In the new book Fame, former Daily Telegraph literary editor Tom Payne explores how our current celebrity obsession is in fact quite old, drawing provocative parallels between the ancient Greeks and Romans and tabloid staples such as Britney Spears, Kate Winslet, and Princess Diana. Megastars like Lady Gaga, he argues, are elevated to the status of demigods—but we demand sacrifices from them in return (their image, their privacy). “The crowd wants something, and an individual is prepared to give it to them,” Payne writes, and the whole affair is often tinged with “collective cruelty.” It’s not so different from how the Aztecs liked to select a sacrificial victim, worship her as a deity, and then cut out her heart in front of a rapt crowd. Payne spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Katie Baker about how fame has changed over the millennia, and how it’s stayed the same. Excerpts:
So our current celebrity culture is actually quite ancient?
Yes. This seems to me a very useful way of looking at human history: to see how we’ve responded differently to famous people. It tells us more about us than about the famous. Whereas [in] the Stone Age, or the Iron Age, people really weren’t [seen as] different … Their burials reflect [that]. The idea that we’re unique and special in some ways seems to be a very new one.
You bring up the theme of sacrifice—for example, you link Britney Spears’s meltdown with the ritual killing of Iphigenia, who, legend has it, was sacrificed so that Greek ships could sail to Troy, and who became famous because of it. Do we tear down or sacrifice celebrities to satisfy a very primal human need?
One of the most harrowing things I’ve found is the idea that when we make a sacrifice, or when the ancients made sacrifices, it was very important to them that the offering was seen to be willing. And I think it’s very helpful for us, when we think about celebrities, that while they may be going through a horrible time, they also seem to have chosen that life.
You also talk about celebrities dying in public, whether it’s a suicide like Kurt Cobain, or an overdose like Heath Ledger, or Jade Goody or Christopher Hitchens allowing us to see their illnesses. Does dying in public ensure the ultimate fame?
It’s a very odd thing. There’s something ancient about it, and something quite new about it as well. The ancient thing seems to be the idea of the staged death, even the gladiatorial death.
At some point, there’s a shift of power. We start out being in the thrall of the celebrity, but they end up being in our thrall, to the mob, or the fame, or the fans.
They need to keep on being new, and then it can look desperate. Somehow I don’t imagine Lady Gaga having that problem. In part because she’s so new herself. But you can imagine the constant need to innovate becoming quite powerful. I think Madonna’s handled it quite well.
How long can a celebrity keep innovating?
Maybe it’s until you have to write your first children’s book, that extraordinary moment. Then you suddenly realize that you’re a mum, and you have to project that.
One of the more chilling parts of your book is the idea that we almost want the celebrities to self-destruct (à la Michael Jackson) rather than fade away. Especially if they go out at the top of their fame, like James Dean. Or Achilles.
I think that’s right. The idea ... of James Dean having to go, and leave a clean corpse, becomes very compelling.
Is there any way to keep in the public’s good graces indefinitely, or does the public ensure the downfall is going to happen, whether the celebrity wants it or not?
I remember talking about [that] to a filmmaker friend of mine. And he said, “But what about people who are just cool? What about David Bowie? What about Cate Blanchett? What about people we just like and who don’t go stale on us?” And I had to think, “Well, there is a way of handling it and being liked.” [Perhaps] it’s a matter of not burning so intently. One really befuddling example I find is Mick Jagger, who defies everything. He should fit into a whole bunch of myths—like the Faust myth or the Inferno, or even the Peter Pan myth ... but he seems to growing old very gracefully and he’s still Mick Jagger. There are clear exceptions to the rule.
You mention that there’s the reward of the high life. You talk about Faust, who gets to do whatever he wants until the Devil reclaims his soul. You also give the example of an ancient Albanian temple of the moon, where a slave got to live for a year in the lap of luxury before he was sacrificed. It makes me think of Jersey Shore.
I’ve really started looking at Jersey Shore. And it’s an odd sort of luxury, isn’t it?
With the implicit bargain that we get to see them self-destruct on TV?
Yes. And they’re put up and they get to feel they’re adored.
Although you do talk about how there’s a gender difference in the fame game. Lindsay Lohan—she’s basically living this Rolling Stones–type life, but yet we think of Mick Jagger as a rock god, and we think of her as someone on the verge of a meltdown.
Yeah. I’d like to come to a different conclusion, but there does seem to be something very ancient about that as well. It does seem, when you go back to tragedies, when you look at Iphigenia, or you look at other sacrifices, it does seem to be that there’s something particular about the sacrifice of a young woman.