Posts Tagged ‘celebrity’

Ed, Farrah, Michael, Billy (Mays) and soon, Walter: we mourn the deaths of these celebrities as if they are old friends or family. In the midst of the latest round of grieving, it occurs to some of us to ask how it is that we take so personally the passing of people we don’t really know.

I have some experience with what I call “public death”: my husband was a 9/11 victim and although he wasn’t a cultural icon in the “traditional” sense, he surely became something symbolic to large numbers of strangers. His name was listed at hundreds of memorials, on billboards, on websites, even on the side of a charter bus I saw. He was remembered in speeches and articles, sometimes specifically by name, though he was simply a back-office worker who was doing his job. Members of an Atlanta church “adopted” my husband as a victim for whom they would pray; so did a group of schoolchildren in Germany. I heard from people who used to know Jim, my husband, or barely knew him, or never knew him. NY911-0104 70.105All felt the loss terribly and personally.

Of course 9/11 was a tragedy of gigantic proportions and involved an unexpected attack that threatened us all. In fact, tragic deaths, whether they involve tsunamis or high school shootings are terrifying because they are so random. We feel the need to respond, reach out, and relate to each other.

Really, though any death is random, when you think about it; that’s what really frightens us, I imagine. Even when we’re expecting it and think we’re prepared for it, it feels sudden and it certainly feels final. And when we’re not prepared, it shoves our own morality right in front of us. Cultural icons that die often represent or recall a particular and perhaps more innocent or happier time and in mourning them, we mourn our own life losses.

That may explain why we seem to pick certain people to mourn and not others. Do we relate more to the loss of a pop star or TV fantasy than we do to starving children aroud the world? I hope not; I suspect it’s a question of scale and familiarity. That doesn’t make it right.

There’s one more thing and that is that we humans seem to need to participate in the (for lack of a better word) pageantry of a public mourning process. Perhaps we find immersing ourselves in the deaths of others is cathartic; a “safe” way to mourn for ourselves. As I noted in an op-ed piece I wrote after the Virginia Tech shootings, our involvement can veer dangerously into a sort of collective therapy session that becomes more about our need to comfort ourselves than about comforting or empathizing with others.VA Tech

This is all perfectly understandable. I do wish we could find a way to avoid the spectacle that accompanies dying in public (although something tells me celebrities might appreciate the posthumous attention). I’d like to see us instead go silent a minute. In the space that opens up, we can send out our thoughts and prayers for those who are gone and quietly contemplate our shared humanity.

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I was truly upset to learn of the death of moderator and commentator Tim Russert. Upset because it was sudden, because he was relatively young and because he felt like a valuable and trusted friend.

Russert, NBC’s Washington bureau chief and “Meet the Press” moderator was passionate about this year’s Presidential campaign and his excitement was contagious. I swear the man was bringing sexy back – sexy elections, where it felt “cool” to vote, to argue, to take part in debates and to get involved. Whether he was interviewing, moderating or analyzing, he managed to do so without any of the “snarky-ness” I associate with so many of today’s so-called political pundits. He didn’t suck up and he didn’t put down. He just asked really good questions.

Although there was plenty of information on Russert to be found online, if you strayed too far from MSNBC, you’d be swamped with stories about George Clooney’s breakup, Denise Richards’ feud with ex Charlie Sheehan or Tom Cruise’s new feud, whatever that’s about. Yes, that’s the way the big providers lay out their online “news” sites  – political news here, showbiz news there, sports in that other column – but to me it’s another sharp reminder that we Americans still have a long way to go in prioritizing our priorities.

“Damn,” said a good friend of mine of Russert’s death. “We’ve lost another voice of reason.”

Well said.

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It’s normal to be disheartened by the death of someone young or in the prime of life. It’s also “normal” these days to be especially affected when the person in question is a star or public persona. These are people whose faces we see regularly, whose lives we scrutinize and who we feel we know. For younger people who are just one video clip away from YouTube celebrity themselves, the death of Heath Ledger a few days ago was on the order of the loss of a family member or close friend. In any instance, it’s major news.

The death of a twenty-eight-year-old actor who had also demonstrated  prodigious talent and heart seems like a terrible waste. Whatever might have caused lethal harm, he apparently felt the need to have anti-anxiety medicine and sleep medicine at the ready. “I can’t understand how stressed out he must have been,” commented a young friend of mine earlier today, “although I guess that being a celebrity sucks.” Well let’s put it this way; it doesn’t always help.

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Leona Helmsley, who died yesterday, was perfectly in sync with her times. So was her developer husband Harry Helmsley, who, as Gail Collins reports, once answered her question about whether he might devote his later life to good deeds by asking ““What the hell would I want to do that for?” For you kids out there, Leona and Harry ruled during the Eighties, which was the decade of “Dynasty,” “Dallas,” Michael Milken and Madonna in her incarnation as the Material Girl. One terrifically popular movie was “Wall Street”, in which Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko declared, “Greed is good.” During that time, I was a busy but financially struggling young musician. Everyone seemed to be more successful. I wrote a song about it, called “Downwardly Mobile”:

Some folks is on the fast track
I’m still tying my running shoes
Everybody’s got a piece of the good life
I just got the blues
I’m downwardly mobile…

© 1987 all rights reserved

Self-indulgent? Absolutely but then, so was the era, which begs the question: has anything changed? I mean, today we lust after excess even as we pretend to condemn it, whether it’s our obsession with minor talents masquerading as major celebrities, our quest for the next new must-have gadget, or our race to be or have the biggest, best, most winning whatever. Not only does it seem as if “everyone’s a critic” but also a pundit, a taste-maker, an analyst, a producer, a writer, a director, a star. This is, I suppose, the consequence of a truly democratic society. And given how worried Americans seem to be about nearly everything despite our relative good fortune, a little confidence is probably a helpful counterbalance. There does seem to be more interest in politics, in process, in the world at large and in some long-suffering places in particular. The rich are attracting attention to their causes, whether they concern the environment, abused animals or victims of starvation, genocide and natural disasters. Our candidates are more knowledgeable; this time around they seem to know not only the names of the world leaders with whom they interact but also the longitude and latitude of certain regions in the mountains of Afghanistan or the deserts of Iraq. In fact, even though we apparently still need to keep up with the Jones (or the Vinjays or the Ramirezs), we also seem to recognize that there’s an entire world out there. That’s a hopeful sign, as is the fact that shoulder pads have not made a comeback.

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I am amazed that getting into prison is becoming so de rigeur it’s downright fashionable. I mean, there was Nicole Richie, mulling over her own impending incarceration on David Letterman, giggling that “everyone goes to jail.” Maybe she was nervous. Or maybe she was resorting to a variation of the “everyone’s doing it” line of reasoning, which usually covers everything from hard partying among the privileged set to false testimony in front of this or that agency or committee. But I don’t think the young celebs are as blase about getting locked up as they pretend to be, notwithstanding the glamorous mug shot of Paris Hilton. Sure, jail time can revive a fading career but the food is awful and there are no cell phones. That may be why Ms. Hilton was released to her home this morning due to an “unspecified medical condition” after serving only three days of her sentence. According to an Associated Press article, “her new lockup is a four-bedroom, three-bathroom, Spanish-style home on .14 acres above the Sunset Strip.” Bummer.

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I was drinking my daily does of V-8 juice (man, that’s good) and reading about further fallout from the Imus foot-in-mouth story. A few television and radio journalists and talk show hosts have called on hip-hop performers, promoters and producers to avoid three especially inflammatory words (two sexist and one racist). Some performers have responded that the lyrics are art or maybe they’re terms of affection. I appreciate the gesture but let’s face it: We live in a culture that celebrates the art of the insult. From shock radio to blog warfare to the public humiliation of reality contests with at least one nasty judge (usually British), it’s all cruel and crude and disgusting and it’s making someone a boatload of money because we’re buying it. If we’re just figuring that out, maybe we all shoulda had a V-8.

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