far would a child chase the fantasy? How far would they go to follow their dreams through these new, twisted avenues of fame, where a sex tape is worth forty million dollars, and can carry you to the throne?