Monday, March 17, 2008

The nature of celebrity

Recently Tina Brown came to town to speak at the University at Buffalo. Brown is a former editor of The New Yorker, among many other accomplishments. She's working as an American columnist for a London newspaper as well as researching a book on Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Her speech, though, was all about Princess Diana. She wrote a book on Diana a few years ago -- "The Diana Chronicles." Brown had gotten to know Diana over the years, and talked to a ton of people about her life. She sold a lot of books, so I can't blame her for speaking on this subject.

However, during the question-and-answer session, I had the strange feeling that Brown was feeling a bit conflicted over the book and the whole concept of celebrity worship. That's not an unfamiliar feeling for anyone in the media.

Diana was an extremely public, popular figure, of course, and there was intense interest in everything she did. Diana used that popularity to her advantage by dragging the media along when she dealt with important causes, such as AIDS and land mines. However, in the end that relationship with the media turned tragic. Her car got into a chase with a photographer, and a fatal accident followed.

The question comes down to this: where's the line for determining what a "celebrity" is? Diana probably qualified as something of a world figure, even if her level of influence probably was overdone. Most of us are trying to figure out why anyone would chase Paris Hilton down a street to take a picture of her doing, well, something, since she hasn't given us much reason to care about her life. The line is in-between the two of them. But where?

There's a really good story about the paparazzi in this month's issue of the Atlantic magazine. The author spends some time with the photographers, who often run red lights and race down one-way streets the wrong way in order to get yet another picture of Britney Spears. At least Britney sold some CD's once upon a time, but it's tough to know when she made the transformation from music star to caricature. (Probably when the hair came off.) Anna Nicole Smith, moving even farther down the scale, was much more famous in death than she ever was in life. Nevertheless, the money involved in taking pictures of such people on a daily basis is larger than you could believe.

The media is in the business to tell the public what it needs to know and what it wants to know. Sometimes it's easy to feel like you're on a board sitting on top of a cylinder, trying to maintain balance while knowing it won't take much to push you off. I wonder if Tina Brown feels that way sometimes.

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