Fame looks like the new religion. But, argues Suzanne Moore, we pick and choose famous people like any other consumer products
The growth industry of the nineties has been the culture of celebrity. Never have so many people been famous for so little. Never have so many people been interested in others just because they are famous for more than 15 seconds. Never have we been so preoccupied with the private lives of those whom we elect to be public figures. And who shall we ask to explain all this? Who can tell us about why and how this is happening?
Shall we ask Madonna, who once sang "I traded fame for love" and now decides "I've changed my mind"? Shall we ask the recipient of that prestigious award, Sunglasses-Wearer of the Year 1998, Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, what it's all about? How did she, a friend of the royals, give Charles a peck on the cheek while kitted out in tight ski-wear and thus manage overnight to become, in her own inimitable words, "a personality type-thing"? Shall we ask Maureen Rees, a cleaner who couldn't drive very well in a docu-soap but ended up opening supermarkets and making records because she was just so ordinary?
Should we go to Emma Noble, famous for wearing very little and marrying the ex-prime minister's son, what she feels about the society of the spectacle? Or will we fall back on the familiar line that an obsession with celebrity is irredeemably a bad thing, the sign of an emotionally impoverished way of life, that shows we are all dupes, passive consumers of the celebrity industry?
I, too, would like to carp from the sidelines. I would like to say that we are all too preoccupied with the shallow and the frivolous, that this is terribly unhealthy, that I have never been drawn to Hello! or OK magazine, where A tells us how she has risen above her troubles, B and C present their new baby son, D and B are fantastically in love in their beautiful new home. I would like to be above or beneath all this. I would like to say that I have never been impressed by being in the same room as X,Y and Z.
I would like to be pure.
However, I no longer believe -- if I ever did -- that there are any sidelines from which one can merely observe the cult of celebrity. The fantasy of purity is just that -- a fantasy. You may dismiss Hello!, you may dismiss the tabloids and Hollywood and all of TV. You may, if you like, dismiss much of the media and imagine that if you stick to your serious newspapers you can avoid the crassness of everyday life, that you don't know Gary Glitter or Hugh Grant, that you have never heard of Liz Hurley or Charlie Dimmock, that you couldn't care less.
But you wouldn't be telling the whole truth, would you? For we are all stakeholders, to a smaller or larger degree, in this celebrity business. Our interest, our appetite, our desire sustain it, create it, pay for it.
There have always been famous people. But the growth of the mass media, particularly in the past decade, has produced an unforeseen worship of the famous that is deeply troubling. One might suggest that the culture of celebrity is one of the most unremarked aspects of this thing called globalisation, that as the world becomes a more uncertain and fragmented place, celebrity culture provides some strange form of social glue which holds us together. Naomi Campbell fawning over Nelson Mandela shows us that everything can somehow be connected, everything brought together.
Yet the way we understand the new world order of celebrity is resolutely old fashioned. Critics always talk of celebrity as the new secular religion. Robert Hughes spoke of the "poor, depleted souls" who gathered together to try and buy Jackie 0's paraphernalia as being like "13th-century peasants trying to touch the withered bones of some saint".
The standard old left dismissal of those who mourned Diana amounted to little more than a rerun of the "opium of the masses" argument. …