Sunday, February 12, 2012

Death in the Celebrity Realm

Celebrities are referred to as "icons." To the broad public, their names and faces and talents are well known, their private lives investigated and shared for profit, consumed (sometimes with guilt) for the public's prurient curiosity. Yet they are not quite persons.

They suffer in private and melt down in public. Addiction is an ordinary disease, nothing unusual among us ordinary mortals. When the person is a celebrity, however, they occupy a different realm of existence, a realm that offers insulation from the consequences of addiction until it is too late and even family members cannot reach the person. They die semi-publicly, before an audience, a media event.

If there were a post-modern Buddhist cosmology, a Kamadhatu for a new era, it might well include celebrities as a kind of demigod, beings imprisoned in a realm over and isolated from human existence. Like the titans stuck at the foot of Mount Sumeru, the celebrity realm might find its mythological prison in the Hollywood hills.

Whitney Houston was found dead in a room at the Beverly Hilton yesterday. News media quickly issued adoring tributes to the "beloved" singer. Beloved? By whom, the public? Who, other than her closest family members and friends, loved her during the years she stopped resembling her 1985 image, or the young woman who blew up our televisions when she sang the national anthem in 1991, the sweet and beautiful girl with a voice that could lift a church off its foundation and spin it around? The woman who was, after all, all too human: loving and marrying an abusive man, becoming addicted to crack cocaine, struggling with the ordinary disease of addiction that took her beauty, her health, and her wonderful voice.

Like the celebrity demigods who burned themselves up before her, she suffered in private and melted down in public, a work of involuntary performance art.

Celebrities are not loved by the public. Their public image, the icon, is cherished but their ordinary human needs are not of interest. I have read more than one news article claiming that Whitney Houston became an "object lesson" about drug addiction. Really? For whom? For those to whom pictures of an ailing Houston, looking sick and bewildered, became ghoulish entertainment? For those who rarely thought about her and had no reason to? If we regarded celebrities as part of our human community, then maybe so -- but they aren't. On a human level, they are strangers to us.

And in their isolated existence, they are ultimately ordinary: confused, suffering, and human. Even their deaths end up being ordinary, not the fiery climaxes of mythology after all. These mortal people are well known to the general public and also complete strangers. It is a peculiar spectacle when someone suffers (and even dies) so publicly and yet no one seems able to reach them.

To whom can we turn in our own realm, in the relationships we can actually touch? Are we missing opportunities among those living and breathing right in front of us, next to us, or one phone call away?

[Photo: A fragment of a photo of Chris Farley's dead body, as he was found in 1997. He is clutching rosary beads.]

1 comment:

Kelly said...

Powerful last sentence.