"Directly or indirectly, Britney is going to come to some horrific end, or a member of the public will. It's not what's being done, it's the way it's being done. As she continues to deteriorate psychologically, I just can't see a positive way out.” - Paparazzo Nick Stern, on quitting the business, the Guardian 1 February 2008
It’s been a weird few years, with celebrities going from gods and goddesses to weirdoes who get sick on the West End on Tuesday mornings. “Slebs” may now be viewed with contempt as much as admiration. In the past year, however, misfortune has transformed a few from simple fair game into actual people, which is a very different thing entirely.
As a result, the guiltless business of laughing our heads off at them or marvelling at their bad taste has begun to change, and that’s big news for the big business that’s built on celebrities – which many of our clients are currently trading in. We’re calling this trend Celebethics.
The word celebrity used to mean someone who is celebrated. In the twentieth century, this included people such as Marilyn Monroe, and in the 1920s, the silent movie star Rudolf Valentino, whose funeral procession through the streets of New York was attended by 100,000 fans.
The Beatles. Muhammad Ali. Not so much celebrated as worshipped for their abilities and probably because of the sheer economic distance of their lives from the lives of everybody else. Such people seemed absolutely superhuman.
Exposure and Rumour
With rare exceptions, the private lives of the original celebrities remained just that. Film studios managed the lives of their stars, suppressing news of drug addictions, affairs and freakouts, and the culture of celebrity was different. Aside from rumours and the occasional scandal, your bigtime celebrity was generally free to go about drugging, sexing and freaking fairly unmolested.
Unlike Stan Collymore, Muhammad Ali would not have been caught “dogging” by two Sun reporters “at a car park a few miles from the luxury home in Cannock, Staffordshire, that he shares with his 26-year-old wife, Estelle, and their daughter” (The Sun, 5/3/2004).
Much in the lives of celebrities that would once have remained rumour is now documented fact.
From scandals to “whatever"
However, all that documented fact has desensitised us. For example, in 1963 the Tory minister John Profumo was revealed to be having an affair with a prostitute. A massive scandal resulted in his resignation, and Profumo apparently spent the rest of his life trying to atone for his crime by charitable works.
As late as the 80s, allegations of adultery were scandalous, with Jeffrey Archer taking £500,000 in damages from the Daily Star. Now such allegations are commonplace.
Fast forward to today, when exposure of celebrities private lives seems to be almost total. Gawker.com tracks the movements of celebrities on Manhattan streets.
Everyday people who make it onto reality TV become celebrities for nothing else. Most of these so-called real-people celebrities, and even more accomplished examples, seem to have become weirdoes of one kind or another. They go drugging and sexing alright, and we pretty much expect them to.
It’s got to the point that Richard Pryor’s cocaine addiction would be small news now. There’s very little scandal in drugs and sex now – they’re still news, but in a debased currency. Oversupply has occurred.
Victims are human: media gets a conscience
Out of all of these “slebs”, though, it’s when they freak out or are in very serious trouble that the merry-go-round seems to come to a halt. Amy Winehouse and Britney Spears have been photographed in severe distress this year, and Britney was hospitalised.
Aside from the retiring paparazzo, there have been other backlashes. No-holds gossip website Holy Moly recently sympathised with Jordan, who has a severely disabled son. Shilpa Shetty was seen as the victim of prejudice on Celebrity Big Brother.
Genuine troubles mean such people are not weirdoes anymore – they become real people with human troubles and traumas that aren’t part of some “sleb” bargain with the devil. For the first time, “slebs” are the subject of sympathy.
Brands that use celebrities will need to pay extra care to exactly how they use them. The question also needs to be asked, if Channel 4 are willing to kill Celebrity Big Brother, does that mean that this weird caste of people we hold up to tear down is on the way out?
Could it be that sometime soon, celebrities will just be people who are actually celebrated, and the whipping boys and girls will be forgotten?
For feedback or comment, please contact Insight Manager, OMD UK, Michael Tully on Michael.Tully@omd.com
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