I’m gonna be a celebrity/That means someone everyone knows
They’re gonna recognize my eyes, my hair, my teeth, my boobs, my nose
–Roxie Hart, “Chicago”
This is the video of a monologue late night talk show host, Craig Ferguson, gave in 2007. In it, he talks about why he will no longer make fun of Britney Spears or other easy-to-mock celebrities. His point is that comedy and comedians should make fun of the rich and powerful, not those people who are having drug, alcohol, or mental health issues in the public eye.
I’ve become a fan of Craig Ferguson is because of thoughtful moments like this. One of the things that occurred to me watching this video is how little we’ve come to regard celebrities as real people. Yes, yes, we’ve all read the little screeds in various magazines where movie stars and singing sensations will claim that in spite of their fabulous wardrobes and mountains of cash, they really enjoy the simple things in life. The moral of these little write-ups is these beautiful people are just like the rest of us.
At best, that’s a half truth. Seriously, the rich and well-known are leading the kind of lives most of us will never know and never have an opportunity to know. So it’s easy to dehumanize them, to not treat them as real human beings in need of help. In his monologue, Craig talks about his own struggles with alcohol and drugs. Left unspoken is the question that if he had the same degree of fame he has now and been subjected then to the same widespread ridicule that celebrities face now at the lowest point in his life, would he have survived? Indeed, would any of us survive being mocked by complete strangers across the nation?
Once upon a time, it was difficult to become a celebrity. You had to make a real effort to become “someone everyone knows”. Usually, that celebrity was job-related–you became an actor, for example, signed a contract with a movie studio, and, during the course of promoting your work, the studio made it a point to plaster your likeness across every newspaper and movie magazine. Now, thanks to the magic of the Intertube, any Joe Citizen, wittingly or unwittingly, can wind up with their image featured across the Net. Think about it. There you are doing the “Hokey Pokey” at your cousin’s wedding. Somebody films it on their camera phone and posts the video on YouTube. Sure, it might just get a few hits and no harm done, but it might also go viral across the Web. The next thing you know comedians are cracking jokes about the video on late night talk shows and reporters are calling you up to ask for comment.
Is this democratization of celebrity necessarily a bad thing, you ask? Okay, for every embarassing home video out there, there are people using the Net to share their talents, passions, energy (and possibly, the “Hokey Pokey”) with the wider world. I don’t deny the Internet’s ability to empower talented citizens, but at the same time, I’m concerned about the blurring of the lines between public and private figures.
At some point, do all of us become public figures whether we want to be or not?