Celebrities have had a rough summer. Ben Affleck is in alcohol treatment, and Mariah Carey has evidently suffered a nervous breakdown brought on by overwork, disappointing sales and the general pressure of celebrity. Julia Roberts went on David Letterman’s show to complain about the severe terms of stardom. “You sell your soul to the devil,” she said.
The culture is demanding more and more from celebrities. The New York Public Library banners show Celebrity Caricatures. Us magazine has abandoned any notion that it’s about us—it’s only about them—and quotes the National Enquirer with some respect. The New York Times put a drug-related murder this spring at the top of the front page because the victim, Jennifer Stahl, was an actress in Dirty Dancing—a nonspeaking role she’d had years before. Celebrity now seems to be the only way that someone can be talked about. And celebrity would also seem to make you vulnerable: By flipping her hair once in a big movie, Ms. Stahl had elevated herself into the jet stream, and her cruel destruction and top billing were somehow understood to be the consequences.
What is surprising is that no one has come along to try and explain the harsh laws that govern the celebrities’ lives. What is missing is a contemporary Machiavelli to write The Princess (Julia Roberts, of course)—a person at once comfortable in the court and free of it, who could set down some simple rules that the celebrities might study and follow so that their lives would go more smoothly, and that commoners might read so as to better understand the order under which we live.
Because so worldly a guide has yet to come forward—and you can’t trust the media to do it; they would, in knowing, poisoned tones, Addison DeWitt by way of E.W., dress it up as “Celebrity Ethics” and publish a vicious, underhanded attack on the celebrities they at once adore and envy—I hereby take a hesitant step in that direction.
1. You make the world go ’round.
Never forget that your power flows from a real source. What steel was to America in the 50’s, the entertainment business is to America today: The world hungers for what we produce. That is why any reporter’s postmodern reflections on celebrity are merely idle, and why, in the end, the media will always be craven. Money talks. Chinese girls in New Zealand cry out “Julia!” as they pick up Time magazine, and schedule changes for the Guns ’N’ Roses tour—“due to health concerns relating to guitarist Buckethead”—are big stories in Polynesian newspapers. Americans may think they have better things to worry about than Buckethead. The world is not under that illusion.
2. Explore the perverse.
The record of celebrities who have vaulted themselves to the next level by doing something very bad is simply too long not to represent an important law of celebrity. Sharon Stone became the most glamorous figure in our society by spreading her legs in a picture. Hugh Grant became a bigger star after paying for fellatio from a black woman while he was living with Elizabeth Hurley. Robert Downey Jr. outdid himself by demonstrating sang-froid and humility as he was arrested for cocaine, and by making a brilliant comment on addiction to the judge about needing to taste the gunmetal in his mouth. Even the Princess, lovely Julia Roberts, heightened her stardom by letting her driven mean streak show through the sweetness, humiliating the conductor—”You’re so quick with that stick. But why don’t you sit?” she said to the “Stick Man”—at the Academy Awards, even as she gave a rambling speech in which she forgot about the real-life Erin Brockovich.
There is obviously some psychological mechanism at work here that all the Jungian therapists in the Hollywood hills would explain to you: Celebrities are fearless and understand their dark side, allowing the rest of us to project our repressed …. But we don’t have time for the undercurrents; we are talking about laws.
3. Don’t be twisted.
Rule No. 2 comes with a giant disclaimer: If you’re actually depraved, America will be afraid, and America enjoys nothing so much as the sight of a celebrity wearing an orange jumpsuit with a set of initials not his own stenciled in black across the shoulder blades.
Madonna’s one big mistake was her Sex book, which was too blatant about things America didn’t want to think about. For all its vaunted darkness, the movie American Beauty, as The New York Times Magazine’s writer Lynn Hirschberg points out, was actually very safe: Kevin Spacey never went to bed with the teenage girl, and his fantasies involved rose petals falling down over her naked body. Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman) was merely guilty of what Kevin Spacey did (masturbate), yet his career imploded—because America could not abide a swarthy mug-shot weirdo talking to their children.
Sharon Stone shrewdly walked this line. She said that she had been tricked into doing the Basic Instinct shot, even as she is rumored to have dyed her pubic hair blond, and a salivating nation preferred this hypocrisy to the possibility that she was so amoral and coldly ambitious as to expose herself to a bunch of grips and other stage hands—not to mention your hyperactive kid brother—to get ahead.
Robert Downey Jr. was unable to walk this line, and now appears to have done real damage to his career. America is not that forgiving; people cannot understand how someone with so much opportunity (and money) can blow it. They loved him for trying to come back. But not for giving in to his demons ….
4. Don’t be too pretty.
America wants its stars to be accessible and approachable. Always bear in mind Lynn Hirschberg’s Law: Best in show never wins in entertainment. There are much better-looking actors on daytime soaps you’ve never heard of than in the movie business. Courteney Cox is far and away more beautiful than milquetoast-featured Jennifer Aniston, but Ms. Aniston is America’s sweetheart and Ms. Cox is an also-ran.
Redhead Nicole Kidman is in the end too cool, thin-lipped and perfect to be too big, especially off the Cruise ship. (Heidi Fleiss said that redheads were always the least popular gals in the stable, reports my muse, redheaded Ms. Hirschberg.) Brunette Julia Roberts is warm, flawed and a little klutzy, reminding us of our own flaws and thereby deriving her tremendous power.
5. Screw the reporter.
Creating a false impression of intimacy with a reporter is, sadly, quite easy—and efficient. We’ve all heard the story of the reporter who believes that the young starlet needed his advice. All it takes is inviting the reporter over to your house, say, for a meal with others, or referring to the reporter as a friend on the telephone in the reporter’s presence, or touching the reporter’s knee or arm in such a way as to suggest you might want to see him again. If the reporter did not—secretly!—want to be your friend, or worse, he wouldn’t be spending hours with you to do a celebrity profile. Encouraging the belief that you may see him again is far more effective than, say, reading Scripture out loud in assuring that he will not wound you in the resulting text.
You never have to see them again. This is journalist David Carr’s rule of millennial journalism: Everything’s transactional. Intimacy is momentary. You are giving something to get something. Everybody is a player; relationships count for nothing.
6. Reporters are real people.
Understanding that your dealings are transactional doesn’t mean that you must not show respect to reporters during the exchange. The reporters are conferring a real value on you—attention, prestige, magazine covers. Even the biggest celebrity is at some level still the third girl on American Pie 2 when Gear calls and wants her to drench her shirt for the cover.
So be honest when the reporter asks a question. Charlize Theron surely hurt herself when she lied to reporters, saying her father had died in a car accident when actually her mother had killed him—in self-defense, apparently. A certain reporter who will go Nameless bought that line, for Vogue, out of confused deference to Ms. Theron, just as rumors of the truth were swirling, and thereby lost a wheel on his little cart—Vogue, justifiably, hasn’t called Nameless in over a year.
Or consider the e-mail exchange between Dave Eggers, fledgling celebrity for his book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and New York Times reporter David D. Kirkpatrick. Mr. Kirkpatrick sought an interview with the author, but the author mistrusted Mr. Kirkpatrick’s agenda and would only do an e-mail interview; when the author disliked the resulting story in The Times, he publicized their voluminous electronic correspondence online. They are posted (ad nauseam) on Jim Romenesko’s site at the Poynter Institute.
This exchange has edified few, and it set back the talented Mr. Kirkpatrick by showing how much he was willing to submit quotations for approval. In the process, Mr. Eggers has been smudged, among reporters, as arrogant.
7. Negotiate your quotes.
Tip your cap to Mr. Eggers for exposing one of the hypocrisies of the reporting trade: They’re so independent, but they’ll do anything for a quote, including faxing versions of that quote back to the source to make sure it’s O.K. (Although it’s not done, adamant editors tell me, here at The Observer.)
This practice is undertaken everywhere. On some occasions, the reporter opens the door (“I’d love to have your voice in my story, on whatever terms … ”). But more often the source initiates the brokering, in a mock-shambling tone (“Wow, that’s a great story and I’d love to help, but I have to say I’ve been burned so many times by people printing things out of context, and I know you wouldn’t do that but I have to make one teeny-weeny request, which is that before you use anything, you let me know … ”).
The source is generally someone a little bit famous who is not the subject of the piece, but whom the reporter seeks out for commentary. The subject of the piece does not get these terms, for a variety of reasons, but that could change.
Any reporter who says he doesn’t know about quote approval is lying. Any reporter who admits it is shunned. Meanwhile, readers have little idea that their Right to Know has been so subtly abridged, though sophisticated readers can sometimes tell an approved quote because it is just a little bit too perfect, and a little embalmed.
8. Drop your friends.
Sometime soon a psychology professor is going to come out with a big book about when it’s O.K. to drop a friend. That’s because dropping friends is so important to the workings of transactional celebrity society that it has to be rationalized and explained.
Well, here is a good rationalization: Just who was that “friend”? A sincere person who loved you for who you are? I don’t think so. Usually someone who is just out for himself.
There is a pathetically poignant moment in the film Kurt and Courtney where Rozz Rezabek, a has-been rock guitarist, tears Courtney Love up one side and down the other for various felonies of selfishness. Laugh at him. We all recognize that Mr. Rezabek was in the relationship for highly selfish, celebrity-oriented reasons of his own and is merely expressing bitterness.
9. Your only friends are on your payroll.
As Mariah Carey will tell you, summer is tough. It’s family time for the rest of us, leaving celebrities bored and useless. They have nowhere real to go; they don’t have the tissue of social life the rest of us do. Oh, they once did, but those old friendships have been so betrayed and abandoned that they’re wrapped in envy and other bitternesses, and it’s pointless to even pick up the phone ….
Real celebrity is not ordinary life; it cannot afford the energy or time to engage in the co-equal give-and-take of ordinary life. If it did, someone else would be the celebrity. And as for all those friends, they’re not interested in you as a friend anymore, but as a celebrity. Even family—they’re only interested in what they can get out of it.
Your only real friends are likely to be the hairdresser and dresser, who are on your payroll. And your sister, if you are paying her to work for you, like the one Julia Roberts played in the summer movie America’s Sweethearts. Ms. Carey’s recent breakdown was marked by this sort of paranoia. “I just can’t trust anybody anymore right now,” she wrote in an online posting. “If anybody gets this that really cares, just do me a favor, close down the management company that I own …. ”
10. Dogs are indispensable, and so is religion.
Because you cannot have any real friends, you must take the politician’s advice and have animals. Their agendas are straightforward. They don’t read the tabloids or go to the movies.
For the same reason—loneliness—it’s good to have some type of religion. Religion is a form of belonging, and spiritual people, if you are lucky enough to meet them, will have some purpose in life and therefore be less distracted than others by your fame. Your religion could be Scientology, yoga, Buddhism or Jungian-influenced psychology. The last is the easiest because they put it in the
Religion will undoubtedly help your work, and take up spare time.
11. Avoid politics.
Politics is good for one or two things—abortion and gay rights, maybe the death penalty. Don’t be a tub-thumper. Tim Robbins and Charlton Heston are cautionary examples.
12. To be an astronomer, you must study the stars.
This law is about loving celebrity. Any celebrity who expresses contempt for the business of celebrity is either so talented that they can get away with it (Sean Penn comes to mind) or a fool, or dead (Kurt Cobain).
The reporter who will remain Nameless was once sitting with Courtney Love in the courtyard of the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood when, 60 yards away, a wan and unimpressive figure made her way up the steps into the back door of the hotel with a shopping bag, and Ms. Love, who was then holding forth about yoga and creativity and the dark side of the psyche, paused for a moment while her nictitating eye made a resounding click.
“So—Claire Danes is shopping at Fred Segal …. ”
Ms. Love was as baldly star-struck as the paparazzi she rails against, while Nameless was a spellbound, Jungian-influenced piker who had missed it all.
13. Don’t deconstruct celebrity.
Ms. Love erred by making an album, Celebrity Skin, that tried thoughtfully to take apart celebrity. Julia Roberts made the same mistake in her melodramatic appearance on Letterman, when she bitterly urged the press to distort her comments about breaking up with Benjamin Bratt: “Make it what you want, to make the money that you want and to give away the soul that you want, but that’s just all there is to it, and we’re both just two kids trying to find our way in the world and I’ve never heard it so quiet in this studio in my entire life!”
This tirade—not to mention her summer bomb in a fat suit, America’s Sweethearts—could damage the Princess’ career. And it invited snickers from those who believe that the Princess and Mr. Bratt milked their relationship for months after it had ended for the publicity.
Princess Julia, you are not just “some kid,” you are different. Sensitivity—a kind of super-awareness or a deep hurt, and the resulting self-obsession—is what propelled you out of real life in the first place, to an extreme atmosphere that reporters and other mortals disdain to test. Your parents did this to you, probably. Ever since Icarus, celebrities have been spun on wild trajectories by their parents.
Your celebrity flows from being something that ordinary people, with ordinary jobs, cannot be, and do not really want to be. They lack your drive, and need. Respect that, and don’t give in to self-pity or anger. The inability to conduct ordinary, and ordinarily fulfilling, relationships is why you are a celebrity in the first place. Failing to find love with other individuals, you will find it with humanity.