I recently watched a surprisingly good 1950 movie called ‘Three Came Home’, concerning the real-life experiences of an American journalist in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. One of the stars was Florence Desmond, who in her time was a good actress but also a decent singer and even better impersonator, a talent she put to great use in popular records before the War. Strangely, despite vying even with the ‘Forces’ Sweetheart’ Vera Lynn, she is now pretty much forgotten, and will be completely so once the current oldest generation has departed. Sic transit gloria mundi.
I was reminded of her on Friday on hearing of the death of Tara Palmer-Tomkinson. It’s been a tough time for celebrities, who’ve been falling like ninepins ever since Prince died last April. Though each of the famous deceased has been lamented with journalistic fervour amounting to apotheosis, all will suffer the same fate as Miss Desmond, if precedent is to be our guide. Even David Bowie – whom I would rate as one of the best song-writers of the last fifty years – will be remembered for his music longer than for himself, and will most likely be just another detail of popular-music history by the time the current baby-boom has grown up.
The thing about David Bowie is that he had good reason for being considered a celebrity in his lifetime, whether by virtue of his music or his showmanship. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, on the other hand, was a perfect example of “famous for being famous”. I well remember her in her prime, forever in the London ‘Evening Standard’ but never for any other reason than that she was TP-T. I had no beef with her, despite knowing that many people considered her just another coke-snorting airhead who happened to be paparazzi-friendly. Nevertheless, it always bemused me that we readers were expected to take an interest in this woman who had less to recommend her than, say, any teacher or nurse you might know. Yet many readers plainly did. More than that, some developed strong feelings about her, as witnessed by the opprobrium heaped by tweeters on the journalist who dared suggest this week that maybe Ms Palmer-Tomkinson wasn’t really worth all those column-inches.
From a psychological point of view, this human preoccupation with celebrity is curious. One can easily understand why a person should want to attain celebrity status, together with the benefits it brings. And there’s nothing at all new about it. Rulers started putting their heads on coins, and their busts in every town, well over two thousand years ago: the first PR campaigns. With the advent of printing, it became possible to extend the practice to books, banners, and even postage stamps. Today, however, the opportunity for self-advertisement has truly been democratised by mass media. Ask yourself what virile young men most crave, and you’ll appreciate why so many of them do their darnedest to get their faces known through musical, dramatic and sporting achievement, or whatever else it takes.
Though the reasons for wanting to be recognised are clear, it’s by no means so obvious why the rest of us should be impressed by another’s celebrity. Perhaps the most plausible explanation I’ve heard is that we’ve evolved to attach positive somatic markers to faces of influential people because it pays to respond automatically to them in a deferential manner, rather than showing indifference or hostility as one might to a complete stranger. Through the ages, this reflex has resulted in males agreeing to lend their services as fighters to famous personages – and females to copulate with such personages – on the strength of recognition alone. On average, a person who collaborated with a potentate in this way was more likely to thrive than one who afforded the same favours to a non-entity. In the modern world, however, many of the heuristics we have retained can operate to our detriment, and this is one of them. The celebrity-worshipper today stands to lose anything from good money spent on a magazine to an unwanted pregnancy, or – in the case of some cults and factions – their life.
The 17th Fable, ‘The Cygnet Who Was Canonised’, addresses this subject of Celebrity Worship. It concerns a young swan with no discernible merit and only one interest: ambition. She becomes so well known that, when she dies, there is a mass outpouring of grief that stuns all who had known this vacuous individual personally. You might imagine that I must have had a particular celebrity in mind when I wrote it. Certainly I’ve never forgotten the incident after Princess Diana’s death when a tourist who’d taken a teddy bear from the pile of tributes was punched in the face by a complete stranger, which suggested to many a somewhat disproportionate sense of reverence. But, if I were to say who I had in mind (if there were someone in particular), it would only distract from my real point, which is that this phenomenon is universal.
We should be less concerned anyway about celebrities than about their followers. Celebrity Worship is an egregious lapse of rationality that the mass media exploit ruthlessly: via photo shoots, personality profiles, reality shows, and so on. It’s hard to imagine that many could fill their pages and airtime without this stuff. Whether one views it as something to be enjoyed – as huge numbers plainly do – or something to be put up with, it’s not going to go away. As much part of the human condition as any of the other topics covered in the book, Celebrity Worship cannot be legislated for. But we do well to remain alert to its consequences.