Celebrity Deaths






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Publication: The Antioch Review
Author: Harris, Daniel
Date published: October 1, 2011

In his classic study The King's Two Bodies, medievalist Ernst Kantorowicz maintained that, throughout the Middle Ages and well into the modern era, every sovereign had a real physical body, a mortal body subject to the indignities of disease and old age, and a symbolic, ceremonial body, the emblem of the body politic, an enduring, supernatural entity that was dressed in elaborate costumes and posed on resplendent thrones during important occasions of state. Access to the king's real body was restricted to his physicians, wives, and closest advisors, while his symbolic body was public property, constantly on display, a symbol as essential to the unity of the state as a flag or a national anthem.

Centuries later, members of the royalty aren't the only ones blessed with such Christ-like duality. Celebrities also have two bodies, one public, one private. The public body appears on red carpets in expensive designer dresses, pouting seductively for the camera, and the private one, courtesy of such controversial photographic agencies as X17, Scoopt, and Buzz Foto, is invariably exposed pumping gas in sweatpants and T-shirt, a grumpy malcontent spewing obscenities at the very cameras it courted only the night before at the latest premiere or the annual Carousel of Hope gala. The star's ceremonial body basks in the attention of the paparazzi, primping and preening, while the physical body attempts to outrun the media, sprinting through airport terminals in a scarf and dark shades and racing off in the back seat of a Mercedes SUV, cowering beneath a friend's jacket.

The loyal subjects of Elizabeth I and Louis XIV were familiar with only one of their bodies, those that appeared in the throne rooms of their palaces or waved out of the windows of their carriages in formal processions, but the modern audience has ready access to both. In fact, unmasking celebrities, desecrating their ceremonial, red-carpet bodies, provides a savage form of entertainment in a modern democracy. We use the media "vultures" we profess to despise to amass incriminating evidence that our idols aren't immortal after all, that their bodies fall apart just as ours do, that they get fat, go bald, shrivel up, and, most importantly, die. Famous people may have two bodies, but they certainly don't have nine lives. Death- in particular, a premature death- is the ultimate democratic epiphany in the cult of celebrity. Despite the long faces we pull when they commit suicide or O. D., their funerals actually provide opportunities for jubilation, festivals in which we applaud their last performance, their last role, as a real human being as liable to physical misfortunes as the best of us.

Since the 1990s, this schadenfreude has taken a whole new turn. The Internet has ampUfied the expression of public grief. Granted, long before the invention of the Web, over 100,000 people thronged the streets of New York for the funeral of Rudolph Valentino, whose unexpected death from peritonitis in 1926 led dozens of women, unhinged by sorrow, to poison themselves and slash their wrists. The Internet, however, has created countless opportunities in which to grieve, opportunities we can enjoy without even leaving our houses, staging indoor candlelight vigils far more massive than those held outside the Dakota or Graceland after John Lennon was shot or Elvis Presley O.D.'d on amphetamines. The result is nothing less than a new death cult. The electronic media feed our morbidity by making it far too easy for us to hold graveside services on our desktops, cybernetic exequies that quickly degenerate into international cry-ins or, as British writer Michael Brace well has called them, "necrothons." Celebrity deaths now cause waves of mass hysteria, like outbreaks of religious hysteria in past centuries, a kind of crazed automatic typing similar to the dancing mania of the fourteenth century when revelers swarmed the streets of Aachen and Strasbourg, foaming at the mouth and speaking in tongues: Diana "was an angle" whose "soft blue bambi eyes" "will always be bright like the stares"; River Phoenix "will again arise in the radiant flower of youth upon the shoreline of eternity"; Christopher Reeves "now soars on a beautiful winged horse" "beyond the Vail." The Internet allows us to indulge in a new vice, recreational grief, a somewhat ghoulish sport in which the body and reputation of a dead celebrity become the sacrament of a tribal ritual intended to reinforce solidarity.

Practically from the first appearance of these online vigils, internecine feuds have raged between those apparently prostrate with grief at their heroes' demise (Versace's assassination "brakes my heart"; Diana's death was "the one and only greatest tragedy that ever happened in this century"; when Heath O.D.'d, "I for real cried"); and those who question the excessiveness of their fellow posters' sorrow ("boo freaking hoo"; "thank god, I can't stand that dead piece of crap's acting. Hip, hip, hooray!!"; "what is so sad and tragic about this douche bag throwing his life away? If you ask me he did the world a favor by saving oxygen for the rest of us"). Skeptics who scoff at the weepy homages that dominate the bulletin boards are particularly outraged by the way we ignore the daily carnage of soldiers fighting overseas and then gnash our teeth and tear our hair when celebutantes and the reigning D-Listers of reality TV kick the bucket. The war in Iraq has added an improbable new political dimension to the mourning of stars whose premature deaths receive a disproportionate amount of attention both by the public and the media, specifically by Fox News which, in the days immediately following Anna Nicole Smith's death, devoted 6 percent of its broadcasts to Iraq and 17 percent to Trimspa's incalculable loss, a figure that translates into a staggering 10 percent of its air time during the first quarter of 2007. Increasingly, Internet bulletin boards have become a tribunal in which the lives of ordinary mortals are measured against those of defunct glitterati, famous corpses who are drafted into a tendentious scold condemning the vulgarity of star worship, which many feel impoverishes our lives, robs us of our selfesteem, and fosters an elitism antithetical to an egalitarian society.

But do we in fact place a higher value on the lives of celebrities? Indeed, are we even mourning them on the Internet? In a very sadistic sense, we value the lives of the famous less than we do the anonymous cannon fodder of our foreign wars who would probably prefer that we not treat their deaths by improvised explosive devices or shrapnel from grenades as entertaining spectacles, as do the owners of Graveline Tours who use an old hearse to squire sightseers around Hollywood to the death sites of stars, or the creators of such clubs as the Ghoul Pool, an online gambling forum in which members place bets on which celebrities will die in the coming months, the kitty going to those participants who score the most "kills" by the end of the year. We are not mourning famous people when we litter the Web with our typo-riddled obituaries. Indeed, we are rejoicing. We are euphoric. Each poster takes his turn at the microphone, performing a kind of macabre karaoke in which he attempts to outdo competitors in his impression of heart-broken solemnity.

Because Internet mourners grieve for the fun of it, they eulogize stars indiscriminately, the virgin as well as the whore, the saint as well as the sinner, Princess Diana as well as Anna Nicole Smith. They are as inconsolable over the death of a heroin addict as over a humanitarian's. They admire with the same fervor virtuous stars- Christopher Reeves, Steve Irwin, Selena- and such incorrigible junkies as River Phoenix, who was not only "the most beautiful person who ever walked on this earth" but "like god for Christians," a savior to whom one starry-eyed adolescent used to address her bedtime prayers instead of to Jesus. The adoration of celebrities is an amoral activity that places far greater weight on their wealth and renown than on their integrity and good deeds. We now practice a type of hero worship that has been out of favor for millennia, one in which the esteem in which we hold our idols is not necessarily- or even usually- a function of their rectitude. Unlike Christian saints and holy men who were irreproachably honest and pure, celebrities are morally compromised, fallen angels who retain their hypnotic sway over their followers even if they set a deplorable example of ostentation and promiscuity. Fame is a brand-new form of irreligious holiness, beatitude for an era that values naked ambition and material prosperity over virtue, the rathlessness of devious careerists whom we revere, not for the models of good behavior they provide, but for the power they wield. We have reverted to the ethically neutral form of hero worship that prevailed before the Judeo-Christian era when the gods of Olympus, far from attracting followers with their fairness and compassion, bullied them with their brute force, terrifying them into submission. As traditional religions with a strong ethical flavor fade into irrelevance, we are increasingly resorting to amoral polytheistic cults whose gods are capricious, spoiled, and desperate for acolytes, whom they are likelier to molest than enlighten.

Our contact with celebrities is so limited that we view them as mirages until the one event that restores to them their real physical presence, their deaths, the moment of our greatest intimacy with them. No sooner are they wheeled away on their gurneys than Internet mourners adopt the role of concerned neighbors who drop by their mansions with casseroles and pies, ostensibly to offer their bereft families their "condulgences." Writers frequently express feelings of friendship for dead celebrities whom they describe as their constant companions, as close to them as their pets, as in the case of a woman whose golden retriever passed away on the same day as Heath Ledger, leading her to conclude that the dog was "at his side when they walked through the pearly gates." A trick of the medium of film ("[I] felt like I already knew you, because I watched you on my televishion. You were in my living room all the time") traps us in an epistemological error, one in which we mistake celebrities' visual presence in our lives for physical and emotional proximity, an optical illusion that makes many fans believe that "there was some metaphysical bond between us or something" and that "when you transcended, I lost a friend."

This presumption of intimacy manifests itself most poignantly in one of the chief ways in which we mourn celebrities: through their children. Every celebrity death involves an orphaning, the sad abandonment of a child, whom the grieving public seeks to console by posing as a surrogate mother gazing with moist eyes at the shivering bundle forsaken on her doorstep. One mourner tells Princess Diana's two sons to "believe in the moments you shared with your mom. . . . God was jealous because his Angel Diana was here and he needed her back," and yet another reassures Heath Ledger's two-year-old daughter (almost always identified by her first and middle names, Matilda Rose, another presumption of intimacy) that "when you look up at the amazing night sky, and see a star shining brighter than all the rest, it is your daddy smiling down at you." The celebrity's death is almost beside the point and what truly matters is the survivors, the widows, the orphans, even the pets of the deceased, as in the case of Anna Nicole Smith, a PETA spokesman whose fellow animal lovers, in the days following her death, anguished over the fate of her three dogs, Marilyn, Puppy, and the melancholy Sugar Pie, whom she was filmed thoughtfully medicating with Prozac on her now infamous show.

The orphaned children (and clinically depressed toy poodles) of celebrities figure so prominently in their obituaries because their deaths involve a political transformation, a conversion from media superstars into ordinary Joes with mortgages and PTA meetings trying to do right by their kids. The glamour of Hollywood allows us to flee from our own lives, to slip off the yoke of domesticity, and imagine an existence full of sexual freedom and material opulence. And yet when celebrities die, they return to the bosom of the family, they become quiet homebodies, the very opposite of their public profiles as playboys and fashionistas. Death levels the field between us, and we embalm them in our own images, not as jet-setters and runway models, but as harried wage earners and frazzled soccer moms. We become their morticians, dressing them up- in a strange reversal of the manner in which undertakers usuaUy lay out corpses in their coffins- in their dowdiest, everyday clothing. Death deprives celebrities of us, of our lives, just as in reality, we were deprived of them, of their lives.

The same democratic fantasy manifests itself in the way in which the media describe the moment of their deaths. They don't just die, they "collapse." They "collapse" even while they are sitting. As reported by the New York Post, Heath Ledger "coUapsed" naked, facedown on a pill-strewn floor, even though it appears that he was asleep in his bed at the time, and Anna Nicole Smith "coUapsed" while lying flat on her back, as did her son Daniel, who "collapsed" while sitting in a chair in his mother's hospital room. Irish model Katy French "collapsed," although she died in a hospital in the arms of her sister, and Janis Joplin "coUapsed" while striding through the lobby of the Landmark Motor Hotel even though police reports placed her in her room at the moment of her historic plunge. Celebrities don't just die; they bite the dust. Their date with destiny is the floor to which they plummet in a tumble as symbolic as it is physical, involving a loss of status as well as of equilibrium, a dive from a life of wealth and privilege to unglamorous nonexistence. Every celebrity death is a small victory for democracy. "Collapsing" marks a return to Shakespeare's "unaccommodated man," a "bare, forked animal" who shuffles off, not just his "mortal coil," but abandons his Lamborghinis, stock portfolios, and trophy wives, shedding all of the accoutrements of privilege that set him apart from us. The floor is a great leveler of inequalities. It is where we all end up, communing with the dust bunnies.

Yearnings for equality also underlie one of the most commonly held myths about dead celebrities: that they are not in fact dead. Instead, they are in hiding, on the lam, fugitives from fame, working as cashiers in Wal-Marts or living in grass huts in Tahiti. An Elvis fan recently saw him in a Biloxi karaoke bar, while another spotted him in her rear-view mirror on Interstate 70, and yet another peeking through an upstairs banister during a tour of Graceland. River Phoenix is holed up somewhere deep in the Amazonian rain forest, while Diana was seen at a Burger King in Kalamazoo, Michigan; Marilyn Monroe on an uptown Manhattan bus; James Dean in a Cleveland deli ordering a pastrami on rye; and John Lennon in a Milwaukee 7-Eleven picking up a six-pack of Michelob. As one cynic exasperated by these urban legends put it, "Kurt Cobain lives in my anus. So does god." In order to counteract the demeaning implications of star worship, we fabricate an implausible narrative, that celebrities are so exhausted by the attentions of the media and their meddlesome fans that they mastermind their own escape in a complex scheme that aUows them to break free from the prison of fame and lead normal lives, incognito. We pretend that they detest the limelight, that they regret the paths that they have chosen, and long for nothing so much as the homely anonymity of simple souls like us. We flatter ourselves that ours is the superior existence, that they are the ones who yearn to live as frugally and unpretentiously as we do, that they abhor their mansions, bank accounts, and nubile brides, and can think of nothing more appealing than residing in a cramped apartment, eating leftovers and changing dirty diapers for the rest of their lives.

It is a truism of celebrity worship that we end up murdering our stars, that our affection for them is so smothering that we kill them with kindness, hound them to death by siccing the paparazzi who drive them to suicide or send their limos careening into concrete pylons. In a hilarious episode of South Park, Britney Spears is so tormented by the unrelenting attention of the press that she blows off the upper half of her head with a shotgun, only to survive- and to perform, although with a significant loss, or gain- in her ability to articulate her lyrics. Although all that remains of her face is her lower lip and chin, she is still chased by packs of reporters that swarm after her like ghouls from Dawn of the Dead until she is cornered in a field and photographed to death, sinking to the ground in a blaze of flashbulbs, a ritualistic human sacrifice performed, we are told, for the sake of "the corn harvest."

Obviously, with the exception of a few deranged stalkers, we do not kill celebrities in the satirically literal way in which the residents of South Park threw Britney to the lions, nor do we commit these immolations to ensure the fecundity of our crops. Instead, celebrities are expendable in a more figurative sense. Art in a consumerist culture is stamped with an expiration date, past which the superstar becomes a has-been and, at the risk of declining into a nostalgia act, a geriatric piece of camp, of corny Americana, must gracefully retire or, better still, die. The career of the pop star has become so brief, so evanescent, that soon it will be the truly famous who are famous for fifteen minutes and not, as Warhol promised, unknown members of the general public. In his suicide note, Kurt Cobain quoted Neil Young's lyric "it's better to burn out than to fade away," a line that might serve as the motto for a throw-away cultural economy in which careers are designed with built-in obsolescence, no sooner showing promise than they are nipped in the bud to make room for the next manufactured sensation, which, in turn, goes stale within months of achieving the summit of success. We conspicuously consume our artists so that the market never stagnates but zips along at a bullish pace, buoyed up by the myth that newer and better entertainers are constantly emerging, parvenus who, ignorant of their own imminent fates, heartlessly send their superannuated elders out to pasture. Is it any wonder that so many celebrities die young when our loyalty to them seldom extends further than their first commercial failure and they are pensioned off to game shows and infomercials before the age of thirty?

There is a more literal sense in which we kill our stars. Popular culture and, regrettably, much of high culture as well, thrive on myths of untutored genius, on misconceptions that artists are talented by nature and therefore don't need to work, to commit themselves to lengthy apprenticeships, to submit to the sort of laborious training that athletes or scholars must undergo. Because art is an emanation of a god-given aptitude, they need only open their mouths and sing, step in front of the camera and act, and put pen to paper and write. Such romantic notions are not only false, they are dangerous. We subscribe to a mythology of genius that takes a heavy toll on the health- indeed, the very existence- of our artists, whom we grant the license to misbehave, to lead chaotic, undisciplined lives that often spin out of control, sinking into a morass of alcohoUsm and drag addiction. We are complicit in a holocaust of talent, of impressionable neophytes, who, were it not for misguided beliefs about divine afflatus and unschooled prodigies, might spend more time in the studio honing their craft than in twelvestep programs in rehabilitation centers where they sit around in circles on folding chairs tearfully confessing the errors of their ways. A culture that truly respected and needed its artists would create for them the conditions of personal stability necessary for their survival, whereas at present we sponsor destructive if entertaining fantasies that drive them straight to the syringe. We do indeed kill our stars, not by suffocating them with attention, but by reinforcing cultural stereotypes that may be far more appealing, more dramatic, than schoolmarmish notions of the punishing labor involved in the production of art, but that also have unexpected emotional and physical consequences for the mental health of celebrities, death among them.

We disguise the permissiveness we extend to artists, our tolerance of their self-destructive misconduct, as a concession to their troubled souls. They are haunted, our culture tells us, by personal demons that drive them to drink and drugs. Misery is the fount of inspiration, the wound that guarantees actors' and musicians' authenticity as creative geniuses and that ultimately leads to their high rate of mortality. In fact, however, celebrities seem to die from an excess of high spirits, not low ones, from incessant partying, the unintentional ingestion of fatal quantities of recreational drugs. It could be argued, as it usually is, that they party because they are trying to numb themselves to the sheer horror of their newfound wealth and international acclaim, to "medicate" themselves, to use the current jargon, but it could just as easily be argued that they party because they are happy, they are excited, exhilarated by their good fortune, by the sudden burst of laudatory attention they receive. The epidemic of drug overdoses among celebrities has little to do with the "wound," with their creative anguish, and much more to do with pure fun, with good times gone bad, merrymaking so festive that revelers accidentally snort their way to the morgue. There is no link in popular culture between creativity, unhappiness, and death. The link is between happiness, death, and the money to purchase the pills, coke, and intravenous drugs necessary for a glorious if inadvertent exit out of the gossip columns and into the obits.

Author affiliation:

Daniel Harris, recipient of the Antioch Review distinguished writing award in 2000, is the author of The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture and Diary of a Drag Queen, as well as numerous essays.

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