John F. Kennedy Jr. looked like a man with an Uzi when he aimed his video camera at the paparazzi outside his TriBeCa home on Nov. 16. “Hey, guy with the green jacket,” he reportedly yelled at one of the photographers. “You’re here every weekend. You’re looking for a harassment lawsuit.” From Mr. Kennedy’s perspective, what was a camera but an automatic weapon that had been used against him and his family countless times? And in these last months of 1997, who did not believe that these cameras and the men who wield them were linked to real bloodshed?
Long before Diana, Princess of Wales, was caught in the crosshairs of a zoom lens-chased to her death by what Martin Amis tagged the high-tech dogs of fame-Mr. Kennedy became accustomed to living under the camera’s unblinking gaze. Ever since he played under his father’s desk in the Oval Office, he has lived in a form of captivity that has become ever more pervasive as the century draws to a close. And since 1995, when Mr. Kennedy traded on his own celebrity to launch his own magazine with the media giant Hachette Filipacchi Magazines, he has known that the issue is much more complicated than Us versus Them. He, like Diana, has become a living exhibit. A man penned in by thousands of high-tech observation devices.
When the scrutiny of the media became unbearable, as it did on the evening of Aug. 30, Diana and her boyfriend Dodi al-Fayed fled from the paparazzi, and the decision cost them their lives. Faced with similar scrutiny every day, Mr. Kennedy chose on Nov. 16 to fight instead of flee, and he chose his weapon shrewdly. He had to know better than anyone that the unwavering eye of a camera has a sobering effect on human behavior.
So Mr. Kennedy shot back. He waged the first smart battle to define the new, more accountable relationship between celebrities and the press.
We didn’t know it then, but celebrity’s head-on crash with the media was already in the cards back in 1995. It was the first year of the New York Observer 500, our ranking of the world’s famous, based on the work of those on the front lines of print-media observation: New York City’s gossip columnists. O.J. Simpson finished first that year, which should have told us something. But celebrity was still sexy then, and the placement of Madonna, Mr. Kennedy, Diana, Sharon Stone, Sylvester Stallone and Cindy Crawford in the top 20 confirmed that. Also, as we wrote, those who made the cut “enjoy a certain power, the power that celebrity brings in a society that … is obsessed with it.”
In this dark year for celebrity, the Observer 500 appears to be something else. As before, the 1997 list is a ranking arrived at by tallying a year’s worth of boldfaced names in the gossip columns of the New York Post , the Daily News, The Village Voice, Women’s Wear Daily, New York magazine, The New Yorker and The New York Times . And again, Mr. Kennedy has finished in the top 10 (he’s No. 8). But in 1997, two of the names in the top 25 were casualties of their celebrity: Gianni Versace (No. 22), whom Andrew Cunanan seemed to have targeted mostly because the designer was famous, and Diana (No. 3). Seen in this light, the Observer 500 is more than a ranking of the media’s most wanted. It’s a sensitive gauge.
The columnists are crucial to the continued functioning of the transparent biosphere of fame in which Mr. Kennedy and the other members of the 500 live and work. Barriers, in the form of publicists and security guards, help prevent the interior lives of celebrities from being on display. But because the columnists are permanent fixtures in the night life of this city, they eventually achieve a certain in-the-woodwork invisibility, like the gargoyles in Gothic architecture. The celebrities never become completely at ease with their peering attendants, but they grow used to their presence. The result is that their targets actually drop their guard enough to reward them in public places. Thus were we able to read about Cher and Madonna, seated at the same table, giving each other a cold shoulder at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent Costume Institute gala.
Such unvarnished moments are what New York’s columnists live for, the fruit of long nights in the field. In reality, however, they don’t really convey the complexity and co-dependency of the relationship between columnist and celebrity.
The celebrities’ understanding and acceptance of this relationship varies. When comedian Jerry Seinfeld appeared on Larry King Live on Nov. 19, Mr. King, perhaps hoping to get Mr. Seinfeld to rail against the supermarket tabloids, began to recount the various stories from them that had delved into his romantic relationships and his personal hygiene. Yet, Mr. Seinfeld replied, “I love it. I love it.”
“Ninety-eight percent of the time they’re wrong,” replied Mr. King.
“Just keep talking about me. Just keep talking. It’s good,” said Mr. Seinfeld.
“It doesn’t bother you?” Mr. King persisted.
“No, it’s funny. It’s fun. It means I am in show business. This tells me I am definitely in show business. My dream is coming true.”
Mr. Seinfeld, in his post-ironic style (he once faked a fight with his then-girlfriend Shoshanna Lonstein when he discovered that they were being tailed by photographers), had let Mr. King in on a little secret: The celebrity biosphere is dependent on the media to pump its oxygen.
President Bill Clinton, who sits at the top of our list, has a charisma and an electricity that is evident in a one-on-one situation. But he can shake only so many hands in this country. And in wanting to attain the power and privilege of the nation’s highest public office, Mr. Clinton had to rely on the press, not only to communicate that charisma, but to make the living exhibit of Bill Clinton more compelling.
It is a risky bargain-as Mr. Clinton has discovered-for the media mob can be influenced but not controlled. His wife, however, understands whom to win and influence. Which two boisterous ladies were expelled from the University Club Dec. 10? Hillary Rodham Clinton and the high-haired doyenne of New York gossips, Mrs. Joey Adams.
Easily Downloadable Images
The famous employ a number of means to manipulate and buff their images. Publicists are the most obvious sentries. They shuttle between the celebrity biosphere and ours, building relationships with columnists and reporters that influence the image of the celebrity that is projected to the public.
Those in the upper reaches of the 500 generally know what they’re doing, creating a single, simple, easily downloadable image for public consumption, the more unambiguous the better. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani portrays himself as the discipline-minded father to the unruly child that is New York City. Rosie O’Donnell is the incredibly nice, down-to-earth talk-show host. Donald Trump is always working. By marketing a single bland attribute, they somehow create a sense of mystery about themselves. If they’re famous, we think, they must be more interesting than that. So we dig around the edges.
The smart celebrities make sure to freshen up the exhibit. Demi Moore managed to unveil one more naked body part-her shorn head-in G.I. Jane. As empty as it may be, a picture of her getting a buzz cut sticks with us. And what about the power of Madonna’s latest feminist incarnation, the loving mother … who chose a father for her child like a thoroughbred breeder would choose a stud. (Having made his contribution in the sperm department, Carlos Leon’s services were no longer needed.)
One of the most beguiling images offered directly to the public by a celebrity came from Mr. Kennedy himself. Last September, readers of George magazine encountered what appeared to be a tasteful nude shot of the magazine’s editor and co-founder hugging his knees to his much-praised torso and staring at an apple. Accompanying the photo was a letter from the editor that got a lot of press because, in it, Mr. Kennedy seemed to attack his cousins, Michael and Joe Kennedy, who were embroiled in their own personal scandals.
Though the photo was written about, its significance seemed to have been largely overlooked. Having been branded the living embodiment of masculine appeal, Mr. Kennedy knows exactly what the press and public wants from him. And here within his magazine, this biosphere of his own construction, Mr. Kennedy put himself on exhibit, but he did it on his own terms. “I know what you want,” he seemed to be saying, “but this is what you can have.”
What an image he chose! In using Garden of Eden imagery, represented by the apple that hung above his head, Mr. Kennedy seemed to be giving us a clue about his ambivalence toward the Imprisonment. Yes, he wanted the attention and the entree to celebrity and the tongue-tied, lusty-eyed women that come with it-who wouldn’t?-but the price, the price, the price: the hordes of photographers who hounded his wife every time she left their apartment … who hovered on cold days, dressed like trappers, in their quilted jackets and ski hats … the gossipers who moved every rumor, false and true, for premium prices. That, he could do without. And, in fact, to overanalyze the photograph a little, the apple itself was unbitten; Mr. Kennedy was still in a state of skeptical innocence.
Robert De Niro, who placed 19th on the 500, is one of those actors whose image is suffused with mystery. Mr. De Niro rarely gives interviews and when he does, what he says doesn’t amount to much. But in the December Esquire , he managed to offer an extended (at least for Mr. De Niro) assessment of the cult of celebrity. Mr. De Niro noted that, “you know, the excuse is always that the public has the right to know. But the public has been, you know, it’s like a drug dealer. You give somebody the drugs, and if they’re around, they’re gonna wanna go further and further.”
Celebrity’s narcotic effect is not limited to the public. What can we make of the news that Diana was interested in playing the part of a celluloid princess in a sequel to The Bodyguard ? It tells us that she had overcome an eating disorder only to develop a fame disorder.
First Hint of a Celebrity Rebellion
The public’s big jones for the media drug has made billionaires of such dealers as Rupert Murdoch, Gerald Levin, Ted Turner, S.I. Newhouse Jr. and Michael Eisner, and it has built a massive machine dedicated to the spectacle of living exhibits. And when reams of money are driving the demand for news from the biosphere, two things happen. The press begins to push harder against the dome, and something else, something relatively new: The celebrities begin pushing back.
At the end of August, the press pushed particularly hard against a weak spot, and the celebrity biosphere was breached.
Under the protective wing of British royalty, Diana could flirt with the hounds of Fleet Street, secure in the knowledge that the press could pursue only her so far before it was yanked back by the limits of its leash. But having broken free of Buckingham Palace and having chosen the company of a man who seemed to covet the fame that the Princess had, there was no one to protect her when the press came crashing through the barrier that had separated her from us.
In the wake of Diana’s death, we have seen the amazing power of celebrity at work. The weeks of news coverage devoted to dissecting the way in which she died and was mourned and buried. The manner in which the cold-eyed British Empire was forced to acquiesce to its public, angry over the royal family’s chilly treatment of the martyred Princess. The millions who mourned Diana truly mourned her, but also seemed to be telling the entrenched old powers of Europe that they would not be denied, that the new democracy of celebrity included them as well, something Prime Minister Tony Blair acknowledged brilliantly with his phrase, “the People’s Princess,” splitting the emotion between fealty to the old order and the democratic power of the new celebrity.
We also saw the first glimmer of a celebrity rebellion. At Diana’s funeral, Earl Spencer spoke out angrily and eloquently against the media’s hounding of his sister, a message broadcast to the world, Ronald Reagan-like, above the heads of the press. “It is a point to remember that of all the ironies about Diana, perhaps the greatest was this,” Mr. Spencer said. “A girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age.” How the world cheered as St. Earl lanced the Dragon!
But the press waited out its would-be avenger. Recently, it was Mr. Spencer whose philandering was plastered on the pages of Mr. Murdoch’s papers. Now Mr. Spencer has a permanent adversary. He has the sword of his eloquence and the shield of her memory, but the dragon has satellites for eyes, fiber optics for entrails, and it is a vengeful, fire-breathing beast.
Actor George Clooney is looking at a different sort of problem. After taking to task the paparazzi and the publications that print their pictures, the lights have dimmed on Mr. Clooney’s living exhibit. The premiere of his most recent film, The Peacemaker , was boycotted by a number of photographers, and it appears that he is being ignored by some sectors of the press (see Ascenders and Descenders of the 500).
Still, Mr. Clooney seems to have grasped the inevitability of the situation. If there are to be no more victims, then it is the celebrities who must change because the media will not. “She would want us today to pledge ourselves to protecting her beloved boys, William and Harry, from a similar fate, and I do this here, Diana, on your behalf,” Earl Spencer said in his funeral remarks. “We will not allow them to suffer the anguish that used to regularly drive you to tearful despair.”
Barbara Walters noted Mr. Spencer’s pledge in her ABC special, The 10 Most Fascinating People of 1997 , on Dec. 2, but consider the context. Near the end of her special, Ms. Walters solemnly faced the camera and told the television audience how much she and her producers had deliberated over her next choice. “Five years ago, we made guidelines for this show that it would honor only the living,” Ms. Walters said. “However, the death of Princess Diana touched so many that we felt we had to address it.”
Eventually, the camera cut to poignant footage of Diana’s son and the heir to the throne of England, Prince William. “A 1,000-year tradition lies in his hands,” Ms. Walters said. “The future of that tradition-the future of the crown-will rest on his ability to reconcile the heritage of his father and the lessons of his mother. In the aftermath of his mother’s death, William will have to find his own way. And, that for us, makes him the most fascinating person of 1997.”
In that moment, Ms. Walters had both ended the media moratorium on the little princes and supplanted the image of Diana with her son. A name on the most-wanted list had been checked off and a new one added.
Death Becomes Her
Diana, the person, had been extinguished, but the exhibit is still on display, thanks to continued donations by the media conglomerates. A dead celebrity cannot protest the manner in which she is immortalized. Thus do we see in the New York Post that a porn actress is slated to play the Princess in a movie about her life.
Death has a special place in the media pantheon because it is that rare thing: a subject that fascinates everyone. Death is inevitable. Death can be forestalled, but it cannot be controlled. Celebrity, which is probably the closest thing our world has to immortality, takes a close second. A few weeks before she died, photographs flooded the world of the Princess with Elton John, 1997’s professional mourner, at Gianni Versace’s funeral. As she knew they would, the pictures made his death something more than that of a slain fashion designer. And when she died, Elton John was left, pounding the piano and comparing the dead princess to Marilyn Monroe. Both were in-the-biosphere heartfelt tributes, and both were testament to the power of the internal understanding of the stature of celebrity.
When the finality of death cuts short the life of a celebrity, especially ones such as Diana and Gianni Versace, the media and the public have been trained to become sucked into this primal, almost energized vibe.
That vibe resonated in the Art Deco splendor of Radio City Music Hall at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sept. 4. The crescendo came early in the show when a richly robed choir was revealed, stacked up on the stage. At their feet, the rapper Sean (Puffy) Combs danced with goofy abandon as the music to “I’ll Be Missing You,” his tribute to another murdered celebrity, Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Notorious B.I.G., began to play. The choir began to sway, and then out onto a small spotlight stepped Sting, seemingly dressed in a sober suit. The crowd roared. It was an old Police song, Sting’s old band, and as he sang the song’s new lyrics, the crowd began to wave small disposable flashlights that had been left on their seats. The mix of music and lights was intoxicating as Mr. Combs reeled off a litany of slain rappers. When he mentioned Diana’s name, people cheered. The room was goose-pimpled.
But, as we fade out of 1997 with Mr. Kennedy storming the paparazzi with his video camera, and Barbara Walters anointing Prince William the J.F.K. Jr. of 2010, as satellites and cameras and Presidents seem to be turning the whole world into one transparent, if not transcendent, eyeball, it may be useful to recall the initial version of the song that Sting wrote, before it was turned into 90’s sugar