In eighty years, less than the time some people live, fame in the twentieth century had paralleled the history of radioactivity, which had started off as a glow in the night in Madame Curie’s backyard laboratory, gone through an unfortunate phase when it destroyed the lives of every human being it could reach, and ended up so well understood that if you followed the handbook you could run a power station with it. The force of fame, in all its poisonous radiance, had been tamed into something almost friendly.
Or so it appeared. At first nothing could appear more friendly than Ronald Reagan unless it started shaking hands with the surrounding scenery. Reagan was America’s way back to the future. The world’s leading power had felt its power slipping. Reagan’s mere appearance promised to put things back the way they used to be, when Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper went to Washington, when John Wayne was worth a whole Japanese regiment, when Henry Fonda was President. And Reagan wouldn’t be thrown by all the media attention. Reagan was used to fame. Presenting an image had been his life. Reagan, or the men behind him, offered simplicity. Reagan looked, talked and walked like an old-time movie hero who whipped the heavies in the last reel and got the girl.
He was an old-time movie hero. Now that political campaigning had moved almost completely to television, it depended on sound bites – a few phrases recited parrot fashion. Reagan was good at that, because he had been doing it since the days when it was called dialogue. Decades had gone by, but Reagan’s delivery, like the colour of his hair, was miraculously unaltered. If anything, he had increased his capacity to sound perfectly sincere while saying in a relaxed manner something that he had memorized only with difficulty.
Some said that there was nothing else in Reagan’s head except scraps of dialogue from old movies and commercials. They might have been right, but they were missing the point. Reagan’s Presidency might be mainly a performance, it might not add up to anything more than making people feel good, but if his opponents poured all their efforts into mocking him, they were calling the majority of the population suckers. And anyway, there was more to him, or more behind him, than that. Reagan’s free market message might be a recipe for fraudsters to get rich quick. But the other message, the one about the strong state that looked after the helpless, had no heroes left to represent it, partly because not enough people believed it.
Even if Reagan was all fame and nothing else, for now that was enough. There was no man in America to match him. The only man to match him was in Britain, and she was a woman. Margaret Thatcher carried on with all the confidence of Winston Churchill minus the cigar, drumming up memories of a Britain with a seat at the top table. Promising her country that it could rebuild itself, she offered an example by rebuilding herself. At the start she had the hair, teeth and voice of a woman who looked her age. Following the advice of carefully chosen image experts, she soon had the hair, teeth and voice of someone much younger.
Focusing all the attention on herself, she forced the Opposition into the fatal mistake of making personal attacks on her. It was a mistake because it was too easy. By upstaged males in her own party she was called Attila the Hen and a lot of other things less kind. For the satirists she would have been a sitting duck if she hadn’t moved so fast. But she absorbed scorn like sunlight and photosynthesized it into energy. No parody by others could match her supremely confident self-parody of vim, decisiveness and bustle. Rumours that Queen Elizabeth II looked forward to her weekly visit from Mrs Thatcher like a visit to the dentist gained weight during the war over the Falkland Islands, when Mrs Thatcher started sounding like Queen Elizabeth I. Mrs Thatcher was born for fame, and the only question was whether her own country was a big enough stage to contain her.
The question was answered when she formed a rapport with Ronald Reagan that was the biggest transatlantic romance since Clark Gable embraced Vivien Leigh. When Mrs Thatcher visited Reagan in America, he announced to the world that her espousal of his free market principles was the greatest honour he could have. When Reagan visited Britain, she voiced the same sentiments about him. But the world knew that their relationship went beyond the mutual admiration of two dedicated supply-side economists. Ronnie and Maggie were two stars together, bathing in each other’s glow.
Sylvester Stallone acted the part of Reagan’s favourite dream – restored pride in America. Stallone started playing the part before Reagan came to power, when he created the role of Rocky, the boxing has-been who refused to lie down, the bum who came back. With Reagan safely installed in the White House Rocky came back again, in Rocky II and Rocky III, not to mention Rocky IV, proving over and over that in Reagan’s rediscovered America a man didn’t need welfare or any of that sissy stuff, that if he could just keep wearing down his opponent’s fist by hitting it with his face he could make it on his own. But Stallone wasn’t just a boxer with restored pride. In First Blood he established a whole new persona as a Vietnam veteran with restored pride. Rambo came back again in Rambo II, Rambo III, not to mention Rambo IV, proving over and over that the man on his own could still stand up to the bad guys as long as he had the right gun, grenades, rocket-launcher and attack helicopter. The way Stallone told it, Vietnam and any other mild overseas embarrassments were really victories, because they gave America the chance to rediscover its true character as a country where an individual could come back from defeat and achieve anything.
Stallone the man was living proof that an American could become his dream. Not content with the body nature had given him, he replaced it with a new one combining all the most impressive styling features of a 1950s Detroit car. He discovered within himself the ability to be a painter, and developed it as he had worked on his pecs and lats. A living, bulging embodiment of Reagan’s philosophy, Stallone identified power with the individual will. He was a one-man movement, attracting mass adulation because he didn’t seem to need it, comfortably ridiculous because he didn’t care who laughed. He was a comic-book hero. But the comic was read by adults – the kind of adults who got excited by a heavy-calibre, belt-fed phallic symbol. They weren’t just American. Stallone’s audience covered the planet. He was the new Bruce Lee, living out the fantasies of the helpless with all the power of American technology sticking out of his trousers.
J.R. Ewing’s reign as the King of Dallas reached its apotheosis under Reagan. Now that corrupt America was passé and straight-arrow America was back in business, it was time for J.R. to get his. The shooting of J.R. was announced in advance all over the world. It was fictional, but it made news like fact. Even Britain’s staid BBC ran a teaser during the evening news. The line between fact and fiction had become blurred and it was fame that did the blurring. J.R. was no longer an actor, he was a real man. He was more than that, he was a Messiah. He rose from the dead and continued with the next series, like a President going into his next term. Casual violence had been domesticated into a cartoon. It would have been good if things could have stayed that way. But reality was still there, and in reality someone shot John Lennon.
The assassin was a fan who had asked Lennon to autograph his Double Fantasy album only a few hours before. Mark Chapman thought he was John Lennon, the real John Lennon, the one who had not sold out. Lennon, who had come to New York to escape the madness of the Beatles’ fame, had walked right back into it and it was holding a gun. The Lennon killing threw a lasting scare into every famous entertainer in America. Sudden death from a criminal had been understood since Lindbergh. Sudden death from a fan meant that fame was a cage you could never get out of. The best you could do was turn it into an electrified fence.
The growing suspicion that American fandom could be fatal became a certainty when Ronald Reagan himself got shot. This time the perpetrator wasn’t a fan of the victim. John Hinckley was a fan of the film star Jodie Foster and he did it to impress her. He doubled her fame by doing so, but she would willingly have had it halved again. She was Hinckley’s victim as surely as Reagan was. Her recovery was long and slow, and involved a strict ban on discussing the subject in interviews. Reagan’s recovery was more rapid, as if he had played this scene before. Getting shot had given him a good chance to reform America’s gun laws, but he didn’t try. Either he was in the pocket of the National Rifle Association, or else he was sustained by his faith that if the good guy gets shot he recovers to get the girl. In hospital he told his wife Nancy: ‘Honey, I forgot to duck.’ It was a line out of an old movie, so he had no trouble getting it right again when interviewers asked him to repeat it.
Britain’s Prince of Wales chose a bride. When the Three Kings of Orient visited the infant Christ in the manger it rated a few paragraphs in the Bible. For the piercingly sweet but virtually monosyllabic Lady Diana Spencer the media coverage was total and immediate, converting her from country-house obscurity to global omnipresence in twenty-four hours. The marriage was a real event, between a real heir to a real throne and a real young woman – a really young woman. But the wedding was a media event. Though it was immensely successful, a question remained: could an institution like royalty live by the rules of the showbusiness spectacular, especially since this one had no understudies? The Prince of Wales had fortunately been trained for the part, although judging from what happened to the previous Prince of Wales there was no guarantee that the training manual was a helpful guide. But the Princess of Wales had to do the whole thing without a single rehearsal. All the world’s agony aunts combined to assure her that if she stayed natural she would be OK. She was the biggest female film star in the world but she didn’t have to act. All she had to do was be. Not even the most hardened cynic was tactless enough to point out that the almost inevitable consequence of the whole world’s media going bananas was that the person they went bananas about went bananas too.
This was the time when older people throughout the world became aware of Michael Jackson. Young people had been aware of him for most of their tiny lives. But their parents had never known his name except perhaps as the junior member of the Jackson Five, a Tamla Motown singing group of a previous era. Even in those days Michael stood out among his older siblings, to the extent that when the famous Tamla solo singer Diana Ross appeared on the same show she paid him the generous tribute of pushing him aside when he threatened to be too appealing.
The Jackson Four having vanished into history, the Jackson One was young Michael. One of his first incarnations was as a cartoon character, who took on independent life under the name Michael Jackson. Meanwhile the real Michael Jackson, if such a person could be said to exist, transformed himself into the tall, thin, miraculously flexible owner of a Mickey Mouse voice, the undivided loyalty of a colossal worldwide audience and many hundreds of millions of dollars. Most of those hundreds of millions of dollars came out of parents’ pockets so that their children could own the video of Jackson’s song ‘Thriller’, in which the small child who had transformed himself into a tall child further transformed himself into a werewolf.
The teenagers who watched Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ were not rebels. They were the consumer end of a global marketing operation and content to be so. Michael Jackson the organization completed the pop music industry’s transformation from a Klondike concept depending on chancy hits into a steady high-volume supplier of a single artist’s lifetime output. To keep his vast public plugged into the circuit, Michael Jackson the person went on transforming himself. He wore various costumes. He had plastic surgery to make his features look more Caucasian. For Americans of Afro ethnic extraction who had been fighting for acceptance of the idea that the last thing blacks should do was copy a white physical model, this looked like a setback. But a contrary school of thought held that Michael Jackson merely wanted to look like his sister, LaToya Jackson. Pursuing one or the other of these ends or perhaps both, Jackson went on having plastic surgery. He wasn’t content with Caucasian features, he wanted comic-book Caucasian features. It wasn’t enough to be white, he wanted to be Snow White. He was creating his own reality, and it was a fantasy.
His home in Hollywood was a castle. He had an ape for an assistant, like Tarzan. Periodically he emerged to do concerts anywhere on the planet. But his main means of communication with the outside world was through commercials for Pepsi-Cola and videos promoted through the global MTV pop music network on which every video was really a commercial for the artist. Michael Jackson was an MTV mainstay, conjuring up a united world in which all the different creeds and colours had an equal right to appear as extras while the star sang the very message he had spent millions of dollars on plastic surgery to prove that he didn’t believe: ‘It don’t matter if you’re black or white.’ On any rational view, if Michael Jackson really believed what he was singing he would have left his face the way it was. But no one complained because everyone knew that the planet he inhabited wasn’t really this one at all: it was fame, a parallel universe, an infantile theme park, a magic kingdom.
The soap opera Dynasty was another magic kingdom, a Disneyland game reserve whose leading characters were human holograms. British actress Joan Collins played the bitchy Alexis. In real life Joan Collins had been a glamour queen in British movies, suffering from the usual problem that there were no glamorous British movies. Transferred to Hollywood, she had starred in a pair of semi-porn, fully-low-budget feature films before hitting it big as Alexis, after which she never looked back, although she often looked extraordinary, especially when her shoulder-pads kept moving in one direction while she went in another.
Her ritzy British accent was regarded as defining sophistication by American TV executives who either didn’t know she had been taught it at the J. Arthur Rank charm school or didn’t care. Collins played Alexis as a caricature of big operatic emotions, and soon found that the media expected her own life to be like that too. Popular newspapers splashed stories about her as if she was Alexis, often omitting her real name. She obliged with a highly publicized emotional career featuring escorts just savvy enough to look unsurprised at being suddenly elevated above the rank of truck driver. But the fuel that kept the Joan Collins off-screen uproar going was provided by the on-screen Alexis. Effortlessly surviving the regular mass write-out at the end of each season, she set the measure for Dynasty’s planned absurdity. The show was a theme park. People famous in the world outside came to visit and take their turn as monsters.
Henry Kissinger made an appearance. In an earlier existence he had helped Nixon do distinguished things in foreign policy, such as burning down Cambodia. Now he was proving that his celebrity was so undeniable it could survive some self-imposed satire. If it occurred to a few people that Kissinger was already a caricature long before he even appeared in Dynasty, those people weren’t watching. They weren’t watching when ex-President Gerald Ford came on either, proving that he was big enough to take it. Only a small man bothers to prove that he is big enough to take it, but that objection never came up. There were no awkward questions in the magic kingdom. Fame was a resort where you could go on holiday and never come back.
Fame in America was breeding monsters, but they were bred by genetic laws which the monsters themselves understood better all the time, until finally the first fully self-constructed superstar came crunching into frame: Arnold Schwarzenegger. As mentioned earlier, he wasn’t the first Austrian to be born with an urge to conquer the world. The difference was that Arnie knew how. His first move was to win the Mr Universe title. Like every previous Mr Universe, he looked like an apartment block in a posing pouch. But in the movie Pumping Iron he proved that he had his tongue in his cheek. The tongue in his cheek was hard to see among all his other bulges, but his trick of seeming to join in with the spectators’ amazement at how he looked got him an even bigger starring role as Conan the Barbarian. People who read dumb books about old swords loved him.
Physically, Arnie was in the same tradition as Steve Reeves and other old-style body-builder B-feature stars whose acting technique had been sustained precariously by over-developed lateral muscles. But Arnie wasn’t competing with them, he was up there alongside the other male stars with normal bodies. The Reaganite, Ramboesque ideal of perpetual self-reconstruction was wide open to parody. Arnie made a point of sharing the laughter. He was operating at two levels, as was his body, an organically grown original covered with an appliqué carapace of sculpted tofu. For his breakthrough film role he played himself: that is, an android, somebody someone had built – the Terminator.
And somebody had built him. He had. His brightest move of all was to let the media in on his secret. He made his career the story. When he went out to perform charitable works, such as promoting the Republican Party, he cultivated his gift for making jokes about himself before anyone else did. ‘Hello,’ he said, ‘I’m Conan the Republican.’ When TV pitch-person Maria Shriver of the Kennedy clan married him, it set the seal on the deal: new fame had risen to the same status as old fame. By sheer good management, in less than ten years a bad joke had turned himself into an American national symbol, beaming his smile to the world like a male Statue of Liberty.
The small Italian female version of the large Austrian male Statue of Liberty was called Madonna. Actually she was called Madonna Louise Ciccone, but in her burning ambition for universal fame she didn’t want to rule out the large section of her potential audience that might have trouble remembering more than one name. Another good reason for calling herself Madonna was that she too was engaged in the miracle of virgin birth, although in her case the miraculous human being she was giving birth to was herself.
Considering what she had to work with, she did an amazing job. She danced better than she looked and sang better than she danced and she could only just sing. But she was a world expert on twentieth-century fame. Realizing that someone famous was essentially a mystery everyone knew about, she combined rarity value with total market saturation by always making her videos more risqué than ordinary TV could carry. She earned extra publicity for being censored and so constantly added to her first fame as the biggest pop star in the world. Her concerts were just the confirmation, a source for more Madonna stories.
Even as Madonna made her initial impact she was further transforming herself. Jane Fonda had already shown the way to female bodily perfection with a video aerobics course that gave her fame as a healer to add to her fame as a political figure which had grown out of her fame as an actress. The singing actress Cher had also proved that the female body didn’t have to stay the way it was, but could be refurbished, rearranged, and even torn down in some areas to be added on to somewhere else. Madonna absorbed the lessons of these pioneers and added one more example: Arnold Schwarzenegger. After a heavy course of training in the gymnasium she emerged with a new body on any part of which you could strike a match, although it looked as if it might be wise to get her permission first.
But transforming herself into a new self was only one more beginning in a career that saw every end as a new start. Madonna wasn’t content to be famous for what she could do. She wanted to be famous for what other people had done as well. In rapid succession she transformed herself into all the other famous women of the century, incorporating their images into her own. She was a one-woman hall of fame, a walking museum, her only originality to borrow the originality of others. Critics who said she didn’t belong with Garbo or Dietrich or Monroe were just showing their age. They were remembering the past. Madonna was taking it over on behalf of those who didn’t remember it. With her, fame was the only reality. No revelation about her private life could embarrass her because she made all the revelations herself. She had no private life. It was all public. It went straight to video. In her film In Bed with Madonna, Warren Beatty – whose love affair with her had miraculously lasted exactly long enough to garner the publicity that helped save his tediously pretty blockbuster Dick Tracy from financial catastrophe – made a personal appearance to point out to her that she wasn’t alive except on camera. Since Beatty had at least tried to keep himself to himself his remark had some edge, but Madonna, as if to prove his point, left it in the film. It made her more interesting, and she knew that a moment of apparent embarrassment couldn’t hurt her because it was part of her story. She was so far beyond scandal that she welcomed it as light relief.
Scandal hit Ronald Reagan too, but it didn’t hurt him either. News broke about a complicated illegal deal to trade arms for hostages in Iran and siphon the money to the Contras in Nicaragua. Though a cartoon character called Colonel Oliver North obligingly took the fall, many said that Ronald Reagan was the true culprit because he must have known. But they were the same people who had already made Reagan famous for not knowing anything. They couldn’t have it both ways. So all Reagan had to do was look as vague as usual and he was invulnerable. Reagan’s fame for vagueness worked like a suit of armour as he marched triumphantly on. The number of people who believed what he said had decreased, but his popularity had increased.
Scandal in the eighties became an industry. It raked up muck about people in the past as well as in the present. All the facts came out about the late President Kennedy’s fondness for attractive women. The stories might have given yet more pain to the survivors among his tragedy-stricken family, but few thought him any the less clever or charming. All the facts came out about the late Grace Kelly’s fondness for attractive men. The stories might have given yet more pain to the tragedy-stricken royal family of Monaco, but few thought her any the less regal or elegant. Scandal had become part of fame’s price. You couldn’t even call it scandal any more – it was just coverage. A book about Frank Sinatra dwelt on his supposed Mafia connections, as if people were going to throw away their copy of Songs for Swinging Lovers just because Sinatra had once been seen in an Italian restaurant with a few men in silk suits who took their holidays in Sicily.
The real story was that if fame was already there, bad publicity could only feed it. In the all-star soap opera that fame had become, it was hard to change the audience’s mind about any of the characters once they were established. Once they were in, they were in for life – and death. Rock Hudson, a truck driver turned film star, had been famous in the sixties as a strong, solid man of integrity who frequently made love to Doris Day. When he died of Aids in the eighties, it became blatantly clear that he had never been making love to Doris Day at all, but he was famous all over again as a strong, solid man of integrity who had bravely faced his fate. And when Liberace died from the same cause all those mothers loved him no less. The crusade against Aids needed celebrity heroes – a commodity which every good cause in the eighties went in search of an usually found.
The Live Aid concert had begun the fashion for calling in famous names to deal with world catastrophes. With thousands of people dying of hunger in Ethiopia, the Irish pop singer Bob Geldof confronted the problem by staging a worldwide satellite-linked all-star concert to raise money. His message was admirably devoid of the usual showbusiness schmaltz. ‘Give us your money,’ he said, sometimes varying the message by saying, ‘Give us your money now.’ Though some cynics in the pop press tried to suggest that Geldof had organized the event to revitalize his flagging career, there could be no serious doubt that he was acting from the heart. He gave the project a lot more than just his time. For some of the other stars involved, however, the question was bound to arise of whether donating their time cost them as much as it cost their millions of anonymous fans to donate their money, especially when the publicity generated by the event was so great that any star who participated got a year’s worth of exposure in a single night. Geldof himself was uneasily aware of this problem, but most of his fellow stars, like most of the audience, revelled in this exciting new development by which the unreal world of fame paid its tribute to the real world of suffering and reaped the reward with an inner glow to match the outer glow.
Celebrity concerts for political causes became established as a regular feature on a global scale: free Nelson Mandela, send condoms to India, save the baby seals in the rainforest. The sixties’ dream of playtime politics had at last come true. Fame had developed into an ecology of its own, sustainable without cost: the world as a playground, a kindergarten. Showbiz stars were encouraged in the belief that they had a power beyond governments. Merely by doing their usual showbiz thing on a bigger stage than ever, celebrities in the West became political figures.
Political figures in the East became celebrities in the West. It started in Poland with Lech Walesa, the trade union leader who began by challenging the power of the ruling Communist Party and ended up by toppling it. He accomplished this historic feat less by persuasion than by example, bravely defying the power of the state and so inspiring the people to do the same. This was something different from fame as it had come to be understood in the West. The people’s commitment to Walesa cost them something. They were risking all they had, up to and including their lives. But as Poland drew closer to the free world, Walesa couldn’t prevent his Eastern fame from turning into the Western kind. The point was rubbed in when Mrs Thatcher miraculously appeared beside him to confirm his position among the world’s great leaders.
The Russians didn’t come to crush the Polish rebellion because they were too busy with a rebellion of their own. Theirs was led by the man in power, Mikhail Gorbachev. For a Soviet leader he looked unusually like a human being. The wary pointed out that Stalin had looked quite benevolent too. They were right to be wary, but wrong about Gorbachev. Whether or not he was making his reforms merely to retain the party’s grip on power, nevertheless he made them, and the Soviet Union’s previously unimaginable disintegration began.
Gorbachev had done it by the uniqueness of his personality. Again it was something different from fame in the West, and again, as the new Soviet Union drew closer to the West, Gorbachev couldn’t stop his eastern fame from turning into the Western kind. He had a Western-style glamour-puss wife, Raisa. Wives of previous Soviet leaders had looked as if they went shopping holding live chickens for barter. Raisa carried a credit card. She was enough of a Jackie O for the Western press to hail Gorby as a Kennedy-style swinging statesman. The point was rubbed in when Mrs Thatcher appeared beside him to confirm his position among the world’s great leaders. Gorbachev had a fierce competitor for Mrs Thatcher’s affections in Ronald Reagan, but there was only one phrase for the way the two famous men got on. They got on famously. Incredulous observers said that although their double act looked like Bud Abbott and Lou Costello the real comparison was with Francis and his Talking Mule.
Once again Reagan’s fame for being clueless had misled the clever. Behind the fame was the reality, and the reality was Western society, which had left its challenger helpless to compete. The sophisticated world laughed when the suave Gorbachev and the bumbling Reagan met in Reykjavik, but it was there that Gorbachev, on behalf of the country that had led the world into revolution, finally gave up the struggle. He hadn’t surrendered to Reagan. He had surrendered to reality.
Twenty years before, Soviet tanks had put a stop to reform in Czechoslovakia. This time the tanks weren’t coming and Vaclav Havel was free to become what the world had never seen outside the dreams of classical philosophers: a poet king. Actually he was a playwright and had no interest in a crown, but that was just the quality which caught the world’s imagination. He searched himself for the slightest sign of self-glorification. If anybody would retain his sense of proportion, he would, even when faced with overwhelming proof of his new status. Mrs Thatcher appeared beside him to confirm his position among the world’s great leaders.
Havel, though duly honoured, placed more value in the approval of Mick Jagger. For twenty long years, Czech dissidents had played their old Rolling Stones albums in secret and dreamed of better days. For them, the Stones were famous for rebellion, for liberty, for the vigour of the untamed soul. Havel invited the Stones to give a concert in Prague. Before the concert, the statue of Stalin on the hill above the city was knocked down. It was replaced with a billboard featuring Mick Jagger’s tongue. The Czechs were right about the Stones. The Stones were what Eastern Europe needed. But it wasn’t because they were a good band. It was because they were good business. Jagger generously donated the takings of the Prague concert to Olga Havel’s charity in aid of her country’s myriad handicapped children neglected by the Communist regime. He could afford the gesture only because the Rolling Stones had spent the previous two decades assiduously learning to be capitalists. Jagger had unashamedly come to the point where he would make an in-house video urging sales staff to get out there and flog Stones merchandise. In the long term his revolutionary social ideal had turned out to be double-entry book-keeping.
In the Middle East the rise of Islamic fundamentalism offered powerful evidence that there could still be such a thing as a truly charismatic leader who wasn’t just there for the world’s entertainment and who couldn’t be tamed by a visit from Mrs Thatcher or Mick Jagger. The Ayatollah Khomeini was worshipped as a god by millions of people while he was still alive. When he died, the worship turned to frenzy. Right there on television for the whole world to watch, thousands of people tried to tear him out of his coffin. What they would have done with him had they succeeded was luckily not tested. This was no Rudolph Valentino-style funeral where the famous turned up to mourn their own mortality. This was fame taken back to its origins, in religious ecstasy. We in the West looked on in disbelief at the shocking spectacle of belief.
There was a world elsewhere, and it wasn’t under our control. Islamic fundamentalism condemned the writer Salman Rushdie to death for alleged blasphemy against the Prophet. Rushdie had to go into hiding in Britain, the country where he lived. Before the Fatwa was pronounced against him he was already a famous writer, but this was literary fame, fame among the discerning. After the Fatwa he became the most famous writer since Hemingway but it wasn’t his fame, it was another kind, one he would dearly have liked to be without. His name was a household word in millions of houses that once didn’t count but now did.
In Iraq, Saddam Hussein was a leader who used all the personality cult trappings of the old-style Marxist regimes but seemed to need little of the coercive apparatus because the people were crazy about him, no matter how crazy he might be himself. When he invaded Kuwait, the West sent General Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf to stop him. The Gulf War was a media event and Stormin’ Norman was dream casting for the lead, having apparently modelled his flamboyant persona on John Wayne, Rambo, Terminator II, Lethal Weapon III, Superman IV and Indiana Jones in The Temple of Doom. Wiseacres in the West found it easier to make jokes about him than to condemn Saddam. The marketable glamour of the West – that we knew about. We knew it had a bogus element built in. Our clumsy heroes were in on the gag. Real evil was too authentic, too vivid a reminder that even if the Cold War had been called off there were all these awkward little hot wars waiting to ensure that history wasn’t over, it was just warming up.
For seventy years, Lenin’s fame had been the wedge that kept the world divided. If his image now suddenly crumbled, it wasn’t because he had become symbolic. It was because for a long time symbolic had been all he was. There was noting behind him. The power and the will to compel the people to believe in what he represented were all gone. His fame was hollow.
In the West, fame looked hollow too, but we had the advantage of knowing that it was bound to look that way. More than ninety years of continuous development of the mechanisms of publicity had given us the twenty-four-hour fame spectacular. It was self-sustaining. The Japanese bought Hollywood, but the show went on just as before. It didn’t even need the American economy any more because it was part of the world economy. It was the most glamorous by-product of the new global information society, and we had come to understand it because the information came with it.
It was an international entertainment complex of electronic theme parks all staffed by people who looked like cartoons. The beautiful people were like cartoons of beautiful people. Julia Roberts had a cartoon mouth. Tom Cruise had cartoon teeth. Harrison Ford had a cartoon jaw. Mel Gibson had cartoon hair. The beautiful people fell in love with each other in various combinations. John loved Tatum. Tatum’s father Ryan loved Farrah. Woody loved Diane. Diane loved Warren. Warren loved Madonna for five minutes.
The rich people were like cartoons of rich people. Donald Trump looked as if he had been drawn by Gary Trudeau in a fit of anger. He made money, and made more money writing a book about how he made it. Ivana Trump had herself rebuilt to look like the kind of bimbo he was dumb enough to leave her for. She made money from the divorce, and made more money writing a book about how her husband lost money. Reality didn’t enter the equation at any point.
Fame was a sham, but it was our sham. It was a sham we couldn’t do without, a show we had to see. The best performers were the ones born for nothing else. Elizabeth Taylor went on and on giving her heart to progressively more obscure men, attracting more publicity for the wedding the more she kept the press at bay, until finally she married a construction worker and caused a world media sensation by shutting the reporters out entirely, so that they had to hang in the sky above like starving vultures. She had completed the process of transforming herself from a screen star who actually did something into a stage presence who simply was. She had become an essence. She had become a fragrance. She was Michael Jackson’s mother. She was the Fairy Godmother.
When Ronald Reagan came into office his detractors had to admit that he had charm. By the time he left it, his supporters could defend his conduct only by insisting that he had lost his memory. He had also lost most of America’s money. Yet he left the show just as popular as when he joined it, and fixed it for his understudy, George Bush, to take over the role. It looked as if fame had taken over from the facts.
It looked as if fame could conquer death. As the technology advanced to the stage where it could create any illusion, the whole twentieth century went on to video and the fast forward looked like a rewind. Famous people from then – Humphrey Bogart, Louis Armstrong – started to show up in commercials made now. It was a sort of eternal life, except that it was for the image and not the soul. If the real person might have objected, the real person wasn’t here. It looked as if the spectacle had wiped out the reality. But reality was still there. Fame could distort it but not destroy it. It did its own destroying. When one of Marlon Brando’s children went on trial for murder, the star had to come out of his Pacific island fortress and do what he had never had to do before: plead with the press. He begged them not to take it out on his children. Woody Allen, the model of self-questioning sanity, the famous man who had come nearest to reaping all the benefits of fame while staving off its drawbacks, suddenly found himself accused of child molestation by his de facto wife, thought to defend himself by proclaiming his love for her daughter, and thus inadvertently revealed to an astonished world that at some point he had fallen prey to a delusion – that he was a private citizen of Sweden.
The famous people were living human beings. Not even showbusiness could conceal that fact, and outside showbusiness it showed up with cruel clarity. Amateur actors who forgot their lines were savagely punished when they found that all the attention could not be switched off. The Royal Family was an institution the British had that the Americans hadn’t. But the Royal Family had let publicity into the Palace under the impression that it was the same as daylight, and the result was all the razzle-dazzle of the international media circus with none of the capacity to engineer the outcome. There was no way back to secrecy. There was nowhere to run. If the Prince of Wales had gone to the moon there would have been reporters waiting. If the Princess of Wales had gone to a nunnery the Mother Superior would have been Oprah Winfrey. The two most privileged people in the world were human sacrifices, like those randomly chosen youngsters the Aztecs would treat as royalty for a few nights, and then cut out their hearts. Their best hope was that we would understand.
And by and large we did. Ninety years before, it would have been more of a mystery. But with only a few years of the twentieth century left to run, the workings of fame had become so immense, so dazzling and so noisy that they stood revealed for all to see. Fame is a luminous and therefore limited version of the world, but without it we couldn’t cope with the world’s complexity. We all need a map, and all maps are drastic simplifications. To quarrel with them on that account is pointless. What we should be concerned with is whether the map is a good one and leads to the treasure, which is the reasonable truth.
Ninety-nine percent of all the scientists who have ever lived have been alive in the twentieth century. We can’t remember them all, but we all need to know the name of at least one person who can comprehend what we can’t. It might as well be Einstein, who really did have the all-embracing, generous world view to match his creative brilliance. We all need to know the name of at least one person who can sing the way we can’t. It might as well be Pavarotti, who really does sing for the love of life. We all need to know the name of at least one person who is good the way we aren’t. It might as well be Mother Teresa, who really isn’t after that recording contract. It does us no harm that Hitler is our ready symbol of a man more evil than we are, Lindbergh of a man more brave, the young Marlon Brando of a man more beautiful. It does us good. The famous help us live. What they do, they do for us. Fame is what we do to them. We turn them into characters and put them in a show, a modern version of the passion play. The ones we respect burn like angels. The ones who ask for worship burn like witches. Fame, like happiness, ruins anyone who pursues it for its own sake, and exalts only those who have proper work to do.
Those who are famous have their importance only to the extent that they help give meaning to the lives of those who aren’t. Ordinary life isn’t just the hardest kind to lead, it’s the best, and the famous people we like the most seem to tell us that by their way of staying human, as if there were a fallible, frail human being behind the glory – which there always is.