Tag Archives: celebrity


Donald Trump

A well-publicized bout of illicit sex never did any celebrity’s reputation harm; often, a lot of good. But how does it affect a politician’s? Up to last week, you’d probably say: ruinously. But the election of Donald Trump (pictured above) amid a tsunami of accusations from women who claim he either touched or propositioned them inappropriately has forced us to change our minds.

It’s at least possible that, far from being damaged by the allegations, Trump actually profited from them. For a while he looked almost like a victim: someone whose every wink and flirtatious gesture over the past thirty years had suddenly returned as a baleful curse. Practically every day for about a fortnight, fresh grievances appeared; women, who had been silent for years, decided it was time to make their claims public.

After a while, it seemed Trump’s denials were useless and that his presidential campaign was wrecked. At least according to many journalists. But maybe there was a rebound in public sympathy with voters who doubted the authenticity of the claimants, lending their support to the beleaguered Trump.

He wasn’t the first US President or prospective President to have extricated himself from a potentially career-wrecking sex scandal and perhaps Trump owes his survival to the strategy adopted by none other than the husband of his presidential rival.

Bill Clinton is a liminal figure, occupying a position on both sides of the celebrity politician divide: he had a successful political career as governor of Arkansas, 1979-81, and 1983-93, before becoming president. Clinton cut a beguiling figure en route to the presidency: telegenic and good-looking, he also had the sheen of authenticity, appearing natural and relaxed on television.

Clinton arrived at the White House in 1993 in the middle of a media revolution, with cable television providing a 24-hour news cycle. His arrival also coincided with a voyeurism diffusing through the population: consumers’ interest in private lives practically commissioned the media’s intrusive approach and obliged even presidents to expose themselves. On one memorable occasion in 1992, Clinton donned Ray-Bans and played saxophone on a late night talk show. Yet there was more celebrity to Clinton than anyone dared to imagine and, in 1998, he became the central figure of a sex scandal bigger than anything dreamt up by Madonna.

There was a stunning moment shortly after the scandal broke when Clinton appeared on national television and affirmed: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” That woman was Monica Lewinsky, White House aide, and her account of her relationship with the President was somewhat different. The US President is always a figure of great interest by virtue of his position (there’s never been a female President), and this and the several other allegations of sexual peccadilloes that followed marked Clinton out as someone worthy of even greater interest.

Clinton was the US President for two terms of office and, for a while, under threat of impeachment. So the scandal could have had wider-reaching repercussions than it actually did. And the fact that Lewinsky actually worked in politics gave it added relevance. As the concupiscent details of the case unfurled — the semen-stained dress, the cigar, the secretly recorded phone conversations — interest built and, for the final two years of the twentieth century, Lewinsky was one of the most famous women in the world. Her celebrity status manifested in several books about her, an assortment of well-paid endorsement deals, her own line of accessories and a reality tv program in which she featured. She then faded from view.

The affair should have hurt, even destroyed Clinton. Why didn’t it? He had narrowly avoided a controversy about his wilder years as a student, when he issued his famous “I did not inhale” notice about his supposed marijuana smoking. The Lewinsky denial could have undermined his credibility.

In December 1998, within months of the denial, Clinton achieved his career highest approval rating of 73. His average approval rating during his term of office was 55.1, below John F. Kennedy, but above Reagan, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, among others. He enjoyed a consistently high approval rating among the “baby boomer” generation (those born in the immediate post-second world war period). An experts’ poll in 2011 placed Clinton at 19 in the all-time list of presidents. Maybe honesty was no longer part of the Presidential job description.

Clinton remained as President till 2001, when he left office after serving his complete second term. He also acquired a status distinct from that of other politicians, who leave legacies. Clinton could have been remembered for bringing together Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Front on the White House lawn in 1993, or signing the 1994 Kremlin Accords that stopped the preprogrammed nuclear missiles, or organizing peace talks for Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995, or ordering cruise missile strikes on Afghanistan in 1998. He could also be remembered as the first president to have solicited the public’s favour in spite of deeds that would have damned politicians from earlier eras.

Clinton though was a politician for the celebrity era. Squeaky-clean politicians whose worst vice was an extra-marital fling were, by the 1990s, remnants of another age. Compare his experience with that of former civil-rights leader and Washington DC mayor Marion Barry, who in 1990, was convicted of cocaine possession. A female friend had lured him into a police sting: at their assignation, hidden cameras captured him smoking crack. During his six-week trial, accounts of his sex and drug binges, backed by evidence from a pimps and pushers, were relayed to homes via television. He served six months in jail, but two months after his release, he returned to the city council and, within three years, was re-elected Mayor. In another sex-related case, New York governor Eliot Spitzer resigned after being implicated in a federal investigation into inter-state prostitution in 2008. He barely broke stride, returning in his own television show, his credibility in tact.

John Edwards, a 2004 vice presidential candidate, had an affair with a woman while his wife was dying with cancer. This was scandal enough to blow him off course in his bid for president in 2007, but he would probably have navigated his way back had it not been for allegations that he masterminded a $1 million cover-up of his affair, mis-using funds from two wealthy campaign donors. Substance abuse, carnal activities and sundry other deviant behaviours are, it seems, forgivable; in a way, they humanize a politician, exposing a few of the kind of flaws all of us secrete.

Clinton sailed close to the wind; but it blew in his favour. The political culture in which he prospered had lost the stiffness and propriety of earlier eras and his sexual misconduct was not thought venal. Clinton brought a sense of showmanship and his occasional peccadillo only intensified the drama of his presidency. Even in the midst of the Lewinsky scandal, he battled on like a rock star in his fifties, determined to show his audience he had a few good songs in him. Clinton may not have been the greatest President, but he was surely the most consumable and, as if to prove this, he still tours the world, giving guest lectures, signing copies of his own books, receiving invitations to do spots on tv shows and doing what celebrities do – appear.

There’s no evidence at that Trump studied Clinton’s expertly manoeuvred strategy. But you can be sure the people surrounding him were aware that a resolve to remain unforthcoming, distant and aloofly silent about the allegations was the only response realistically available to their man. Denial would have just led to further accusations, implicating him in a vortex of claim and counter-claim. Speechlessness effectively killed the narrative. A stream of allegations became repetitive and uninteresting after a while.

Is there irony in this? After all, most celebrities revel in sex scandals. It reminds us that political celebrities – and Trump is now arguably the paragon of these – are different from other celebs. They still need to engage with us in a way that reminds us that they have that indefinable quality of ordinariness; they also need to keep us in close contact via social aswell as traditional media; and they need to surrender their private lives to us – after all, we feel entitled not just to know but to own celebrities.

Yet politicians don’t just entertain us: they make decisions that affect our material lives and, possibly, those of our children. We like to know that, for all their flaws and foibles, they have our interests in mind. Trump has skilfully persuaded Americans that, for all his reputed dalliances, he is a man who can be trusted to put his followers’ interests before his own. This is a rare feat for a politician today.

Picture courtesy of Gage Skidmore, via Flickr



Q: Simon Cowell’s blood must be boiling: he gave Gary Barlow a job on The X Factor, while he was away between 2011 and 2013, and now Barlow is planning a rival talent show for BBC. We won’t be able to move for talent shows.   At the moment we’re reaching the business end of The Voice (below). Once that concludes, we’ll have Britain’s Got Talent, then Cowell’s mainstay The X Factor. Can we take this much talent?

The Voice

 A: I think the concept has plenty of mileage, but The X Factor is showing its age and could founder after another series, especially if the mooted Barlow series succeeds. We shouldn’t underestimate The X Factor, of course: the once-monumental show was, and perhaps still is, a television phenomenon. No programme has consistently pulled in audiences like Cowell’s show. At its peak, in 2010, it drew 19.4 million viewers — that’s over 30 percent of the UK’s total population. But it’s been sliding since and, last year, one of its programmes drew just 5.25m, the lowest since X Factor’s first ever show in September 2004. And remember, it straddles the whole demographic spectrum, bringing viewers of all ages and both genders to their screens for Saturday nights.
Q: I confess I find it simultaneously kind and cruel. It gives wannabes their chance but often uses them simply to mock. I know this was deliberate and, in a sense, this was part of the show’s attraction. But other talent shows are not so vicious. I mean, there are no lacerating put-downs on The Voice and criticism on BGT tends to be good-humoured.
A: And I wonder if that’s the problem. We enjoy critique. We even enjoy Cowell’s likening of some singers to karaoke performers or cabaret artists — as if these were the lowest of the low. And this has been part of the X Factor narrative. Yet familiarity is not always a good thing. Perhaps BBC is thinking along the same lines. Barlow is a constructive critic: he doesn’t pull his punches, but he’s nowhere near as acerbic as Cowell (below).

simon_cowell (1)

Q: Personally, I like Cowell’s disparagement: it’s blunt, honest and a rebuff for the narcissistic culture that encourages an anyone-can-make-it attitude among young people. Some of the contestants are chillingly reminded that, while everyone wants to be a celebrity, some of us are destined to remain anonymous.
A: I tend to agree; but tastes change. At least, the decline in ratings suggest so. Reality tv broadly continues to prosper, mainly because we find authenticity rewarding. The X Factor welded this authenticity to what we nowadays call fandom — that is, the collective of admirers or followers of the famous. Cowell took an old idea and gave fans the ability to decide who should win. The X Factor has more in common with sport than conventional entertainment: every week voting fans democratically decide who gets eliminated until, like a Darwinian struggle, whoever they think is the strongest survives.
Q: There’s something else: the voters are actually doing market research for Cowell. They tell him who they like and who they don’t like. So when he launched One Direction, Olly Murs and Leona Lewis, it was in the certain knowledge that they’d already created huge fan bases.
A: True. But the show has had its fair show of flops and The Voice seems to be an end-point for winners. Fans vote for them, but then turn away. Perhaps that’s really what the want. Leanne Mitchell had poor album sales  and  Jermain Jackman‘s first single limped only to 75 in the chart.
Q: Let me get this straight: you mean audiences like X Factor winners when they are on the show, but don’t like the prospect of them becoming world-conquering superstars independently?
A: Maybe. I think the failure of X Factor’s 2014 winner Ben Haenow could be a sign that fans like the feeling that they control the destiny of singers. Once the show is over, they just have to sit back and watch the likes of Harry Styles et al. becoming huge stars without their support. It’s like electing someone Prime Minister, then feeling helpless while they rule the country. I’ll be surprised if any future winners of The X Factor or any other talent show, duplicate the success of 1D, Leona Lewis (both from The X Factor) or Susan Boyle, who leapt to fame from BGT.
Q: The redtop newspapers love talent shows, don’t they?
A: It’s not only the redtop newspapers. The Sun and the Mirror certainly give most coverage to the shows, particularly any scandal, no matter how minor, surrounding the panel or the contestants; but all the newspapers grant them space. The relationship is symbiotic: the newspapers get a steady supply of stories, while the shows benefit from the exposure. And it’s not just traditional media.
Q: Social media wasn’t really around when The X Factor started, was it?
A: Not on any great scale. Today, twitter can help new artists and allow established stars to thrive. I think twitter, together with Vine and Instagram, can short circuit talent shows. This makes me think that, in future, talent shows — at least the ones that are going to flourish — will need to integrate television and social media. I don’t think this is just a case of hashtagging   and so on. I think the shows’ producers will have to exercise their minds creatively to come up with a closer interaction, cooperation or joint engagement. The alternative is to look old-fashioned and — dare I say it? — irrelevant. I don’t underestimate the ingenuity of the shows’ producers: I suspect they will innovate in a way that keeps us glued to our tvs on Saturday nights, though I think the days of 15m+ tv viewers has passed. Of course, tv itself may be passing too: all the signs are that we’re watching content via our tablets, smartphones or whatever portable devices will appear in the future. We’re also watching whenever we please: catchup tv means that we can choose the time to watch. I imagine all the shows are grappling with a form flexible enough to accommodate new viewing habits. The challenge is to retain the democratic character: the audience feels in control of talent shows at the moment. They can elevate someone to stardom or consign them to oblivion. I think this is important in separating talent shows from ordinary entertainment programmes.
Q: You sound ambivalent about the future of talent shows. Are you?
A: Well, I’m mindful that American Idol, which is the US equivalent of The X Factor, and features Cowell on its panel, is currently in its final run. It’s been going for 15-years. The show originated as a version of the UK’s Pop Idol, which played for two series between 2001-03, before The X Factor started up. An American version of The X Factor lasted only two years, 2011 to 2013, while American Idol thrived, at one point drawing 40 million viewers (for comparison, last January’s Super Bowl drew an average of 114.4 million viewers).
Q: And you think this presages problems for the talent shows?
A: Like any other television genre, there’s a point where you can have too much of a good thing. There are, at the last count, 147 versions of The X Factor around the world, for example. But we live at a time when people demand constant change and renewal; they want novelty, freshness and originality. Talent shows had all these. Now they’re looking a bit stale. Shows are going to have to mutate and adapt to new environments. Those that change in a way we find agreeable, will continue; but I think others will struggle. At the moment the landscape is very congested: we have talent shows almost every week of the year. I think The Voice, when revamped by ITV, will be interesting. I also think The X Factor will come back fighting after the worst year in its history. Whether BGT and the new Gary Barlow series will respond remains to be seen. The battle between the shows could be more interesting than the on-stage battles.



West Bromwich Albion v Leicester City

Q: I notice Leicester City footballer Jamie Vardy (pictured above) has apologised for what he calls a “regrettable error in judgment” and will be investigated by the club over a video showing him allegedly using racist language to a fellow gambler in a casino. He called him a “jap” three times. Do you want to hear his explanation?  “It was a regrettable error in judgment I take full responsibility for and I accept my behaviour was not up to what’s expected of me.” What does he mean, “what’s expected of me”?

A: I guess he thinks people regard him as a — and here comes that term again — role model. I can barely think of a term so hopelessly overused in recent years. Let’s just pause and consider what exactly a role model is: a person looked to by others as an example to be imitated. That seems a reasonable working definition. So, who in their right mind regards footballers as exemplary citizens whose behaviour should be imitated?

Q: Hang on! Before you get going on one of your usual tirades, I think a lot of people do regard them as role models. If they didn’t, why would we be kicking up such a fuss over this guy, and, while we’re on the subject, the three players who Leicester sacked (Tom Hopper, Adam Smith and James Pearson) after they filmed themselves hurling racist abuse at three local women during an orgy on the club’s trip to Thailand in last May?

A: First, because it makes a brilliant story for the media. Sorry to sound crass, but it does. Second, because football’s governing organizations have historically set themselves up as the moral guardians of the sport. In truth the Football Association are proficient in negotiating lucrative contracts with the media, but have no meaningful way of controlling the behaviour of ill-educated young men with incomes comparable with movie stars.

Q: Ill-educated? You sound your typical arrogant self. What right have you got to characterize professional footballers in such a negative way?

A: Football clubs scout players voraciously nowadays. That means with great enthusiasm, by the way.

Q: Let me qualify my use of “arrogant”: egotistical, conceited, supercilious and self-important, too. Move on.

A: As a consequence, they are lining up prospective players at younger and younger ages. At nine, Wayne Rooney was in Everton’s youth team, and he made his professional debut in at the age of 16. That was 2002. Cristiano Ronaldo was played high quality football for Andorinha at 12. Today, it’s the norm to approach players before their teen years. If someone approached you when you were, say 13, and said: “Sign with us and you’ll be a professional footballer the second you leave school. You can order that Aston Martin now, if you like. You’ll have a million in your bank account before you’re old enough to vote,” it would hardly incentivize you to study for your GCSE’s or start applying to universities. Basically, it means you no longer have to study. I didn’t say footballers were not intelligent. Many are. But you’re just not going to be motivated by education when you can earn a fabulous living doing what a great many boys and young men love doing for nothing.

Q: Are the clubs obliged to arrange education for younger players?

A: Yes and several clubs have admirable academies. But, as you know, to get anything out education, you have to be motivated to learn. If you’re head is elsewhere, you’re not going enrich yourself intellectually. And this leaves us with a generation of players who are largely uneducated, bringing me back to the question: who thinks they are role models?

Q: So what are footballers for?

A: To entertain us, and to induce us to buy stuff. The world loves watching football, as we all know. So footballers provide great entertainment. Their other main function is to appear in advertisements for practically every product under the sun. We associate them mainly with sports gear, but just pick any pro player and trace how many products he hawks. The likes of Ronaldo endorse dozens of products. What they don’t do is instruct us. They never offer themselves as exemplary citizens or moral paragons and I doubt if anybody seriously regards them as such.

A: But the implication of what you’re saying is that we should allow players their lax behaviour and forgive them for their trespasses, so to speak.

Q: I wouldn’t go that far. We embarrass, sometimes even shame celebrities from other sports and difference branches of the entertainment industry. Politicians are a bit different because they are meant to be exemplary — well, to an extent. So I think, if a footballer abuses someone and behaves boorishly, then they should be accountable. I just don’t think we — and I mean all of us — should think they have let us down. What else do we expect of them? Every time we learn about an incident like the Vardy case, we start tut-tutting and complaining how the transgressing players have let us all down. They haven’t. If anything they live up (or down, depending on your perspective) to our expectations. Role model is just a term the media like. Nobody seriously thinks footballers are there to be emulated. Heaven forbid if they did.


Q: I want to start by asking you about your relationship with your mother. I believe you had a somewhat troubled childhood and that there was tension between …

A: Hang on! This is a bit personal, isn’t it? What are we doing here?

Q: Those were Robert Downey Jr’s very words just before he walked out on Channel 4’s interviewer Krishnan Guru-Murthy the other day (interview is above).

A: Oh, I’m with you now: Downey thought he was just appearing to promote his new movie  Avengers: Age of Ultron (below) and he got upset when Guru-Murthy pressed him on more personal issues, including his past use of drugs and alcohol. In fact, he got so upset, he just pulled a face, said “goodbye,” yanked off his microphone and walked out, mumbling, “it was getting a bit Diane Sawyer” — a reference to the American interviewer who tends to probe into private lives.

Q: So has Downey any right to restrict his interview to promoting his new film and refusing to talk about his private life?

A: In my opinion, anyone who is either an A-list celebrity — as Downey clearly is — or has aspirations to becoming a celeb of some distinction has to come to terms early on with the fact that they have no private life that they can keep offlimits: everything in their past and present is fair game, not just for the traditional media, but for everyone. Social media, twitter in particular, has pretty much made privacy redundant. But even before twitter started (it launched in 2006), celebrities had entered into a new kind of arrangement in which they agreed to cough up any details of their lives the media wanted to know about. And, of course, the media are our proxy: they probe because we consumers want them to probe.

Q: When did all this start then? Because I can’t imagine the Hollywood stars of the 1950s or even 1960s surrendered their right to a private life. In fact, my reading of the old stars is that the film industry kept a very tight control over the information they released to the media. What changed?

A: After the rise of Madonna in the 1980s, anyone who aspired to be famous had to stay mindful of the sacrifice she made. She may not have slaughtered an animal or child as an offering to god, but she gave up something that had been regarded as important to previous entertainers: her privacy. Had social media been around, she would have had no choice. But in the days when traditional media were dominant, she opted to start a process that would eventually turn privacy inside out. Eventually, fans, instead of relying on what the media provided, asserted themselves. But they needed assistance. Consumers have no need to depend on traditional media for information on celebrities’ lives now: they can access it for themselves; and, if they can’t do that, they will make it up. Either way, it satisfies the voyeuristic impulse.

Q: Voyeuristic impulse? You mean we take pleasure from watching other people? Are you saying that we are all voyeurs nowadays?

A: Actually voyeurism doesn’t quite catch it: it sounds too one-directional, as if one group is peeping at another through a keyhole; celebrities supply raw material to eager followers. Madonna certainly delivered a product in the 1980s, but she was forced to change. The relationship between celebrities and fans became progressively more fluid, involving a collaboration and exchange of ideas between celeb and audience (reaching an unedifying point in 2012 when Justin Bieber’s fans elected via twitter to name his penis “Jerry”). It’s difficult to imagine unapproachable, unreachable, untouchable stars, such as Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and their contemporaries in the 1950s and 1960s, tweeting. But, if they were around in times of 360 degrees connectivity, they would be obliged to do exactly that (though probably not sharing nomenclature of genitalia).

Q: I guess twitter and Instagram have changed the way we understand privacy completely then.

A: Yes, it’s a kind of two-way situation: we follow others’ lives, but we don’t mind sharing our own. The kind of material people put on the two sites you mention would have made people shrink in embarrassment twenty years ago. But think about how relaxed everyone is about sharing what used to be called private information today. The Jerry Springer Show is one of the most important shows in television history: it really captured the zeitgeist when it debuted in 1991. Audiences could hardly believe they were watching and listening to people air their dirty linen in public, and, of course, the public was in millions. It was, in many ways, an incredible   show and paved the way for so many others, including our own Jeremy Kyle Show. We’ve become so used to eavesdropping on other people’s lives that we feel no guilt. We even discuss others’ behaviour in a way that turns us into judges. I mean that quite literally, we make moral evaluations about how other people live. That’s what I mean by the voyeuristic impulse.

Q: So I come back to my initial question. Downey: right or wrong?

A: Ah, I see you want me to make my own moral evaluation on him. Well, I think he has become such an interesting guy because of his checkered background. It looked for a while as if he would be cast out into the wilderness. In the 1990s, he was in and out of rehab and jail for drugs issues. At earlier periods in the twentieth century, this would have been ruinous for an actor, but when Downey got into trouble, audiences were not simply interested on what they saw on the screen, so his various travails made him a fascinating character. He got a part on the tv show Ally McBeal and was so good that he got big movie parts. Presumably, he’s aware that his troubled background has in a perverse way contributed to his success, but just wants to put it all behind him now. It’s understandable, though it suggests he may not quite understand that every time he’s giving an interview audiences are not just interested in his roles in Iron Man or Avengers: they’re actually more interested in Robert Downey Jr.


Q: What’s this? The first World Cup ad?
A: Yes, adidas has launched the first commercial of its campaign and, as you can see, it’s provocative.
Q: Why provocative? I can recognize Kanye West on the soundtrack, but so what?
A: Because adidas have edited the track so that the references to “cocks” and “muthfuckas” and so on have been expunged.
Q: Perhaps that will make adidas appear edgy and appeal to the demographic they want. But, hang on a minute: doesn’t Kanye do something similar for adidas’s arch rivals Nike?
A: He did. Last year, he switched to adidas: the terms of the new deal mean that, just after the World Cup, there will be a new lines of shoes and apparel bearing the Kanye West imprimatur.
Q: Eh? What’s an imprimatur?
A: A sort of personal guarantee. West licences out his name. Most A-list celebs do this sort of thing nowadays. It’s pretty standard practice: you’ll notice Kanye West-themed adidas gear everywhere.
Q: I can see the logic of this if an athlete endorses the clothes and shoes. I mean, Nike and Michael Jordan was the most productive marketing tie-up in history. But Kanye West is a musician. What’s he got to do with sportsgear?
A: The only thing that matters is that consumers know and identify with West. Precisely what he’s known for is irrelevant. Sports stars are used to advertise all sorts of products that have nothing to do with sport. Musicians can reverse the process. Anyway adidas has done its homework: the company will know its customers like and follow West.
Q: It’s clever marketing for West too, I suppose.
A: Definitely. He’s trailing the new track “God Level” in an ad that is going to be seen and heard globally. So it’s effective advertising for him as well as adidas. It’s called cross-promotion. Advertising today combines products in such a way that the consumer isn’t expected to know it’s actually an ad at all: they just immerse themselves in the video. In this sense, I think you’d have to conclude the new ad is successful.
Q: This is the first seriously big ad campaign, isn’t it?
A: Yes, over the next couple of months, we are all — and I mean everybody in the world — going to be bombarded with ads for so many products it will make our heads spin. The World Cup is, on one level, a sports tournament; on another level, it is an marketing extravaganza. It has become such a globally popular event that advertisers know they can get the attention of literally millions. Fifa has been criticised for inflating viewing figures, but there is still nothing to touch the World Cup when it comes to bringing viewers to their screens; and remember people will be watching on portable devices too this time. You also have to remind yourself that the advertising doesn’t stop when the whistle goes. Hoardings will display ads for the whole game, players will wear branded footwear and, on commercial tv, halftime breaks will be crammed with advertising. Britain’s ITV will probably charge £300,000 for 30-second slots during the pregame, halftime and postgame intervals.
Q: I hate to bring this up, but it strikes me that when we are watching the games, the advertising will still be working on us.
A: Which leads us to ask: are we being entertained by the competition, or are we being sold stuff? The answer is, as you’ve already guessed: both. Everything comes with a price tag, right? Even watching a game on commercial-free BBC will implicate you in an advertising interaction. Consumption doesn’t just mean buying products for their use: it’s become a relationship through which we gratify ourselves and, strange as it seems, make our selves. Things are parts of our identities. adidas may sell products, but they also provide identity accoutrements.


Studying Beyoncé

Beyoncé studies anyone? 8 other ridiculous university courses1) Harry Potter studies Fierce In some ways Harry Potter is Britain’s own version of Beyoncé – he is pretty fierce against Voldemort and his popularity following could rival hers. Which means it isn’t too surprising that Durham University offered a Harry Potter course in 2010 .

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Beyoncé is the subject of a course at Rutgers University, in New Jersey, USA. Apparently, the course uses the artist’s music and career to “explore American race, gender and sexual politics.” Similar courses have been offered on Madonna and David Beckham (though the latter is actually called Football Culture and runs here at Staffordshire University). Ten years ago, this kind of course would have been dismissed as another example of the dumbing down of higher education. Now it seems perfectly legitimate to use a prominent figure to analyze race, gender, class, politics and any other feature of contemporary culture. I’ve written a book on Mike Tyson that attempts to do exactly this. So what can Beyoncé teach us? Well, I have to put my hands up again: I’ve also written an article on Bey. You can read it and decide for yourself click here for the full text: Buying Beyoncé

Our parasocial affair with Nigella


Nigella Lawson

Why do we know so much yet so little about Nigella Lawson (above), the domestic goddess who brought sensual pleasure to the mundane domestic chore of cooking? It seems only yesterday, she was a regular in our homes. Now, we’re not so sure know her at all. We thought we knew her. But it seems we didn’t know the first thing about her. While neither she nor her ex-husband Charles Saatchi is in the dock, for the past few days, they have been the centre of attention: she and her marriage have been opened up for public inspection. Nigella’s court case, which started last month, is actually the trial of the celebrity couple’s two personal assistants, Italian sisters Elisabetta and Francesca Grillo, who worked as Nigella’s and her husband’s personal assistants. The Grillos are accused of fraudulently using the credit cards of Saatchi’s private company. But they have barely been considered: all attention is on Nigella. Every day, it seems we have learned something new about her private life that has systematically disabused us of any fanciful notion we knew the first thing about her. It started last June with the release of a picture of her being, it seemed, throttled by Saatchi. Since then, her relationship with Saatchi has been methodically cut up and its internal parts displayed.

Celebrity relationships have been dissected publicly before, of course; usually as they happen. Brangelina and Bennifer were narratives the media asked us to share. But the analysis of Nigella’s multi-dysfunctional relationship — Nigella characterized it as “intimate terrorism” — is particularly enlightening: it’s taught how little we really know about people with whom we feel close. This is a condition of today: we assume we know people from the two-dimensional images we see of them. Let me explain how this happened.

During the second half of the twentieth century, television transformed the way we thought and behaved. It affected the way we relaxed, the way we learned, the way we communicated. The complete cultural landscape was transfigured by television, to the point where we can’t recognize its presence. So much of what we know about the world is gleaned from tv that we find it tough to think where else we find out about some event or other. The internet has, of course, emerged as an alternative. It barely needs stating that Nigella or the celebrity culture she inhabits wouldn’t have been possible without television. Prior to its acceptance as a domestic appliance in the 1950s, we knew about prominent figures mainly by their names or artist’s impressions, still photographs or newsreels shown at the movies. “Television, bringing famous faces and sounds into our homes, has created different kinds of celebrity,” writes the social psychologist David Giles in his book Illusions of Immortality.

Television brought with it intimacy: we were able to see moving images and hear voices — in our own homes. It also brought replication: those images and sounds were not just one-offs: they could be repeated time and again, exposing us to the famous in a way that stirred us to new interest. We saw people that were previously remote and perhaps unknowable as ordinary humans with the same kinds of mannerisms, faults and maybe foibles as the rest of us. Giles argues that the proliferation of media, specifically television, in the late twentieth century expanded the opportunities for people to become famous. In material terms, there were more tv screens on which they could appear and become known. Viewers could not only see and hear a new array of people: they could almost reach out and touch them. In a way, they could almost swear they knew them. The more they felt they knew them, the more they became entranced.

Giles invokes a term from to a 1956 article in the journal Psychiatry to capture the emerging relationship between tv figures and viewers: “parasocial interaction.” The 1950s was the decade of growth for television: at the start, few households had a tv; by the end over 90 percent of household in the USA and 70 percent in the UK had at least one set. Viewers were forming unusual attachments. They were developing “friendships” with television characters, some fictional and others real (like announcers, or weather forecasters). They also “hated” some of them. Familiarity led to a sense of intimacy. Viewers actually thought 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 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. Viewers actually felt they knew people they had never met, probably never seen in the flesh and who knew nothing of their existence. So there is no actual interaction (inter means between): it’s oneway. This doesn’t stop viewers feeling like there’s a genuine interaction. In this sense, it’s an interesting term that captures the way we think and feel about people we don’t know and who don’t know us but who sometimes unwittingly and unknowingly move us to act, occasionally in erratic and irrational ways.

Since 1999 when she appeared on our screens in Nigella Bites, the domestic goddess has been in our homes, our kitchens even. This is, I think, the reason why we assumed we knew her so well: seeing celebs on stage, in movie roles or even in the contrived circumstances of reality tv shows is one thing; but seeing them in the kitchen doing nothing more sensational than preparing food, contributes to an especially close parasocial relationship. @elliscashmore


They must be worth it



Selecting a celebrity to advertise a product is a science, like astrology or alchemy; in other words, a nebulous, imprecise and uncertain one. The metrics are equivocal. Media visibility (exposure in print, television, radio and online) is a key factor. Hence film and television actors, tv personalities, models, sportsmen and woman, authors, musicians, comics and, of course, reality television figures are obvious candidates. Their visibility is measurable in terms of appearances and namechecks. Beyond that, the science becomes, at best, art, and, at worst guesswork. Celebrities like Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, or David Beckham offer continuity and consistency in the way they go about their business efficiently and reliably: the chances of a scandal erupting around them are slim and they are known to a wide spectrum of people. Not that a hint of indecorum is a bad thing. Sales of Katie Holmes’ high-end ready-to-wear fashion line, Holmes & Yang, increased in the wake of her unsavory divorce from Tom Cruise. “Unsurprisingly, the label has benefited from Holmes’s increased visibility,” confirmed Charlotte Cowles, of New York magazine (July 30, 2012).

Jennifer Lopez, a prodigious endorser of, among others, Kohl’s clothing and lifestyle collection, was caught up in an eighteen month on-off relationship with Ben Affleck in 2003 and 2004. The Latina singer-actor was one-half of “Bennifer” as the couple was known. The tumultuous relationship coincided with a career slump defined by boxoffice flops (Gigli, Jersey Girl) and disappointing cd sales (Brave, Como Ama una Mujer). Becoming a judge on American Idol smacked of desperation, yet it turned out to be a career saviour and, by 2012, at the age of 42, she was, according to Forbes, the most sought after celebrity by advertisers. Idol regularly pulled 26 million viewers to their televisions (i.e. a 9.8 per cent of the total potential audience), most of them in the 18-49-year-old segment advertisers love. JLo used the series as a showcase to premiere music videos and perform singles. “On the floor” went multi-platinum, and the music video amassed over 530 million YouTube views. Mariah Carey must have been enthused by the prospect of emulating JLo when she accepted the offer of becoming a judge on Idol, though the $18 million (£11.6m) one-off fee was a further incentive. Mariah’s advertising file included T-Mobile, Mariah’s …  fragrances and Jenny Craig, for whom she directed a diet plan commercial.

JLo and Mariah are among an elite of celebrities whose name or image adds value to a brand and, in turn, make products move off shelves. And you imagine L’Oreal considered Adele (above) in the same league when the company offered her £12 million to appear in its advertising a couple of weeks ago. The big surprise was: she turned it down. This is an exceptional occurrence nowadays. A huge endorsement contract is almost a membership card to the A-list, and Adele would have become one of the highest paid advertisers in L’Oreal’s stable, which includes the likes of Cheryl Cole, Eva Longoria and, of course, Beyoncé. Of all the endorsers used by L’Oreal, Beyoncé is perhaps most closely associated with the brand and its signature tagline “ … because I’m worth it” (a slogan dreamt up by Ilon Specht, of McCann Erickson, in 1973 and which is now recognized by 70 per cent of consumers.

But seriously: does anyone else in the world believe Kim Kardashian or any of the other celebrities are sincere when they advocate, recommend or vouch for a cellphone? Sharon Osbourne is hardly likely to shop at Asda, particularly after that same supermarket chain paid her millions to appear in its ads in 2005. Is anyone in the world unable to spell out the motive behind celebrities’ behavior (clue: five letters beginning with “m”)? Adele earned over £11m last year, so maybe she doesn’t need the extra cash.  Is anyone so absolutely, completely and utterly gullible that they are prepared to accept the word of a well-paid mercenary when they part with their hard-earned cash? We’d probably like to say the answer to all these is an emphatic no! On inspection, though, we probably conclude that it’s no-ish. I’ll explain what I mean in a later blog. @elliscashmore

Naomi Campbell — hellcat from the catwalk

… and anti-racism campaigner

“I’m no perfect human being.” When Naomi Campbell stated the obvious on the Jonathan Ross Show, she might have been quoting Grace Jones’s 1986 track “I’m not perfect (but I’m perfect for you).” The “you” in this this context is, of course, you and me and all the other gawkers who have followed Campbell since she became the first black model to appear on the cover of the French edition of Vogue. That was in 1987. Since then, she has rarely out of the news, though often in stories completely unrelated to modeling. Now she is hosting Sky Living’s new talent show, The Face, which has effectively replaced Britain and Ireland’s Next Top Model.

Between the two events, Campbell has not led a sheltered life: in fact, she has crashed unstoppably into practically every kind of scandal you could imagine – she has been a hellcat from the catwalk. Now at 43, you might expect her to be solemn, mellow and, given her well-documented habit of consuming alcohol and drugs, ravaged. She seems reassuringly maturity-proof and looks radiantly svelte. Her latest project is an initiative to expose the dearth of “models of colour,” to use her term, in the fashion industry. Fashion is popularly regarded as colorblind: top models from all ethnic backgrounds sashay at all the major fashion shows in Milan, New York, London and Paris and adorn the covers of Elle, Harper’s Bazaar and Marie Claire. When the Streatham-born model arrived on the scene, there was bewilderment: what chance had a young black woman got of crashing into a predominantly white industry? The late French fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent (1936-2008), was a stalwart supporter of Campbell and threatened to break all ties with Vogue if Campbell was not put on the cover. Campbell became part of the elite group of supermodels, modeling for the world’s preeminent designers before, perhaps surprisingly, posing nude for Playboy in 1999. Surprisingly in 1999, that is: over the next decade, Campbell became involved in several shenanigans that served to maintain her public profile, not always in a dignified way.

Elite model agency boss John Casablancas – who died earlier this year at 70 – once described Campbell as “odious” and concluded she was “a manipulative, scheming, rude and impossible little madam who has treated us and her clients like dirt”. Campbell herself believed her refusal to accept less money than her white colleagues at the agency initiated the attack. “It doesn’t matter if you’re the first black woman on the cover of French Vogue, I was still getting less,” said Campbell. She has since reiterated that she was offered less than her white counterparts. In addition to verbal assaults on hotel and airport staff, she whacked her housekeeper (for which she was sentenced to do community service). Campbell won a privacy case against a British newspaper that had published pictures of her leaving a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in London in 2001, while she was receiving treatment for drug addiction. Her brief appearance at a United Nations war crimes tribunal investigating Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president, was made eventful by impromptu remark that the trial was a “big inconvenience” to her. Campbell’s turbulent, but supremely newsworthy career, was ornamented with serial affairs with some of the world’s best-known and eligible men. Campbell seems to have made a career rebelling against blandness and, as such, still commands the attention of the global media.

If there is a way of causing outrage, she can find it:  in 2009, for example, she modeled clothes by the luxury furrier Dennis Basso. While wearing fur is itself an incendiary act, Campbell’s action was near treasonous. In 1994, she had appeared with other supermodels in a campaign for PETA (People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals) in which the strapline was, “We’d rather go naked than wear fur.” Tyra Banks, shows, she interviewed Campbell. “I was tired of having to deal with you,” she told Campbell, accusing her of having tried to sabotage her early on in her career. The implication was that perhaps both of them recognized the limited number of places for black models at the top table. Campbell never acknowledged the rivalry, though it became a matter of public record. Last month, Campbell launched an anti-racism Diversity Coalition with David Bowie’s model wife Iman and agent Bethann Hardison. The Diversity Coalition sent an open letter outlining the extent to which a form of institutional racism affects the industry. Hardison wrote, “No matter the intention, the result is racism. Whether it’s the decision of the designer, stylist or casting director, that decision to use basically all white models, reveals a trait that is unbecoming to modern society.” (Click for the full text of the letter.)  This reflected the general state of the fashion industry. The Coalition pointed out that at New York Fashion Week just 6 percent of models were black and 9 percent were Asian and that fewer black models are used now than in the 1970s. One of Campbell’s first targets was Victoria Beckham, about whom I blogged recently. Of Beckham’s 30 models who appeared at the London Fashion Week, only one was not white. Some may find it strange that Campbell is taking time out from causing mayhem and applying herself to what is, after all, a serious social issue. But maybe the fury that at times seems to engulf her is the result of her own forceful efforts to claw her way to the top of a profession that offers slim chances to black aspirants.


Sir Alex’s torment

“The big problem for me … he fell in love”

I remember getting a call in my hotel room in Manchester in February, 2003. It was from a radio station that wanted me to go on air to talk about David Beckham’s fraying relationship with the then manager of his club Manchester United, Alex Ferguson. “Why? What’s happened?” I asked. “Apparently Ferguson has cut Beckham’s eye.” It became known as the “flying boot incident.” Ferguson had vented his rage at Beckham after an FA Cup tie against Arsenal and, for some reason, kicked a stray boot, which flew through the air and collided with Beckham’s face. With his typical flair for dramatizing small incidents, Beckham wore his hair fastened back with an Alice band so that the wound – treated with steri-strips – was clearly visible. The professional relationship between the two men had probably been deteriorating for a while, but this was the first tangible evidence. I could only speculate on radio that this was probably the beginning of the end. Ferguson was irritated that the player had become a focus of more media attention than Manchester United. One can only imagine what torment Victoria caused him: it seems she was pulling her husband in many directions, all of them wrong from Ferguson’s perspective. If she wasn’t taking him to Lenny Kravitz’s birthday bash, she was displaying him on the front row of Giorgio Armani’s new launch or introducing him to her friends Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana. For the hard-bitten Glaswegian, it must have been purgatory.

Ferguson’s new autobiography confirms what we all knew about his loss of patience with Beckham, though at the press conference to accompany the book’s publication, Ferguson let slip arguably an even more interesting insight: “The big problem for me [was] he fell in love with Victoria and that changed everything.” Read that again: the big problem for Ferguson was that Beckham fell in love with Victoria. This is exactly the kind of blunderingly insensitive remark that earns Ferguson respect from many people, who regard him as a kind of master of the dark arts of psychology. But is he?  He’s a good … no great football manager, perhaps the best there’s ever been, but he can also be boorish, crass and frequently shows no feeling or concern for others. How unfortunate for Ferguson that Beckham met a woman, fell in love, had children and became a celebrity athlete on par with Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Beckham, writes Ferguson in the book, thought “he was bigger than Sir Alex Ferguson.” The very idea, eh? “The name of the manager is irrelevant. The authority is what counts.” Football fans might argue that successful managers have to be authoritarian in the sense that they need obedience from players at the expense of personal freedoms. But this statement sounds like it comes from someone who can’t bear the prospect of one of his minions having the temerity to challenge him or even occupy other people’s attention. When Ferguson writes, “I could see him being swallowed up by the media or publicity agents.” You wonder what irked him more: the fact that Beckham was distracted by the lure of celebritydom, or that global interest in Posh and Becks, as the couple was then known, eclipsed interest in either the club or Ferguson. There was clearly a clash of egos at the club and, with no prospect of limiting Beckham’s celebrity ambitions or prising him away from Victoria, Ferguson’s only option was to release him. Beckham transferred to Real Madrid within months of the flying boot incident. Ferguson regards this as a “shame because he could still have been at Manchester United when I left. He would have been one of the greatest Man United legends.” We’re all sure he could too. But instead he became just a common or garden global icon.