Saturday, November 17, 2007

Fame is a Bee

I’ve just watched Ricky Gervais’s new stand up show Fame. And, as usual, it’s clever, considered, confident, caustic, callous, conceited, charged, combustive and lots of other C words including the C word … which he uses several times during the show with perfect timing and aplomb. Like Politics and Animals before it, Fame takes a simple theme and expands upon it with Gervais visiting subjects as diverse and as seemingly taboo as the origin of AIDS, glory holes, ME (Myalgic encephalomyelitis – also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), tabloid journalism, obesity and, of course, the nature and cost of fame itself.

In one particularly enlightened section he makes several important points about the debasing of fame in the 21st century - the fact that people can become famous now without actually doing anything - and, perhaps most worryingly of all, that there are any number of people out there who want to be famous … and that’s it. Fame is their ambition and they will do whatever they have to do to be famous, but not necessarily earn it. Gervais mentions Big Brother and X Factor in particular as breeding grounds for such people. And he also tells the story of how he was lambasted by the press for making a valid point about fame. When asked by a reporter what advice he had for people who want to become famous, he said ‘Murder a prostitute’. As always, the press got hold of this and twisted it into ‘Ricky’s Sick Joke’. They even resurrected the quote several years later at the time of the Ipswich Call-Girl Murders. His point, of course, is that fame is easy to achieve. Harold Shipman did it. Fred West did it. But there is a huge gulf between being famous and being worthy of fame.

I have no issue with people who want to be successful. Which is why I have no issue with someone like Victoria Beckham. Why is she hated so much? ‘Undeniably, there is something about her that just makes you want to snap the head off all her Barbies’, wrote columnist Jennifer O Connell. ‘It could be the tacky singularity of her purpose - she seems to exist only to fill tabloid column inches, spreads in Heat magazine and bank accounts. Or maybe we just hate her for appearing to have it all so effortlessly.’1
It’s easy to pour scorn upon Posh. She does seem to have it all and she doesn’t seem to do much to earn it. She is one of the world’s most photographed women; an instantly recognisable celebrity and an icon for the fashion and lifestyle industries. She’s very, very rich and she’s married to the equally successful, even more rich and annoyingly good-looking David. But how did she get where she is today? Was it because of her looks? Not really. Her singing voice? Hardly. Was she then just inordinately lucky? Not a bit of it.

Back in 1994, 20 year old proto-Posh Victoria Adams answered an advert in The Stage magazine that said, ‘R U 18-23 with the ability to sing/dance? R U streetwise, ambitious, outgoing and determined?’ The ad had been placed by father and son entrepreneurs Bob and Chris Herbert who’d spotted a gap in the market for an all-girl pop band. Victoria made the effort to travel to the audition in London - as she did for just about any audition or opportunity she could find. She was hungry for fame. And she put on a good enough show to be selected from around 400 wannabes. She must have been good as there were much stronger singers and dancers present. There then followed a year of pushing demos of the new band - then called Touch - around record and management companies before the girls had the balls to sack their managers and look for a new one. They were ultimately picked up by pop impresario Simon Fuller and, another year later, the single Wannabe launched them to international super-stardom. By now, of course, they were called Spice Girls.

In their short career - just six years - they sold over 55 million records (I’m not including their recent reformation which is likely to generate even bigger revenues). They had three consecutive Christmas Number Ones. Their feature film Spice World grossed £245 million globally. At the height of their fame in 1998, the band’s personal annual earnings were in excess of £26 million. Since splitting up, the members of the band have enjoyed successful solo careers but, without doubt, the most successful has been Posh whose personal fortune is, at the time of writing, reported to be in the region of £87million. Admittedly, her husband is the big earner these days but she has personally contributed somewhere in the region of £22 million to the total. Posh has earned her fortune … despite her somewhat dubious musical talent. Luck had nothing to do with it. Ambition was everything.

Even before Spice Girls, Posh was quoted as saying that she wanted one day to be ‘as famous as Persil Automatic’.2 It’s significant that even as a teenager, she had no illusions of ever being compared to great musical artists like Madonna or Aretha Franklin. Victoria Adams dreamed of being as well-known and as identifiable as a household brand of washing powder. And she’s done just that. She has become her own brand. It could also be argued that much of her husband’s income off the football field is due to her determination and clever manipulation of the media. ‘Victoria is greedy and graceless’, wrote British newspaper columnist Amanda Platell. ‘Everything about her is fake: the tan, the breasts, the lips, the nails, the hair. The only real thing about her is her ambition.’3
There is nothing wrong with ambition, Amanda. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be successful. But there is something fundamentally wrong with wanting it all for free. The Royals are rich and famous having been born to their roles. But no amount of money is worth a life of constantly living up to public expectation, complete invasion of privacy, continuous adherence to duty and tradition and having to wear all those silly costumes. Would you want to swap with them? Not me. They earn their living. Oh yes.

But can I say the same for the average Big Brother contestant? What have they contributed to society that should be rewarded by fame and, dare I say it, adoration and idolising?

Okay … maybe it’s just me. Maybe I am just a grumpy old man or it’s just my natural British sense of resentment; of feeling cheated. Here in the UK, we have a very strong sense of fair play. ‘Fairness is an English thing – or rather unfairness is an English thing, a trigger for their rage’ wrote A A Gill and he was right. Try jumping a queue and see what happens. Try cheating during a game of Monopoly. Fairness is everything. What other country could have invented a phrase like ‘It’s not whether you win or lose - It’s the taking part that counts’?4

‘For the English, real character is built not by winners, but by losers’, states Gill, ‘The best thing to do if you’re caught winning is to skip away blushing. If you’re cornered, then mutter something about luck and flukes.’ We love the underdog. We love losers. That’s why the best part of watching the X Factor is the auditions. The losers are so much more interesting and funny than the bland, forgettable winners. We don’t like winners and we particularly don’t like people who behave like winners. Especially when someone gets a reward, monetary or otherwise, without having seemed to deserve it. Before you know it, people will start to moan about the injustice of it all. The paparazzi will try to catch the ‘guilty’ party in flagrante delicto or in a state of undress or distress. The gutter press will start going through their bins or devoting hundreds of miles of column inches to vitriolic attack.

Ask the average person on the street – what they used to call the ‘Man on the Clapham omnibus’ - what they think of Posh Spice. What you’ll get back can be summed up like this: ‘Yes, well, you compare Posh with some bloke who’s spent his whole life hewing coal out of a wall deep in a dark and dangerous mine for less money per year than she spends on pedicures, she does seem to have had it easy. She doesn’t really deserve to be so rich and successful. It doesn’t seem right or fair.’

But that’s the way life is. Life has never been right or fair. Ever. There was no distant halcyon day when all was fair in love and war and everyone got an equal slice of the cake. Someone always had to grow the ingredients, someone always had to bake the cake and someone had to ice it. But only a very, very few got to wipe the cream off their chins. Once upon a time it was royalty and nobility who enjoyed such heightened living. Now it’s celebrity … and that’s made patently obvious to us 24 hours a day, 365 days a year through the media. Celebrities do earn massively disproportionate rewards for their work when compared to us mere mortals. In the they earned their place in our hearts with hard work. Comedians would work their way up from the smoky working men’s clubs or student bars and fringe festivals. Rock bands would play any gig anywhere just to get their faces seen and to start building a reputation. I love reading the biographies of bands who ended up playing Madison Square Gardens but whose first gig involved them playing a school hall to five pensioners and a dog. What can Leona Lewis (currently still Number One I believe) possibly contribute to the canon of rock biography? ‘I went on a TV show, sang quite well, got a recording contract, had a Number One album and single. And all in 12 months’. It’s not going to rival Ronnie Woods’ recent biography is it?

The value of a person is no longer dictated by their worthiness, but by their newsworthiness. Some so-called celebrities have become rich and famous simply by sleeping with someone they shouldn’t have. Or just by claiming that they’ve slept with someone they shouldn’t have. Where’s the worthiness in that? Others have filled their personal coffers by appearing on the aforementioned reality TV shows; starring as themselves in all of their pig-ignorant, lacklustre glory. We read about their fabulous lives in Hello, OK, and Heat magazine. We see their fantastic ‘cribs’ on TV, their fast cars and designer clothes and we think to ourselves ‘You jammy bastards’. We compare celebrities’ lives with our own and we rant and spit and fume because of the injustice of it all. We know people who are more worthy – nurses and carers, firefighters and campaigners for justice, good parents, police officers, medical researchers, charity workers, teachers … In many cases we know that we ourselves are better people than many celebrities.

Fame has become debased, degraded, demoted, dishonoured, diminished, disgraced, downgraded, dismal … and lots of other words beginning with D. I suspect the vast majority of us wish success and happiness to those people who earn it by entertaining us, enlightening us and keeping us safe from harm. It's the others that we revile.

Ricky Gervais has earned his fame and his many accolades by working hard for it. It’s not easy being a writer and performer; you are only ever as good as your last performance, whereas your average 40 hour week professional working chap or chappess can do the same thing every day for 40 years and still take home a steady wage. Fame is fickle. Ask Phil Collins or Mick Hucknall. But it must be earned in the first place.

Fame is a bee
It has a song -
It has a sting -
Ah, too, it has a wing.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)


1. Victorian attitude raises its ugly head, The Sunday Business Post, 18th April 2004.
2. Learning to fly (2001) Penguin Books, UK.
3. Why we women hate Posh, Daily Mail, April 2004.
4. The angry island: Hunting the English (2005), Weidenfeld and Nicolson, UK.

Picture credit Ricky Gervais and Universal DVD

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Where do you get all these facts from?
Your head must hurt!