by Donna George Storey

Celebrity culture and the often unexamined assumptions that slither into our brains because of it are not good for writers, whether aspiring, veteran or even genuinely famous. I firmly believe this. And yet, as I sat down to write this month’s continuing meditation on fame and the writer’s imagination, I felt drawn to talk about what’s actually “good” about the role of the famous in our ordinary lives. There is clearly something deeply appealing about glamorous, rich, but most of all “seen,” people we don’t know. Weird Al’s new song, “Lame Claim to Fame” is a hilarious illustration of the strange enchantment of even the most tenuous connection to these magical beings.

It’s easy enough to claim immunity, but none of us are, really. (Even academics have their “stars” with endowed chairs and faculty positions reserved for spouses.) There is something rooted in us, our ancient hierarchical programming perhaps, that compels us to seek an aristocracy of some kind. Yet the celebrity aristocracy occupies a much different place in our lives than the kings and dukes of earlier times. Our stars are exposed to us in endless “intimate” images and details of their private lives, some controlled by their managers, some not. We can easily pretend we “know” them and have a stake in their stories as well as the right to judge them. In that sense, stars unite the national and even global community (at the level, say, of Michael Jackson or Michael Jordan). They make the world a village.

The combination of intimacy and distance is important. We can enjoy the dramas of the British Royal Family as entertainment; if our tax money were at stake, it might not be quite so fun. (Overheard on a train to York back in 1989–an English woman commented drily to a fellow countryman, “The Duchess of York is pregnant again. Of course, we’ll have to pay for it.”) We can smile or roll our eyes at the endless cycles of celebrity life—innocent young star rises, corrupted young star falls victim to drugs and engages in drunken criminal acts, older, repentant star graduates from rehab and makes a come-back—without enduring the actual pain and disruption of addiction or an eclipsed career.

The familiarity of celebrity touches us writers in more mundane ways. I try to resist, but I am still swayed when a book gets a positive blurb from a writer whose name I recognize. At the very least, I admire the author’s luck in getting that plum endorsement. Such a blurb feels like a positive recommendation from a friend, an opinion I can trust, saving me the trouble of deciding for myself where I should direct my time and attention.

Except, of course, it is none of these things.

That’s because celebrity is above all a fiction. Overnight successes, models who “eat lots of fruits and vegetables and work out with a personal trainer” but never diet harmfully, fairytale weddings, bestselling writers who find contentment relaxing on their estates by the pool while they idly type out their latest ticket to immortality. None of this is real, and if ever it is, it doesn’t satisfy for long.

Celebrities are our dukes and duchesses, our heroes, our villains, our inspirations and cautionary tales. They allow us to watch drama at a remove, both in space and relevance to our lives, but they remain images, never full human beings. In the electronic media age, we need an ever-renewing visual “face” for the myths, symbols and fantasies our minds feed on. Celebrities themselves are most keenly aware that their personhood is subsumed in an image others project upon them. Some, in various ways, benefit from this position (money, professional power, invitations to the right parties). Fortunately for the scandal sheets, just as many lose their way in the hall of mirrors. Finally, I get to you, Paris Hilton!

Yet, ultimately, celebrity culture is about us, the ordinary folk, not the bodies in designer clothes parading on the red carpet. Without the mediocre masses, who would need the velvet rope, the security guard and bouncers? In next month’s installment, I’ll explore the deeper needs that are masked by the yearning for fame. Until then, stay cool!

Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman and a new collection of short
stories, Mammoth
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey
. Learn more about her
work at