by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
April 22, 2010
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- My copy of Vogue arrived in the mail the other day. (What? Like you don't have any secret vices?) It had a Photoshopped picture of Sarah Jessica Parker on the cover. On the very first page, a huge photo of Julia Roberts' teeth leapt out at me. I was bit.
Flipping through, there were Halle Berry and Jessica Alba shilling for Revlon, Cate Blanchett pushing a cream that "makes your skin look like it's glowing from within," Drew Barrymore touting smoky eye makeup, Audrey Tatou wearing Chanel No. 5, Madonna (I think) and Scarlett Johansson in Dolce & Gabbana, Jaclyn Smith for KMart and Marion Cotillard for Dior. All that before I even reached the "Letter from the Editor" page where the content begins.
For those of us who got the Vogue habit when Diana Vreeland was running it and the models, clothes, makeup and photos were all visually stimulating, the intrusion of celebrities into style and design has been most unwelcome.
Models, especially before their names are well-known (i.e., before they become celebrities themselves), should be muses for designers and photographers and conduits for the readers' imaginations. They should be ever-changing and amusing. Celebrities, on the other hand, are boring. Each one is a prepackaged narrative. They have nothing to do with creativity or even an internal life, no matter what lunatic outfit you put them in or how narrowly you photoshop their waistlines.
Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, is credited with spotting the celebrity trend and becoming an early adaptor. For many, many years, celebrity worship has made Vogue one of the most successful magazines in the market. And Vogue sits at the high end of things; it's hard to keep straight how many magazines spew celebrity gossip into the supermarket aisles every week, or to track the number of celebrity gossip Web sites and television shows. We seem to be drowning in celebrities, both the kind who have actual talent and the ones who are only famous for being famous - which covers a lot more ground than you'd like to think.
While it may be a guilty pleasure to look at beautiful people and beautiful clothing, celebrity culture in America today permeates every part of our existence. And it is not benign.
"Today we are ruled by icons of gross riches and physical beauty that blare and flash from television, cinema and computer screens," writes social critic Chris Hedges in "Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle." "People knelt before God and the church in the Middle Ages. We flock hungrily to the glamorous crumbs that fall to us from glossy magazines, talk and entertainment shows, and reality television. We fashion our lives as close to these lives of gratuitous consumption as we can."
According to Hedges, celebrity culture succeeds by "promising to fill up the emptiness in our own lives."
I would have said, only a week ago, that Hedges was exaggerating. I was willing to assume that most of us see celebrity gossip as entertainment, and still go about working (or trying to find work), hanging out with friends, raising families and doing other normal things.
Then I read about a new survey done by cable television network VH1, which is seeking to upgrade its reality programming. VH1, it seems, has identified a new consumer group, ranging in age from 25 to 34, that it calls "Gen Mix."
The report, entitled "VH1 Strategic Insights & Research 2009," makes it clear that "purchases are a way to express personal identity and Gen Mix doesn't skimp on the products and brands that help them show the world who they are... (They) look to celebrities for inspiration.
With great access to them than ever before, Gen Mix feels like they know celebrities, like they're part of their inner circles. So product and brand recommendations from them are just as influential as recommendations from friends and family. Gen Mixers both celebrate celebrities, looking to them for inspiration for their own lives, and berate them, which validates their own life choices as the right ones."
How scary is that? Have we raised an entire generation of young adults who are borrowing bits of their identities from unreal images instead of struggling to become authentically themselves?
According to Hedges, celebrity culture feeds into a cult of American narcissism.
"This cult has within it the classic traits of psychopaths: superficial charm, grandiosity, and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation, a penchant for lying, deception and manipulation, and the inability to feel remorse or guilt," he writes.
"This is, of course, the ethic promoted by corporations. It is the ethic of unfettered capitalism. It is the misguided belief that personal style and personal advancement, mistaken for individualism, are the same as democratic equality."
Now, doesn't that go a long way to understanding reality shows, boob jobs and Sarah Palin?
Joyce Marcel (joycemarcel.com) is a journalist and columnist. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.