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Fame: Stripping Celebrity Bare
David Gritten
London: Allen Lane, 2002.
£14.99, 188 pages, ISBN 0-71-399536-X.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

David Gritten is a writer, critic and broadcaster. In 1998 he published Tom Jones: The Biography, which he wrote with Stafford Hildred. He writes in the Radio Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Los Angeles Times. The first thing I checked when I received the book was whether it featured an index. It did. Then I looked for "Madonna" (the most famous woman on the planet) in the said index, and found that she appeared on thirteen pages. Thirdly, I looked at the back-cover, and was pleased to find that superimposed on a rather uninspiring photograph of a red carpet and legs were five quotes from five personal favorites of mine: Marilyn Monroe, David Bowie, Tony Curtis, Julia Roberts, and Madonna, who said: "Fame? I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy's dog." So I began reading with a positive bias, in spite of the horrendous cover: the lower part of a woman getting out of a limousine—the legs are gorgeous, but the shoes and dress are ugly, cheap-looking and tacky in the extreme, without the least tongue-in-cheek element to redeem the photograph.

Fame: Stripping Celebrity Bare is composed of twelve chapters whose titles systematically come with subtitles that are "rules." For instance, Chapter One is entitled "The Fame Dilemma," and is subtitled "Rule One: Fame's consequences are always complex." Those rules are on the whole convincing, and it is easy to trust Gritten, who has a keen eye and a keen ear and has spent a great part of his adult life observing famous people. "I have lost count of the number of truly famous people I have encountered, though it easily runs into hundreds." (5) In the introductory chapter you realize with pleasure that Gritten's book is totally unpretentious: it does not profess to be a Cultural Studies or sociology treatise, and though it is often analytical it never annoys nor bores the reader with I-know-better and I-alone-hold-the-truth attitudes (see my somewhat negative review of Chris Rojek's Celebrity in Cercles). This book also happily avoids sensationalism altogether.

Gritten simply asks what it is like to be famous, then proceeds to answer the question. He ponders the often transient quality of fame, wonders what happens after Andy Warhol's fifteen minutes, looks at the people who are famous for being famous, and generally speaking examines the downfalls and advantages of "fame [which] is a complicated phenomenon." (9) Besides, he addresses the intriguing fact that "television and the print media airbrush out of existence the inconveniently complex and undesirable side-effects of fame." (9)

The case of Stephen Hawking is particularly striking. As Gritten writes, "A Brief History of Time [1988] remains one of the great all-time best-sellers largely unfinished by its readers." (11) Practically everyone I knew bought it: my relatives, my friends, my colleagues, my neighbors, my doctor; everywhere I went I saw that book, in English, in French, in Spanish... And indeed, I do not know a single individual who finished it. Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World (1991) is a very similar case, although I know a couple of colleagues who finished it, and Gaarder never quite became tabloid fodder the way Hawking did (notably because Gaarder was not disabled). Hawking never quite understood that "continuing celebrity is a form of narrative, in which achieving fame is just the first chapter." (12), but he realized that "fame resembles a spring-loaded door that slams behind you after you walk through it." (12)

"The famous people [he] meet[s]," writes Gritten, "seem as a group less well adjusted and more ill-at-ease than the norm." (13) He proceeds in Chapter Two, "Fame Becomes a Problem," to demonstrate it. His Rule Two is that "in fame's wake, lives get ruined—and sometimes prematurely ended." Now let us for a minute consider your sister-in-law, Nancy, the one who identifies with celebrities so much. We know that the identification process in her case works on two levels, I call them first degree identification and second degree identification. For the second degree identification to thrive, Nancy buys glamorous magazines like Vanity Fair. She beholds gorgeous airbrushed pictures of a heavily made-up X, wearing designer clothing and holding her head high just so as to catch the right light by her swimming pool—and she dreams, wanting to be like X. For the first degree identification to thrive, Nancy buys vile tabloids. She beholds horrible pictures of X wearing an ugly jogging suit and pumps, washing her car or shopping for groceries, fat rolls and double chin undisguised—and she thinks, hey, that's me, I'm exactly like that! This feeling is comforted, naturally, by the gruesome tales of woe and illness that the tabloids offer, which allow Nancy to reconcile herself to her existence as a suburban non-entity: celebrities suffer just like her, they are human beings too, they are not so different; and after all, fame can't make you happy. Let Gritten's reader be reassured, Fame: Stripping Celebrity Bare was not written in that spirit; although I suppose it may also function as such a consolation—as a bonus. In the same order of idea, Gritten writes in a later chapter about the way famous people sometimes admit to "personality disorders, dysfunction, addiction" and observes that "the admission of such 'weaknesses' helps to humanize celebrities." (35) Now I know I should not feel too sorry I never became a wealthy rock star and had to settle for academic obscurity and a paltry salary instead. And after all, money can't buy happiness, can it? Gritten begins with Lord Byron and nineteenth-century fame, then moves on to the changes brought about by moving pictures and the development of the popular press. "Readers preferred being entertained to being lectured." (18) Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Fatty Arbuckle, Clara Bow, nobody is missing and there are echoes of Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon. Occasionally Gritten indulges in a bit of facility (though he never writes anything silly as far as content is concerned), as when he states: "The fame virus had taken hold shortly afterwards, and was now spreading uncontrollably, voraciously consuming celebrities, would-be celebrities and fans alike." (27)

Chapter Three is called "Who Needs Fame?" Rule Three goes: "Celebrity Behavior is rooted in a type of personality disorder." The beginning is rather pleasantly clinical. There are well-chosen examples of celebrity behavior, celebrity demands, a few interesting anecdotes about people like Richard Dreyfuss or Leonardo di Caprio (I won't say anymore, read the book). A passage about Madonna and David Bowie begins on page 32 with the hugely famous quote from the movie Truth or Dare (1991), when Warren Beatty says: "She doesn't even want to live off-camera, much less talk." Everyone quotes this sentence in their book, I quoted this sentence myself. But then I don't quite subscribe to everything Gritten writes, notably when it comes to the postmodern aspects of Madonna's art and the comparisons he establishes between Madonna and Bowie and the various personae they've adopted through the years. I virulently disagree when he deems: "At times, she resembles a small girl let loose in her mother's old clothes closet, trying on costumes at random, then throwing them off because they fail to make her feel sufficiently pretty or content." (34) On the contrary, every single one of Madonna's looks has signified more than all the looks of all the British and American female pop performers of the past twenty years put together.

There are interesting pages about the differences in death rates and suicide rates among the "normal" population and the celebrity population, about all the catastrophes that befall the latter, and their degree of transparency. A lot is known about the private life of celebrities. "The one notable exception, shamefully, is the admission of homosexuality; if we were to take today's population of famous people at their word, they would represent the most determinedly heterosexual population in the western world." (36) Then as far as mental imbalance, drugs and alcohol are concerned, comes the inevitable chicken and egg question: "It may be that the effects of fame destabilize people, or it may be that unstable […] people are more likely to be famous in the first place […]." (37)

Chapter Four looks at fan behavior, at the blurred frontiers between adoration and hostility, and at the fake intimate relation that is forged between the celebrity and the fan. Here is a splendid Tony Curtis quote: "It's like having Alzheimer's disease. You don't know anybody, they all know you." (45) There are reminders of particularly vivid illustrations of psychotic fan behavior, like Mark David Chapman who shot John Lennon, John W. Hinckley Jr., Andrew Cunanan, or the stalker Ricardo Lopez who tried to bomb Bjork's house and then "filmed himself on video blowing his brains out with a pistol. Playing in the background was a Bjork song called 'I Miss You.'" (53)

Chapter Five deals with the media. Without actually saying so, what Gritten does in this chapter is define myth, its nature and its functions. As I never tire of exemplifying, Aphrodite or the Virgin Mary are premodern myths, Marlene Dietrich is a modern myth, and Madonna a postmodern myth. They all serve the same purposesproviding the same sort of narrativesas far as the worshippers / fans are concerned. Gritten does mention classical mythology and the New Testament, quoting from Joseph Campbell and speaking of "a diluted version of a hero myth." (62) He looks at different ways of fueling one's celebrity narrative to feed the public, such as "serial monogamy" (Elizabeth Taylor) or perfectly timed relationships that publicize a product (Madonna and Warren Beatty); he illustrates the reporters' lack of delicacy. "There is a widespread notion among journalists, even some extremely thoughtful ones, that all publicity is good publicity, that attaining fame is automatically a good thing, almost irrespective of circumstance." (68) Gritten interestingly concludes with O. J. Simpson and Michael Jackson: "It was as if fame had thrown a protective blanket around [O. J. Simpson], and his celebrity placed him in a kind of vacuum where he was not to be judged as other men. […] Michael Jackson is another celebrity who appears to exist in this blessed moral vacuum." (70)

Chapter Six's Rule Six nicely paraphrases Warhol: "In future, anyone will appear on television if they want it badly enough." Drawing from Joseph Campbell again, as well as from psychotherapists like Nan Beecher-Moore, Gritten turns from actors ("at least Cruise and Roberts have a skill") to "reality TV" shows such as Big Brother, Survivor or Loft-Story. "Ordinary" people are locked together in some secluded place and scrutinized by millions. "They talked incessantly at a consistently banal level, their minds rarely troubled by anything so complex as an idea." (72) Shows of that sort, writes Gritten, mark "a turning point in the progression of modern fame," (76) and I agree. The title of this chapter is "Everybody's Famous", and it offers amusing examples: Victoria Beckham's manicurist, diet advisers, "pet doctors to the stars," etc. There are even fake celebrities, made up from scratch overnight as hoaxes who became truly famous. The chapter concludes with digital celebrities (Lara Croft) and people who leave their webcam on twenty four hours a day.

Chapter Seven shows the different ways celebrities behave in public and are affected by the reactions of people on the street. This chapter makes much of Madonna, whom Gritten calls "the doyenne of recent uber-celebrities," (93) and ends with the Beatles. Chapter Eight examines "involuntary fame" and (initially) reluctant celebrities. Gritten notably mentions Patty Hearst, Charles Webb (author of the novel The Graduate), Sean Penn, Greta Garbo, and the story of Canada's Dionne quintuplets. Chapter Nine deals with celebrities who handle fame well, often given to immense generosity, such as Dolly Parton, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger or Oprah Winfrey, "once described in Vanity Fair as having more influence on the culture than any politician or university professor, and second only to that of the Pope"a terrifying thought, of course (117).

Chapter Ten is entitled "The Pitfalls of Fame." Rule Ten goes: "Despite the allure of fame, it barely registers as a factor in determining quality of life." It is well illustrated (taking in the excesses of some whose ego becomes dramatically inflated and the disillusions of others) with the examples of Victoria Beckham, Lisa Stansfield, Val Kilmer, Bruce Willis, Elton John, Hugh Grant (and Divine Brown!)… And here Gritten does finally mention Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon (131). The most extraordinary story in this chapter concerns the British ventriloquist Keith Harris, who was huge in the 1980s, but I won't spoil the reader's enjoyment by revealing here what eventually befell him. "Katherine Hepburn once remarked: 'Fame gave me everythingexcept what I wanted.'" (134) Chapter Eleven is concerned with the lack of privacy of celebrities who are notably pursued by paparazzi. Naturally, it mentions Madonna and Princess Diana, and describes the supply and demand concept that rules tabloids. This chapter makes much of the fame of the British Royal Family, American presidents, and President Mitterrand. In the U.S. journalists used to "respect" the private life of White House residents more. The rules vary according to time and place. JFK's womanizing went largely unreported in his lifetime, whereas Clinton's certainly didn't. Gritten is right to explain that the French media are less eager to invade the private life of politicians and showbiz people. It is true that "rigorous privacy laws have long existed" (143) in France. Gritten discusses Mitterrand's cancer and the way it was hidden from the public. I was even more amazed myself by the very late revelations of his double life and hidden daughter (who of course has since become a famous writer of sorts). Gritten asks the right sort of question, regarding the political implications of secrecy about the sex life and health of the people who govern us. The Monica Lewinsky case, of course, is sociologically speaking fascinating, regardless of the intern's own personality or lack thereof. The short conclusion, Chapter Twelve, is as it should be about the fact that "fame is a dual-edged sword, with profound drawbacks for each of its advantages," (153) and rounds off a perfectly enjoyable book.

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