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Thoughts About Celebrity

It's a curse, basically. Except for Charles Nelson Reilly
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A few disconnected thoughts about the curse of celebrity in American life. This post was going somewhere when I started it, but, well, you know.

David French wrote a really good column the other day titled, “The Crisis Of Christian Celebrity.” He used the busting of hipster megachurch pastor Carl Lentz as an adulterer to launch a wider reflection on what celebrity does to pastors. He writes, in part:

The longer I live, the more I understand a verse from the book of Jeremiah: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick, who can understand it?” I also ponder the truth of C.S. Lewis’s definition of courage (you’ve heard me quote it before): “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.” (Emphasis added.)

I’ve known pastors who were absolutely convinced that they were faithful men—right until the moment when they made a “connection” with the attractive woman in the front pew. I’ve known Christian leaders who believed they were honest—right until the moment when honesty might harm their ministry. And I’ve known celebrities who believed they were humble—but who also somehow convinced themselves that God needs their ministry to accomplish His work on earth.

Moreover, the celebrity’s apparent talent and relevant success teach him to do the things he must not do: to trust himself, to believe that he is a person of virtue, to believe that he is important. This is particularly dangerous when talent and success almost always create both opportunity and motive for serious sin.

Celebrity carries with it a false blessing and a dangerous curse, and both work in their own ways to destroy men. The false blessing is that celebrity itself has its own charisma. You see this when people are in the presence of a famous man or woman. They act differently from the way they act around virtually anyone else. They laugh too loudly at jokes. They fix their eyes on the famous person. They listen, rapt, to every word. The air seems charged with a faint hint of electricity.

This reality is both exhilarating—it feeds the ego—and exhausting. There is no “normal” life even for those folks who are only “subculture famous.” They’re constantly, always reminded of their importance, and this importance not only makes illicit relationships feel possible (“look how he or she’s attracted to me”), the pressure of that importance creates its own sense of entitlement (“My happiness and pleasure are paramount.”)

And then, when the fall happens, the sense of importance virtually mandates the cover-up. (“Look at all the vital work we do. We cannot fail.”)

Read it all. It’s good. French is talking about Evangelicals, but there have been celebrity Catholic pastors who have fallen hard. At the moment, Father George Rutler is embroiled in a scandal, but he denies everything. The Manhattan district attorney’s office is investigating. I hope they are able to exonerate him, not because I am a particular fan of Rutler’s, but because I hate to see any man of God, whatever his church, fall like this. The PI involved with Rutler’s accuser is a dirty piece of work, so maybe Rutler is innocent. We’ll see.

I think religious celebrity is a bad deal all around. I remember standing in a crowd in the courtyard of the Latin Patriarchate, maybe twenty feet from a car in which Pope John Paul II sat in the passenger seat. The car wasn’t moving. I think he had just arrived in it from Bethlehem, and was waiting for security guards to come get him out of the car safely. The tension in the crowd was unbearable. Everyone there loved the Pope — me too, absolutely! (I was Catholic then, but I would have loved him anyway.) There was this strange electricity in the air, just like David French says. There we all were, only feet away from the most famous man in the world, and not just the most famous man, but for us Catholics, the Vicar of Christ. I shouted out his name, like everybody else, then immediately felt stupid. You’re a journalist, for God’s sake, maintain your composure. Then I shouted it again.

That’s the only time I can think of that I was really overcome in the presence of a celebrity. In my former job as a movie critic, I was able to interview a number of movie stars, but I can’t remember any of it. When you do that work for a living, you can see in the people (in the media, I mean) who just want to hump the legs of celebrities. It’s so cringey and embarrassing that it serves as a constant reminder not to be like them. They’re the ones whose blurbs always turned up on the posters of bad movies, giving it four stars.

On the other hand, is anybody fully immune? Some celebrities can be really nasty, but mostly they’re just there to do a job, and so are you. If they’re really good at their jobs, they make you, the reporter, feel special, like you’ve been let into their inner ring. It’s nonsense, of course, but even cynical reporters like to feel blessed by starshine. Once, when she was campaigning for an Oscar, Gwyneth Paltrow called me at home in New York, and ermagerd, I knew she was going to be calling, but I was still tongue-tied.

In his novel The Moviegoer, Walker Percy wrote about how the movies enchant places:

Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.

Celebrities do that too. It’s like they are hyperreal. When I was a little kid, like, kindergarten age, my mom stopped by the C&E Drive-In in our town to get ice cream cones for my sister and me. In the car next to us was a guy named Joe Morlon, a reporter for Channel 9, the CBS affiliate in Baton Rouge. I watched way too much TV back then, and thought TV was real life. I actually felt bad that we could not buy Dolly Madison brand snack cakes (“The neat-to-eat-treat”) in our town, despite the fact that they sponsored the Charlie Brown specials; it meant that we were Nowhere.

But ours was the kind of town where Joe Morlon would stop and order a hamburger. He blessed us with his presence. I couldn’t get over that.

A few years later, around 1980, Ralph Waite, TV’s Pa Walton, was passing through, and had a sandwich at a new cafe on Ferdinand Street. He left a signed photo. Pa freaking Walton, in our town! Those people across the river in New Roads, or across the creek in Jackson — Pa Walton never went to their town, now did he? Sucks to be you, New Roads and Clinton!

Fast-forward another decade and change. I am an adult, working as a journalist in Baton Rouge. I am at a Christmas party at a colleague’s house. In walks an older man who had been a veteran anchorman on local TV news, since I was a child. By then, I was too cool for school, and was the kind of smartypants who made fun of local TV celebrity, especially that anchorman, who carried himself like the head of the American delegation at Versailles. But … I kind of froze. I made a point not to go anywhere near him at that party, because come on, what was I going to say to him? I would be tongue-tied, and then I would hate myself for being tongue-tied, and cascade into an Albert-Brooks-in-Broadcast-News shame spiral. And that guy, that old dude, was probably just thinking, “Where can a guy get a J&B on the rocks in this place?”

A big problem with celebrity is that a lot of people think that being famous somehow confers wisdom and authority. Being on TV does weird things to people — not only the people who get on TV, but those who see them. Twenty years ago, when I was living in New York and would be on national cable news from time to time, I found out that people thought I must be rich. Only rich and famous people get on TV, they thought. Oh, if only! In my experience, most people who are part of that world understand that it’s all pasteboard and tinsel. The ones who take it for real life, and who believe they are good and wise because the people they hero-worship — other celebrities — pay attention to them, well, those are the ones who make complete fools of themselves. It comes, I think, from a deep insecurity, from a craving to be validated, to be “certified,” as Walker Percy called the feeling of seeing your town in the movies.

At some point, maybe a decade ago, I realized that I had gotten out of touch with modern celebrity. It started when I would go to the grocery store, and wouldn’t recognize the people on the covers of the magazines and the tabloids. Their names were a mystery to me. Still are. All those young stars look the same to me. Recently, I heard one of my kids say that one of their classmates had seen an “Instagram influencer” in town recently. An Instagram influencer. Golly. I’m so out of it. You know how they say the music that was popular when you were a teenager is the music that will be your favorite for the rest of your life? Well, in my mind, Harrison Ford is still a big deal, and though he is one year older than my mother, he is perpetually in his fifties. I’m basically frozen at the point where I stopped paying attention to pop culture.

Here is a link to C.S. Lewis’s great essay on “the Inner Ring.” It’s a warning about a great temptation nearly all of us face: the desire to be on the inside. Excerpt:

My main purpose in this address is simply to convince you that this desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action. It is one of the factors which go to make up the world as we know it—this whole pell-mell of struggle, competition, confusion, graft, disappointment and advertisement, and if it is one of the permanent mainsprings then you may be quite sure of this. Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care. That will be the natural thing—the life that will come to you of its own accord. Any other kind of life, if you lead it, will be the result of conscious and continuous effort. If you do nothing about it, if you drift with the stream, you will in fact be an “inner ringer.” I don’t say you’ll be a successful one; that’s as may be. But whether by pining and moping outside Rings that you can never enter, or by passing triumphantly further and further in—one way or the other you will be that kind of man.

I have already made it fairly clear that I think it better for you not to be that kind of man. But you may have an open mind on the question. I will therefore suggest two reasons for thinking as I do. It would be polite and charitable, and in view of your age reasonable too, to suppose that none of you is yet a scoundrel. On the other hand, by the mere law of averages (I am saying nothing against free will) it is almost certain that at least two or three of you before you die will have become something very like scoundrels. There must be in this room the makings of at least that number of unscrupulous, treacherous, ruthless egotists. The choice is still before you: and I hope you will not take my hard words about your possible future characters as a token of disrespect to your present characters.

And the prophecy I make is this. To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still—just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig—the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”—and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure—something “we always do.”

And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face—that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face—turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.

Read it all. The urge to be in the Inner Ring — boy, do I get that. But celebrity is not the same thing as power. People who worship celebrity assume that being famous makes on part of the Inner Ring. So if they happen to get famous themselves, however minor their fame, or live in social proximity to celebrities, however petty, they assume that they deserve to be there, and may end up worshipping their own celebrity or celebrity-adjacent status as self-validating. Carl Lentz probably thought that being Justin Bieber’s best friend made him the Reinhold Niebuhr of Pop Evangelicalism instead of a vain adulterous dirtbag with fancy friends and fancy glasses.

Nothing is sadder than the question posed indignantly, “Do you know who I am?” I first heard it when I was 17, on a flight back from Europe (my mom had won a trip in a church raffle, and sent me). I was seated near the back row, and heard a man from Louisiana arguing with a flight attendant, who kept telling him not to hang out near the galley.

“Do you know who I am?” the man huffed. I thought, wow, a real celebrity, I wonder who he is? I learned from their touchy dialogue that the supposed dignitary was a friend of the Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner’s, who had been leading a tour of Europe with his political supporters, and was seated up in first class. Here was this guy telling a Delta Airlines attendant on a flight to Atlanta from Brussels that she’d better back down, because he’s a friend of a provincial minister of agriculture. It’s a thing of beauty, if you look at it from a certain angle.