Feeling the aftershocks of this celebrity earthquake

No wonder we rush to rubberneck at the debris when harsh reality comes a-calling in Hollywood. It makes us feel that they might just be like us after all, writes Clodagh Finn
Feeling the aftershocks of this celebrity earthquake

YOU couldn’t make it up. Just minutes after news broke that Angelina Jolie was filing for divorce from Brad Pitt, the US Geological Survey detected a small earthquake near Los Angeles.

“The two incidents were unrelated,” CNN Entertainment reported wryly.

But of course that’s not true. The gods must surely have aligned the tectonic plates to ensure the real earthquake would come hot on the heels of the metaphorical one, an inspired act to underline the seismic shift that had just taken place.

Make no mistake about it; the celebrity ground has truly moved under our feet. And more’s the pity, because now we’re going to be suffering the aftershocks of the disintegration of Brangelina for months to come.

There were new allegations yesterday of bad behaviour and bust-ups under breathless headlines that have turned us all into disaster vultures, poised to pick over the carcass of a once-golden relationship.

Prepare yourself for an endless discussion of the ins and out of a relationship that came to symbolise so much, from true love and the spirit of humanitarianism to parenting and acting. And all of it straining under the lingering shadow of betrayal. (What was that Jennifer Aniston said? ‘Groom Raider’ — her pet name for Angelina, apparently — was never right for Brad?) If Brangelina didn’t actually exist, we would have made them up. They are gold-standard celebrity material that do exactly what the stars are supposed to do — inspire, entertain, frustrate, intrigue, horrify.

Though celebrity worship goes much deeper than that. Writer Fay Weldon had a point when she said that celebrities were the modern equivalent of saints. “They perform the same function. Human nature remains what it is, but takes different forms,” she said.

Down through the centuries, the veneration of saints was a source of consolation, power and hope in much the same way that celebrity worship works today.

The country is dotted with places of pilgrimage that attracted hundreds, sometimes thousands, of pilgrims to pay homage in gatherings that must have been like a sacred version of a rock concert.

Saints came with all the trappings of fame too — images, relics, holy wells associated with their intersession. In other words, vehicles through which ordinary people felt they could ‘touch’ their exalted ones.

When you look at how images and paraphernalia — from pop star T-shirts to celeb-inspired fashions — continue to feature, it’s tempting to conclude that very little has changed. We still have a need to look to a higher version of ourselves — or an imagined version of it — for inspiration.

There probably isn’t a better example of how we have constructed celeb sainthood than Mother Teresa. She is a real saint and an A-list celebrity. The fact that there is a touch of controversy to her back story, adds to the heady mix.

But there’s more to the celebrity story. In the interests of true research, I did a straw poll among a few celeb-savvy though cynical pals. When asked why they thought celebrity worship has endured, here’s what they said: Friend number one: “Celebrities exist so that we can eat them alive.” Friend number two: “They are fodder for the feeding frenzy.” Friend number three: “They function to offer imaginary solutions to real contradictions.”

Wise words from friend #3 whose thesis echoes film critic Richard Dyer’s star theory which, in essence, points out that celebs are constructed commodities designed to make money.

They often represent an ideology too. Celebrity humanitarianism, for instance, has embraced many big names — Angelina, Bono, Bob Geldof, Madonna —though you have to wonder if they have made any difference to the people they are purporting to help.

That, however, doesn’t really concern the rest of us. We are too busy trying to glean a little insider knowledge so that we can cosy up to the stars before turning on them when they fall at one of the hurdles put in their path.

Take poor Marilyn Monroe, whose impossible image was constructed on the uneasy marriage of innocence and sexuality. How she died continues to inspire conspiracy theories, but there’s no doubt whatsoever that she was hounded during her short lifetime.

Some stars, such as Greta Garbo, managed to sequester themselves away from the glare of public attention, though that is nigh impossible in these days of social media and paparazzi long lenses.

Technology has radically altered the celebrity landscape. The advent of reality TV and the democratisation of the internet has opened up fame to the very masses who have worshipped at its altar for so long.

Never in the field of human entertainment has so much fame been so accessible to so many (with apologies to Winston Churchill).

If Andy Warhol were around today, he would be forced to revise upwards his famous prediction that “in the future, everyone will have their 15 minutes of fame”.

All you need for a certain amount of fame/notoriety these days is a Facebook page and a will to post.

Though, as we know only too well, all celebrities are not created equal. We have, cruelly perhaps, introduced a ranking system from A to Z to rate the ‘who’s who’ of the modern world.

In a way that’s a good thing because, in truth, all extraordinary people have something ordinary about them just as all ordinary folk have a touch of genius. That’s the essence of the star paradox; it seduces us by revealing a flash of vulnerability in those who lead lives of impossible good fortune in their ivory towers. No wonder we rush to rubberneck at the debris when harsh reality comes a-calling in Hollywood. It makes us feel that they might just be like us after all.

Although Angelina and Brad, with their millions and their fame and their exotically named children are not really like the rest of us, they do deserve the one thing the rest of us might want right now: privacy.

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