Celebrities Trapped Between Publicity and Privacy

Leave us alone: from left, Justin Bieber, Kelsey Grammer, and Neil Patrick Harris. From left: Richard Drew; Dan Steinberg; Peter Kramer (3) AP

Before I begin this column, I must ask that you respect my privacy and not read it. Wait ... why are you still reading? I asked you very politely to please respect my privacy!

That’s little different from the request made last weekend by the inestimably talented actor Neil Patrick Harris, a.k.a. Doogie Howser, when he sent out the following tweet to nearly three quarters of a million Twitter followers, which in effect meant he was sending it to every wire service and gossip blog in the world: “So, get this: David and I are expecting twins this fall. We’re super excited/nervous/thrilled. Hoping the press can respect our privacy ...”

“Hoping the press can respect our privacy ...” is the part that I, a member of the press, am about to disrespect. Seriously? Why did you tweet this personal information if you wanted privacy? I think Harris is an extremely gifted and funny guy, but this is yet another in a long line of celebrities asking us to respect their privacy while at the same time broadcasting news about their family or career—and I’m only talking about the last week or so. For instance, actor Kelsey Grammer has a new baby on the way. He told a reporter that it does “make some sense” to get married to the mom, but that he’s “got some other stuff I’ve got to clear up first.” This is what we call in showbiz an understatement, because that other stuff he’s clearing up is the fact that he is still married. To another woman.

Not to worry, though. He asked the nice press people to “respect our privacy” now that the news is out there. He didn’t really have to do that, though. I’m sure the press won’t have any interest in a celebrity having a baby with a stewardess not much more than half his age while still married to another woman. That would never sell newspapers or drive up page views online. Nor would the fact that Grammer is two years older than the woman’s father. (I know, I know, people don’t read newspapers anymore, but throw an old columnist a bone.)

This is part of the world we live in now. People are simultaneously branding themselves on Facebook and Twitter when it suits them and at the same time trying to maintain their privacy. The two things are incompatible. But perhaps in some minds they are not—because people are branding the corporation that is them, and then requesting privacy for their human selves.

Despite the constant flood of tweets and status updates, it is still possible to keep some personal news a secret. For a while, anyway. Academy Award–winning actress Sandra Bullock kept the adoption of her child on the down low for months before releasing the news. Some actors even manage to live what appear to be wholesome, drama-free lives. I can’t think of any, but I’m sure there must be at least one. I believe Jimmy Stewart was once accused of leading a tranquil home life back when he was alive. But most celebs get in trouble first and then ask for privacy later, just when we’re most interested, like Tiger Woods and Lindsay Lohan. To be fair, Tiger did try to keep his private life private before he got to the point of begging for more privacy, even going so far as to name his 155-foot yacht Privacy. We see now how well that all worked out for him.

But there is still hope for the rich and famous who have suffered privacy invasions. You can do what someone named Justin Bieber did. Apparently he is a celebrity of some renown—despite his bad haircut—and he used his Twitter account to give out the cell-phone number of a fan who had been repeatedly calling him after said crazed fan discovered Bieber’s private number. The overzealous dialer received tens of thousands of text messages from Bieber fans, which effectively shut down his phone. He had to change his number. Bieber’s manly response in the face of the cell onslaught should be admired—that is, if you think a 16-year-old boy who looks like a young Liza Minnelli can be manly.

As for the rest of you celebs, I have a modest proposal. If you can’t man up like this Bieber person, but have decided for whatever reason that you still want privacy, please agree to also stop being a celebrity. No more homes in Beverly Hills, no more fancy convertibles, and no more vacations in places people like me have never visited. And let’s agree to leave the privacy-respecting rights to the parents of soldiers who’ve paid the ultimate price, or to the families of crime victims, instead of celebrities who crave publicity the way babies crave milk.

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