The Trappings of Fame


“Fame … makes a man take things over …. puts you there where things are hollow”

If you were a baby boomer in the sixties, you most likely never knew anyone who was ‘really really’ rich. There was a kid in my school whose dad was a famous football player, but I didn’t know her well. And there was another friend who came from Texas; they had a big house, and even had a maid, who let us make chili and mess up the kitchen.

I had relatives who had oil patch money – they didn’t come around to many family parties, though. They likely got tired of being hit up for loans that would never get repaid.

USA - 30th Anniversary of Elvis Presley's Death - GracelandWhen you think about it, one of the most famous, and presumably wealthiest, person with a high profile, back in those days, was Elvis. And by today’s standards, Graceland isn’t exactly the Taj Mahal. Not with all that shag carpeting. But for the time, it was high glam.

As a child, I knew, through reading, that there had been times in history when some people had attained obscene wealth, usually by conquering another country, and by subjecting those natives to their will. Those people were called kings, and whatever they wanted was granted to them, for their skill in warfare.queen of sheba

England had a royalty, but they wore sensible shoes.

I didn’t look up to those people; I never wanted to be ‘royal’ It seemed a pretty high price to pay for a life lived entirely in the public eye. And back then, there were a lot of people who wondered if the trade off of privacy for public adulation was a good one.

Now, of course, people will do anything to be seen, hopefully to be admired, for whatever it is they can do to be different. Tattoo a snake on your face? We’ll only be impressed if you’re the first to think to do so.

“Could it be the best, could it be? Really be, really, babe?”

I don’t know if it is a Canadian way of thinking, but I remember how most people I knew, growing up, adhered to the ‘tall poppy syndrome‘ … that meant that you didn’t want to stick your head up too high, or blow your own horn a little too loud, because you’d be sure to get cut down to size if you did. The syndrome is basically a way of sneering at those who revel in having a ton of money – which we assume is ill-gotten gains – or of seeking fame in public life.

william shatnerIn the seventies, you’d have been more likely to hear someone snigger, “geez, who does he/she think he/she is!” when a Canadian even got a mention in American media.

We did not put many Canadians on pedestals for their achievements, though we’d often get a little warm feeling when we felt like we’d snuck a Canadian through, behind America’s back. Like that William Shatner guy, with the weird way of talking. His mum had an acting school on Girouard in Montreal, so he was one of the good one’s.

We had our own awards, our Junos instead of Grammys, our Genie awards instead of Oscars, and by geez, that should be good enough for any Canadian! Just look at that Walter Ostanek fella, and all his polka Grammy wins! Does HE look happy? Now, you just go practice your accordion, and try not to get all stuck up and big headed!

“Fame …. what you like is in the limo”

And then came …. rock and roll hedonism.

“In the seventies … There was more excess, more hedonism, more drugs, more attitude, more sex, more style, more enthusiasm. Just?… more.” (The Telegraph, UK)

mudsharkI’m not saying that the days of mud sharks, Whovian displays of hotel trashing, and the deaths by overdose of nearly every icon of the day opened the door to the pedestaling of the rich and famous….

but it helped.

The austerity of the post war years, and the drive and eventual success of the lower class kids, who knew the only way to get out of soul crushing poverty was to get into sports or rock n roll, became the envy of those who wondered what it would be like to literally have the world and all of it’s glories at their feet … drugs, drink, the most beautiful women in the world … it could all be yours, if you just cracked the Top Ten Charts.

Mo’ money, mo’ problems. Some of the luckier and richer rockers listened to their dear old dads, or to the managers and accountants who flocked to help funnel some of this largesse into safer investments, like property. And sadly, some of those ‘helpful’ advisors turned out to be there with the intention of taking advantage of the silly geese now laying multiple golden eggs.

Fame and wealth are on a sliding scale, as the wiser of the nouveau riche artistes soon learned. And if those musos wanted to keep at least some of the moolah that was coming in, in order to pay for their growing entourages, they’d have to learn to manage, manipulate, and increase their funds, just like the robber barons of the last century had done.

And off they went, to the tax havens…. and began to grow their own little dynasties …

“Fame, “Nein! It’s mine! is just his line … to bind your time, it drives you to, crime .”

We aging hippies, especially those of us who chose careers in the arts, might not have prioritized the acquisition of wealth, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t drool a little when these new ‘lifestyles of the rich and famous’ were dangled before us, in the mid eighties.

make it rainMTV glommed onto that envy, and promoted the lifestyles of celebrities in shows like “The Fabulous Life Of … “ and “Cribs.” These quasi reality features pretended to give the plebes a glimpse into the opulent homes, glamorous lifestyles, and vacation playgrounds of those musicians who had ‘made it.’

FAME … and wealth, were now what everyone wanted to achieve, by any means possible. Oh yeah, it was all about the Benjamins …

“Fame … what you get is no tomorrow … “

And we bought it .. oh yes, those of us who looked on and envied the lifestyles of those who had cracked the money and power code, wanted in on the fun.

“Americans are accustomed to talking about fame using the heady language of the cosmos: the celebrity as a celestial truth, situated above us; the superstar as a force in the firmament, all heat and light and gravitational demands. Michael Jackson’s environmental form of fame—music that permeated people’s lives, iconography that saturated American culture—anticipated the intimate version of celebrity that is the default today. It is fitting, in that regard, that celebrity itself functions as a spectral character in Leaving Neverland. Jackson was acutely aware of the affordances of fame; he leveraged them, the documentary suggests—and, ultimately, he weaponized them. Joy Robson, Wade’s mother, recalls Jackson making a request of her; she recalls, as well, that when she refused it, he coolly informed her: “I always get what I want.”” (The Atlantic, March 2019)

This year has seen the release of several documentaries that question what the pedestaling of fame has done to our vulnerable young women and men. With the allegations in Leaving Neverland and Surviving R. Kelly, we also need to be aware of what fame does to the psyches of those who wield that much power.

camp followersThere have always been camp followers, disciples, those who believe that proximity to what they covet, for even a few moments, raises their own profile and value amongst those who have not had the same access to the royalty of their time.

When those who possess power of any potency use manipulation, a righteous fear, and their fame/perceived authority to get what they want, they are abusing that power in order to exploit vulnerable people for their own advantage or gain. And even if those people go willingly to the abuse, it’s still abuse.

Now, the funny thing is that, somewhere along the line, we all started to think that those who achieve fame and financial reward for being good at one thing, like music, or business, could translate that magic to other careers.

And strangely enough, in a culture that appears to embrace a meritocracy, those who seek fame and power somehow manage to drape the mantle of unique talents upon those whose rise to fame may well have simply come from a well placed endorsement, a reality television episode, or a sex tape featuring some very, very large buttocks.

kardashian buttWe would never expect our dentist to take out our appendix or fix our plumbing, but for some reason, we think that someone who has managed to acquire – by hook, and likely crook – a large amount of money, should be given free reign to guide a country, or should be allowed to tell us who and how to worship. The mind boggles.

The political ‘base’ of a country is as subservient to a populist politician, as a congregation is to a hyperbolic preacher, or a groupie or ‘musical prodigy’ is to a music mogul. There’s a parallel in the abuses.

rewards just aheadDangling the promises of future prosperity, they will assure their acolytes that there is a brilliant future awaiting them, if they’ll just listen to their master’s advice. The prey might wonder at what is asked of them, if they follow this path, and they may be reluctant to give their all, without the assurances, as false as they may be, that their faith will bring them enormous rewards in the end.

The followers will put that preacher, or politician, or musical ‘genius’ on a pedestal, and make that person their whole world, believing that their devotion and loyalty is as strongly returned.

But eventually, and inevitably, that faith is abused.

Our adoration of those with fame and wealth blinds us, and when those whom we’ve put on a pedestal are toppled, our beliefs in our selves is fractured.

toppling idolsWhat goes up .. must come down. At some point, the blinders fall off, and we see that those we call gods and kings are just selfish, spoiled, narcissists, and that we are the toys and pawns they use to satisfy their own whims and urges.

2011 … “A new study co-funded by the Gates Foundation, however, portrays the ultrarich as lost souls burdened by the fears, worries and family distortions of too much money.

Yeah yeah. Cry me a river.

 

 

Who’s Sorry Now?


act first apologize laterPaying attention to the tsunami of news lately is exhausting; trying to make sense of the escalating madness involves dancing between skepticism and honest disbelief at what our fellow man is capable of in the pursuit of power, fame, and wealth.

Not all of those who wish to impose their will or image upon us actually care about what we think about them, but those that do tend to live by the adage, “Act first and apologize later.”

The impact of their apologies rests not so much upon what they’ve done, as it’s often a fairly silly infraction, but on the real and/or perceived understanding of the impact of their words or deeds.

pedestals2And many times, the public apology has little to do with the person or persons they’ve actually harmed; if a married celebrity is screwing around on his or her partner, what difference should it make to anyone but the couple involved? Are we so bound up in our perception of celebrities as representing ‘the best of us’ that we forget they are actually just like us, with all our feelings and failings? Do we depend on those we pedestaled to reflect only the beauty of our souls?

Are public apologies becoming their own art form?

In 2009, David Letterman publicly apologized to his wife and “Late Show” staffers for having affairs with female staff members, and revealed that he was the victim of an extortion plot regarding the extramarital flings. He admitted he had done wrong, saying that his wife was deeply hurt by his behaviour, but he hoped to make it up to her.

kobe_bryantLakers star Kobe Bryant was accused of sexually assaulting a female hotel employee in Colorado in 2003. The charge was ultimately dropped (and a separate civil suit was settled out of court,) Bryant made a public apology to the woman, and he bought wife Vanessa, a $4million ring.

Actress Kristen Stewart got caught messing around with her married director, and then said she was really in love with then-boyfriend Robert Pattison. Result? Both the director’s and Kristen’s relationships were finished.

tiger-apologies-webWhen the former Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, finally fessed up about his love child with a long-time staff member, his then-wife of 25 years Maria Shriver filed for divorce. Tiger Woods had a harem of more than a dozen women when he got caught. His marriage was destroyed, and his career has never again reached the same momentum.

And we know all of this because the media told us, and the stars felt they had to apologize to the fans.

“For an individual or a society, that capacity (to apologize) is a sign of life, of vitality, of a soul that can still be moved. There is a wisdom beyond sentimentality in the authentic apology. It has a purpose,” (Charles Krauthammer, Time Magazine, 1983.) We yearn to believe that those who’ve attained fame or fortune on our goodwill and fandom have souls that can still be moved.

i'm the bestThat’s a lot to expect of individuals whose living is made by a fanatical devotion to a talent or ability, or of skillfully pretending to be other people. Or from people who live in a completely different world where they’ve come to believe that what they think is of world-shaking importance, and that they are somehow above the strictures the plebes live under.

We may love swimming in a pool of schadenfreude at the mighty made humble, if only for a fleeting moment. The bigger picture is that what we’re seeing is what happens to anyone when everything we do, say, type, text or sexpic is scrutinized and studied.

The scrutiny ramps up daily under near constant celebrity surveillance; during the week of June 2, 2014 alone, four different stars were pilloried, and scurried to assure the public that it was all just an honest mistake. Pharrell Williams appeared on the cover of Elle magazine wearing a Native American headdress, and immediately responded through his publicist: “I respect and honour every kind of race, background and culture. I am genuinely sorry.”

jonah hillActor Jonah Hill, meanwhile, frustrated by being constantly hounded by paparazzi, was recorded yelling a homophobic slur. Hill apologized while a guest on the Tonight Show, saying that “I said the most hurtful word that I could think of at that moment. I didn’t mean this in the sense of the word. I didn’t mean it in a homophobic way… Words have weight and meaning. The word I chose was grotesque and no one deserves to say or hear words like that…I’m sorry and I don’t deserve or expect your forgiveness, but what I ask is at home, if you’re watching this and you’re a young person especially, if someone says something that hurts you or angers you, use me as an example of what not to do.”

That same week, Liam Payne of One Direction apologized for a video of some of his band mates smoking a joint, and Justin Bieber (more on him later) apologized for being racist … again. Even American Idol’s Chris Daughtry caught fire for declining to sing during a televised D-Day event.

How do you win the Tour de France seven times? Doping! Lance Armstrong’s reputation as a world-class athlete was shattered after he publicly admitted to doping in an interview with Oprah Winfrey.

lance armstrong oprah“I view this situation as one big lie I repeated a lot of times. I made those decisions, they were my mistakes and I’m here to say sorry.” Armstrong also apologized to the staff of the Livestrong Foundation and stepped down as chairman of the organization. He has since been stripped of all his medals.

Update: in January 2015, Armstrong said on a BBC website that if he was faced with the same decisions again as back in 1995, that he would likely dope but would have treated people differently.

paula deen racismAnd then there’s celebrity chef Paula Deen, the target of a lawsuit alleging racial and sexual discrimination. In the time between the filing of the suit and the suit being dismissed, the Food network cancelled her cooking shows, publishing deals, and numerous endorsement contracts. Appearing on the Today show, the teary Georgia native apologized for using the N word, and said, “But that’s just not a word that we use as time has gone on. Things have changed since the 60’s in the south.” 

But for the biggest and best displays of arrogance, bravado, and “sorry, not sorry’ non-apologetic apologies, you really have to look to musicians.

2004 – Nipplegate. Janet Jackson has an infamous wardrobe malfunction while dueting with Justin Timberlake at the MTV produced Super Bowl halftime. CBS and MTV’s parent company Viacom essentially blacklist her, keeping her music videnipplegateos off their properties MTV, VH1, and radio stations. Eventually the blacklist spreads to include non-Viacom media entities as well. Partially acting upon that ban, a young software programmer at PayPal named Jawed Karim and some of his friends create a venue where people can easily upload and share video, and YouTube is born in 2005.

Timberlake’s response to the controversy: “Listen, I know it’s been a rough week on everybody. What occurred was unintentional and completely regrettable, and I apologize if you guys were offended.”

As Taylor Swift accepted her 2009 MTV Video Music Award, Kanye West leaped on to the stage, grabbed the mic from her and said, “Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you, I’ma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time! One of the best videos of all time!”

He’s publicly apologized several times since, to the singer, her mother, and her fans, and then apologized twice more on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, saying “I’m not crazy y’all, I’m just real. Sorry for that!!! I really feel bad for Taylor and I’m sincerely sorry!!! Much respect!!!”

John Mayer’s 2010 interview in Playboy Magazine was ripe for commentary, as the arrogant sod shot off his mouth about his penis, Jessica Simpson and black women. He’s since plastered social media with mea culpae, and even apologized onstage to his band for being such a naughty fellow.

madonna twitsMadonna (who?) started 2014 by instagraming a photo of 13 year old son Rocco holding a gin bottle while vacationing in the Swiss Alps. The drinking age in Switzerland is 16. This was shortly after she’d posted a pic of Rocco boxing, with the message, “No one messes with Dirty Soap! Mama said knock you out!” along with the hashtag “#disni–a.”

As the story spread through the internet, she upped the ante by posting, “Ok let me start this again. #get off of my d–k haters!”

Finally the meds must have kicked in. She deleted the photo as the comments rolled in, and daintily said, “I am sorry if I offended anyone with my use of the N-word on Instagram, It was not meant as a racial slur…I am not a racist.”

And now .. for the most non-apologies by a musician … drum roll please .. the winner is … Justin Beiber!

bieber roastCanadians are famous for saying “I’m sorry,” and Bieber, at just 21, and rumoured to be worth $200 million USD, wants to take that to the tippy top. He begged Comedy Central to ‘roast’ him for years, and a roast he did get. There was no lack of material, even though most of the events that need to be atoned for happened in just the last two years.

I don’t want to be accused of picking on the kid. So I’ll just do one paragraph about some of his adventures in 2013 and 2014.

He’s been arrested numerous times, and in numerous places; he’s been videoed peeing in a nightclub’s mop bucket; he attacked an L.A. photographer trying to snap then girlfriend Selena Gomez’s pic; he stormed through at least one airport with his shirt off despite freezing temperatures; he abandoned his pet monkey Molly in Germany; was arrested in Miami accused of road racing and driving under the influence of alcohol, marijuana and prescription drugs; he angered British fans by turning up onstage almost two hours late; he suggested in a guestbook at the Anne Frank Museum that the Holocaust victim might have been “a Belieber“; he’s been flamed over illegal grafbieber harperfiti in Brazil, and was called to clean up more graffiti from a hotel wall in Australia; he disrespected the Argentine flag after he used a microphone to mop the floor with it during a concert in Buenos Aires; he allegedly egged his neighbour’s house in Los Angeles, causing extensive damage and almost injuring a 13-year-old girl; a police search of his home led to a member of his entourage being arrested for alleged cocaine possession; he nearly got himself beat up by Orlando Bloom, of all people; he posed for a Calvin Klein ad that some say has been mightily photoshopped; an infamous Scottsdale spewing became known as “Heave It To Bieber“; he was videoed spraying cleaning fluid onto a picture of former president Bill Clinton while saying “F–k Bill Clinton,”; ( he later spoke to the former U.S. president and apologized for his actions,) he met Prime Minister Stephen Harper wearing dirty farmer john jeans and a wife beater; he angered Chicago Blackhawks fans after both standing on the team’s logo in the Blackhawks locker room and getting a little too cozy with the Stanley Cup for their taste while posing for pics with the NHL‘s highest honor; at the last Grey Cup, Canadians soundly booed his image on the Jumbotron. I may have missed a few other incidents, but then, I’m not in his demographic.

bieber sorryBut – he’s posted so many videos telling us how sorry he is! And he looks so sombre and serious! “I think I was nervous because I was afraid of what people are thinking about me … I didn’t want to come off arrogant or conceited, basically how I’ve been acting the past year and a half. I’m not who I was pretending to be.”

I think this is the tenth or fiftieth time he’s said this, so it must be true! His latest video is even called “Sorry!”

But here’s the thing – apart from his enormous fan following of rabid teens, likely more titillated than shocked, no one has really been affected by the Beeb’s theatrics except himself. Some Canadians have certainly been embarrassed – check the Urban Dictionary for Justin Bieber. “7. National disgrace to Canada “ – but we lived through Rob Ford, we can live thru Bieber.

There are times when we need our public figures to own up to their faults, and publicly apologize for actions that were wrong or cruel; times when whole groups of people can be gently shown that it is neither right nor ‘cool’ to slur others beliefs, genders or colour.

And there are other times when apologies are little more than words designed to keep the public’s attention, just lip service, with no indication that the immaturity, selfishness or bigotry has actually been acknowledged as wrong, or that the individual has any real intention of changing his or her behaviour.

trust-quotes-john-harold-623

(edited copy, originally published  2015/02/08, DBAWIS)