Category Archives: Celebrity

Diana’s death fascinates us as much as her life

Princess Diana

Sixteen years after her death, Diana, Princess of Wales, continues to enchant us. A new claim that the Special Air Service (SAS) was involved in her death is being investigated by the Metropolitan Police. In the immediate aftermath of the fateful night of August 31, 1997, everyone struggled to make sense of arguably the most devastating death of the century. The shock and prolonged sense of grief occasioned by Diana’s utterly unexpected death has scarcely a parallel in world events. The deaths of social and political giants such as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and cultural icons like John Lennon and Michael Jackson, stunned people the world over. But none of these evoked an emotional response so long and deep as that following Diana’s death.

The response to Diana’s death defined an emblematic moment, one of transferred emotion. In the days leading to her funeral on September 6, over a million people flocked to pay their last respects, many leaving bouquets at her London home at Kensington Palace. Her funeral attracted three million mourners who cast flowers along the entire length of the journey. A global television audience of twenty six million watched the day’s events.

The near-inevitable conspiracy theories surrounding the death were like those about the moon landing, the JFK assassination or 9/11. More rational attributions of blame centered on paparazzi, who pursued her into the tunnel in Paris on that fateful night. “I always believed the press would kill her in the end,” said Diana’s brother, the Earl of Spencer. “Every proprietor and editor of every publication that has paid for intrusive and exploitative photographs of her, encouraging greedy and ruthless individuals to risk everything in pursuit of Diana’s image, has blood on his hands.”

Few wanted to extend that same argument further. If they had, they would have concluded that the paparazzi were motivated by money offered by media corporations that could sell publications in their millions to consumers whose thirst for pictures and stories of Diana seemed unquenchable. In the event, the photographers were cleared of any wrongdoing by a French court in 1999. The fact remains: all parties, from the paparazzi to the fans were connected as if by invisible thread.

Anyone who was aware of Diana — and it’s difficult to imagine anyone who wasn’t — was forced to think about the way in which news values had been subverted by entertainment values. After all, Diana’s greatest triumph was not so much in ushering in world peace, or saving the planet, but in offering so pleasure to so many people. Yet the inspection was momentary. It didn’t bring to an end the gathering interest in figures, who, like Diana, offered pleasure while presenting absolutely nothing that would materially alter their lives or the lives of any other living thing. Then, after a spell of critical evaluation of the media, the interest resumed and theories of skullduggery, connivance and subterfuge began to circulate. It took ten years before an official investigation lasting nearly two years concluded the death had been an accident and there was “no conspiracy to murder the occupants of that car.

Now police are investigating a fresh claim that the SAS was involved in Diana’s death. Like the other theories, this one appears to lack that all-important constituent of a credible theory – evidence. So you might wonder why the latest one has prompted action from Scotland Yard. “The Metropolitan Police Service is scoping information that has recently received,” is the official response. “Scoping” is an unusual choice of verbs: it’s typically used informally for looking at, or scanning something or someone. But the meaning is clear enough: the Yard is taking this seriously enough to look into it.

A few people will suggest a different kind of conspiracy: a new film Diana is shortly to be released to coincide with the anniversary of the Princess’s death. A new theory is bound to be good boxoffice. But it could be just an astonishing coincidence. I suspect this will not be the last theory of this kind we will hear. Diana’s death, like her life, is a subject of endless intrigue. Her singular capacity to lure, charm and draw people of diverse backgrounds has survived her and will probably outlive anyone reading this.


The most eagerly awaited birth in history


“I wonder if one of the midwives will tweet news of the baby before the official announcement on the easel.” My friend, a professional broadcaster, was wondering out loud. Naively, I hadn’t considered the possibility. “You mean subvert the monarchical protocol?” I asked. It would have meant that potentially a half-billion people would have known the sex of the baby before the official announcement. “The tweeter would’ve ended up in the Tower at one time in history.”

Of course, it didn’t happen, but I’ll bet a few anxious people at the Palace were keeping their fingers crossed while the couriers made their way from St Mary’s to the Palace, where the royal easel stands.

This has been the most eagerly awaited birth in history. I can remember 1982 when Princess Diana gave birth to William and, while I can’t remember the anticipation over the birth of Lady Caroline of Monaco in 1958, I understand this too was an international event. But both births were before social media revolutionized the way we communicate – and think.

There has never been a mediated birth on this scale. By mediated, I mean involving intermediate agencies. The traditional press and broadcast media were geared up for William’s birth. But by current standards, they were restrained, if not cautious. Today’s media are less likely to observe procedure, and, as last year’s Leveson Inquiry shows, prepared to go to any lengths, legal or illegal, for a story.

Today’s media are constituent parts of celebrity culture. And, whether she likes it or not, so is the Duchess of Cambridge. The nearest recent contenders in eagerly-awaited-births are Beyoncé’s Blue Ivy and Kim Kardashian’s North; though neither generated the global interest of the new heir to the throne.

Kate, like Diana, is a knowable figure. She has a similar regal aura, but she combines this with ordinariness. People seem to love her, but not in a worshipful way. It’s almost as if they feel they could stand next to her at the Tesco checkout and strike up a conversation: “What did you make of last night’s X Factor?”

In a way, all the royals are more human nowadays. Before Diana, they were remote, inaccessible, godlike creatures. Diana humanized royals: she gave royalty a human character (there’s a biopic due for release later this year, by the way). When she arrived in the public consciousness, celebrity culture was in its infancy. The spread of celebrities means that we are no longer in awe at prominent figures from politics, entertainment and sport: we know they are just like us, with the same kind of weaknesses, imperfections and inadequacies. We know the royals are not exquisitely, sublimely flawless. And we like them all the more for it. We feel a peculiar kind of intimacy with Kate and her new baby. Most of us will never stand within ten miles of either of them. There’s no irony in that: familiarity and distance are no longer related.

Celebrity lookalikes are the real thing

Our captivation with some celebrities just about makes sense. You don’t have to share the fascination with people who make no material impact on our lives to understand it. We live in and are parts of a culture that places great value on people who appear regularly in our media and who engage us in a way most of us find agreeable, if not totally spellbinding.

But figure this out: shopping at my local Aldi recently, I noticed a crowd gathering around a young woman who looked like Kate Middleton. On closer inspection, it wasn’t Kate (at Aldi?) and when she spoke in a Brummie accent, everybody within earshot knew. But she certainly looked like her, at least in a superficial way; she had a bump, and, while she wasn’t dressed in Alexander McQueen and LK Bennett, her overall style was reminiscent of the real Kate’s.

Initially, I wondered if the shoppers gathered around her realized this wasn’t Kate Middleton, but just someone who resembled her and probably made a living impersonating her. Of course. They must have. But then why did they hustle her for photos on their smartphones and ask her for autographs on those Bargains of the Week leaflets Aldi produces? (“Make it out to Sarah and sign it ‘Kate’, will you?) We’re not only fascinated with celebrities, but with people who look like celebrities.

In the 1950s, two American psychologists introduced the term parasocial relationships. Television was then in its infancy and viewers were forming unusual attachments. They were developing “friendships” with tv characters, some fictional and others real (like chat show hosts, or weather presenters). They also cultivated a “hated” towards some of them. Familiarity led to a sense of intimacy. Viewers actually felt they knew the figures they saw on their screens. They interacted with them parasocially. The relationships were and still are strictly one-way.

It’s called parasocial because para means beyond, as in paranormal. The viewer’s attachment might only have been as strong as a beam of light from a cathode ray tube. Yet it was experienced as strong and meaningful. It’s an old idea but it’s still relevant and helps explain why, for example, Lady Gaga’s 39 million twitter followers feel they have their own special relationship with Stef. Practically all of us have parasocial realtionships; they are unavoidable. Just reading a newspaper or listening to the radio involves us in learning about the adventures of Kerry Katona or Nigella Lawson. But trying to comprehend the relationship, not with celebrities, but with people who just look like celebrities is bewildering.

And before you dismiss my Kate@Aldi moment as a one-off episode, consider the plight of Xenna Kristian who has the looks and voice that allow her to perform as a Taylor Swift lookalike. In May, she was beaten up by people who, it seemed, just didn’t like Taylor Swift or the way she looked.

The chances of meeting a celebrity who arouses strong emotions, ranging from loving to loathing, in us are remote. For the most part our parasocial relationships remain distant and remote. Sofia Coppola’s new film The Bling Ring is about a group of Californian teenagers, who in 2008 and 2009 burgled the homes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and other celebs not so much to steal their jewellery and clothes (though they did do this), but to be that bit closer to them. Obviously, most of us don’t resort to such extreme measures, but we share longing to lessen the distance between us and them.

So when we see someone who might be a celebrity, we get excited. It’s a short-lived excitement, of course: it probably lasts a few seconds before we realize that it’s just somebody who looks like a celebrity. That in itself is enough though. By some weird alchemy, we remind ourselves this is an imposter, then, almost instantly, move towards them with an interrogatory impulse, “So what?” They become an inviting blank slate on which we write our own fantasies. Most are benign, like the photos and autographs; some are malicious, as Xenna/Taylor reminds us. We blur the characters in kaleidoscopic patterns so that their real identity doesn’t make too much difference.  Celebrity culture gets no crazier than this.

When you think about it, celebrities are not real people, anyway. They are largely products of our imaginations, so we can make them do or say as we wish. The “real person” has become immaterial. In fact, the “real” anything has become immaterial. If I’d waited in Aldi long enough, I’d have come across a shopper carrying a bag that closely resembles a Hermès or Louis Vuitton number, but which is knockoff. Everyone knows. And no one thinks it’s the genuine article any more than they believe a tribute artist or band is the real thing. They’re simulacra – representations of something or someone. We’re savvy enough to know this and still not care. Same with celebrities: it doesn’t matter if “Kate” isn’t the Kate: she’s close enough the rest we can trust to our phones, our signed leaflets and our imaginations.

The Rihanna narrative

In the mid-1970s, it wasn’t unusual for bands to spit and throw drinks at their audience. Fans felt as if they’d been anointed: conferred divine or holy status by their favoured bands. Or maybe they were just too drunk to care. At any rate, they spat back and hurled drinks, making gigs a kind of ritual exchange of bodily fluids and lager. Fans loved it and, most bands didn’t mind the reciprocal abuse.

Rihanna wouldn’t have enjoyed it one bit. Earlier this week, when mingling among her adoring fans at a concert in Birmingham, she offered her outstretched arm as rock stars often do nowadays. One adorer clung to her arm for a little longer than she would tolerate. Remember: fans like the communion that touching, holding, or being covered in phlegm often brings. Rihanna did not quite … err … grasp this and walloped the clingy fan with her microphone. The video of this incident is right here. Unrepentant, Rihanna explained the strike tersely: “That bitch [the fan] won’t let me go.” There was no apology or hint of remorse.

RiRi is right up there with Beyoncé and Lady Gaga. Still only 25, the Barbadian born Robyn Rihanna Fenty has made eight albums, appeared in four movies and is currently on her fifth tour, the latest a sell-out (a standing ticket at the Birmingham concert would have the fan back £95). Forbes lists at number four in their top global celebrities, estimating her wealth at $53 million (£34.25 million). In common with many female divas, much of her income comes not from music, but from advertising deals. As well as endorsements with the likes of Vita Coco and Nivea, she has her own fragrance, Reb’l Fleur. She has 75.5 million likes on her Facebook page and a twitter following roughly the same size as the total population of Peru (30 million). Her all conquering Diamonds tour stretches over eight months and across all continents. Even before the tour started Rihanna had won 6 Grammy Awards and sold 37 million albums and 146 million digital tracks. If last year belonged to Lady Gaga, 2013 is Rihanna’s year.

A couple of weeks ago, I was called by a Colombian journalist, Sandra Janer, who writes for a Bogotá-based magazine Fucsia. She wanted to know why Rihanna is so popular. Her logic was that Rihanna has been involved in a well-documented abusive relationship with rapper Chris Brown, to whom she has returned, despite, it seems, taking some beatings from him. Sandra Janer’s assumption was that people instantly lose respect for women who take punishment from a man yet forgive him repeatedly.

Actually, I replied, Rihanna’s tumultuous relationship with Brown is exactly what makes her fascinating. Far from being turned off, we become perversely intrigued: why would a fabulously wealthy celebrity who, it would seem, is spoiled for choice when it comes to men, opt for a guy who knocks her about? I was reminded of an argument by cultural historian and film critic Neal Gabler. “Celebrity really isn’t a person. Celebrity is more like a vast, multicharacter show,” he suggests. “Celebrity is narrative, even though we understandably conflate the protagonist of the narrative with the narrative itself and use the terms interchangeably.”

While he doesn’t define what he means by narrative, I presume he refers to an unbroken account, consisting of incidents and people that connect to form an overall story. The story may be a chronicle, or a history to record events and it may incorporate elements of a fable in the sense that it conveys a moral or lesson. Without diminishing RiRi’s vocal talent or the quality of her music, her global popularity is still astonishing. But it makes more sense if we view her less as a person, more as a narrative, a story with a moral. And, of course, the violent relationship with Brown is an integral, perhaps the most important, part of her story. Celebrity culture functions as a kind of drama we stage in our own minds. Our dramatis personae are the actors we see in the popular media and we write our own scripts, according to our own imaginations. It’s impossible to see an image or hear the name of Rihanna without thinking about her turbulent love life.

Where’s the moral in her story? It still isn’t clear.  Some say Rihanna is right to endure cruelty in the pursuit of true love, while others think she is a sucker and that her conduct is typical of a powerful woman who is simultaneously disempowered. That’s the fascination: we debate this endlessly without ever reaching a definite conclusion; the moral of Rihanna’s narrative is indeterminate.