- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 7, 2006

Tabloids.

You claim they’re beneath you while they’re literally in your hands.

I’m not talking about the impending-apocalypse, Martians-have-landed tabloid fare. That’s for the credulous. I mean tabloids for the sanely curious: the relatively upscale celebrity-gazing magazines such as People, Star, In Touch and Us Weekly — the visual junk-food snacks devoured in nail salons and supermarket checkout lines.

Here’s a case for guilt-free enjoyment, for tabloids as healthy cultural outlet.

England’s Queen Elizabeth I once said of royals such as herself: “We princes are set on stages in the sight and view of all the world.”

In today’s world of global entertainment consumption, celebrities are — or like to think of themselves as — our Elizabethan royalty. (How rich of Gwyneth Paltrow to announce her preference for high-toned British dinner conversation, as opposed to bourgeois American shoptalk.) Yet they can’t rule us by divine right; they rule our consciousness, if not our lives, by virtue of their ubiquity.

Their fame depends in large part on the simple, brutal math of how often their name appears in pixels or print. Actors, for example, must work often enough to stay in fresh circulation on video-store shelves (or Netflix queues).

Celebrities know this, which is why virtually every public appearance they make is stage-managed by publicists and personal stylists.

Except when they’re captured by a paparazzo. (Or in the rare cases of Mel Gibson/Michael Richards-style meltdowns.)

Maybe you saw the recent cover of Star magazine and its side-by-side photographs of pop star Jennifer Lopez and ABC news anchor Katie Couric with and without makeup.

It didn’t really matter that accompanying these starkly different visages was this lie: “How stars get gorgeous. You can too!”

What matters is that someone managed to pierce the thick veil of pomp that surrounds and sustains modern celebrity.

Do you worry about anorexic celebrity women contributing to body-image problems for young girls? Well, maybe you should thank the paparazzi the next time you see a candid photo of an actress enjoying a cheeseburger — or, alternatively, looking morbidly thin. (Famous men are hardly immune to flab exposes, as Michael Douglas and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will unhappily inform you.)

No question, tabloid photography is a seamy business. And in no way should you construe me as defending the kind of reckless, high-speed ambushes that resulted in Lindsay Lohan’s car wrecks, not to mention the 1997 death of Princess Diana.

That kind of behavior is worse than indefensible. It’s illegal.

Unfortunately, it’s also inevitable, to some extent. “Where solitude ceases, the marketplace begins — and when the marketplace begins, the noise of the great actors and the buzzing of the poisonous flies begins too,” wrote German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in one of his “Zarathustra” speeches.

Fundamentally, celebrity status is the accumulation of lots of marketplace transactions. The paparazzi play the middlemen in these transactions.

As the public eagerly revs up Internet search engines with “Britney Spears + crotch” and “TomKat + wedding” keyword entries, everyone knows it’s a great game of back-scratching. The paparazzi sell pictures, while Miss Spears appears fascinatingly self-destructive and Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes attempt to repair a year-and-a-half’s worth of unflattering publicity with a fairy-tale wedding.

So let’s at least agree on this: The next time Britney Spears weeps to Matt Lauer that the press won’t leave her alone, we may justifiably tell her to wipe her tears and learn how to cross her legs like a lady — or, if not, to just stay at home with her children.

On this, too: A celebrity’s right to privacy ends when an Armani-clad wedding party sets off fireworks over an Italian village.

As George F. Will wrote in the wake of Princess Diana’s death: “Hers was a life somehow always rich in opportunities for photographs of the sort she deplored. Greta Garbo she was not. She had a great fondness for cafe society, which is not the milieu of the reclusive.”

Vehicular death and harassment shouldn’t be occupational hazards for the famous, but the ineluctable truth is that fame exists at the pleasure of the public. And the public always will enjoy being reminded by tabloids that celebrities are human. We like to see great figures cut down to size.

This enjoyment is part schadenfreude, part prurience, part envy, part populist pride.

I can’t imagine it’s pleasant being under the lights of the paparazzi.

When he was reading proofs of his memoir “Experience,” novelist Martin Amis remarked that he never realized “how often my free will has been compromised by fame.” But then he added, “I don’t complain about all that — because fame is so great.”

That’s the spirit.

Chin up, Britney.

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