An old notion of celebrity promotes the assumption that of course anybody would put up with the restrictions on and intrusions into their private life in exchange for permanent financial security. Who would not want to banish forever rent payment angst, and who would not want unrestricted holidays? For some years now though we have been living with a bastardised twenty-first century notion of celebrity promoting the added assumption that in order to achieve celebrity you don’t need to be able to do anything except manage your image or allow others to manage it. Fictional worlds ironically originating from a form known as ‘reality TV’ hold out the hope that fame is something that can come from publicly playing out very short term achievements and is something that doesn’t have to be linked to extraordinary ability, long term success or determination. If you’re already known to the public in some capacity you have a head start which might enable you to boost your public profile by learning a few dance moves; or if you have no public profile you could bake some cakes and then earn some money from sponsorship deals; or you could publicly try and convince a dinosaur emotionally stunted business owner that you may be his next high powered executive, whatever that is. Or you could sing your heart out on national TV. (Well, don’t actually do that, given how under-resourced the health service is now.) Anyway it only takes a few weeks of your time, and you need none of the attributes of those old fashioned twentieth century celebrities. Who knows? Through nothing more than pushing your image you may even become the leader of the world’s most powerful country.
I was minded of all this while watching the recent BBC documentary on the last five years of David Bowie’s life, having previously not been aware of the extent to which he hated his celebrity status. There’s an obvious sense in which the media attention focused on him was self-inflicted. Why would he play out so publicly and ostentatiously such theatrical scenarios if he hadn’t wanted to draw attention to himself? He explains that he was a very shy person and when he performs in public he feels even more shy. Adopting a persona helps with that feeling. I can relate this to my teaching experience. While addressing the class or even while speaking to an individual student, I would sometimes switch without warning to an alternative voice, an alternative accent or both. When asked why I did it, my usual reply was that it just got me through the day alongside my unwillingness to take anything seriously for more than a few minutes. But I now realise that I may also have been covering performance anxiety. Fame can ultimately bring the possibility of choice though, so during the production of his final two albums Bowie took part in no publicity at all: no interviews, no locking himself in a fake house with other celebrities, no toughing it out in a jungle a couple of miles from a five star hotel, no cooking his signature dish on television while a professional chef pretended to be critical of him, no fake press leaks or pretentiously self-effacing Twitter posts. In fact, many of the musicians involved in his final creative endeavours had to sign NDA documents before they were taken on.
There’s that old cliché of making sure you don’t look back near death and wonder why you didn’t get around to doing some of the things on your bucket list. Bowie had on his bucket list writing a musical and seeing it performed, reprising vicariously his character from The Man Who Fell To Earth. And the value of vicarious experience is not to be underrated if you ever get the chance to do any near-death reckoning of what you’ve accomplished in life. He returned to his his fave fictional character Major Tom more than once, commenting that he was his first so he held him in high regard. When asked why the preoccupation with space travel he said ‘It’s an interior dialogue that you manifest physically. It’s my little inner space, isn’t it, writ large? I wouldn’t dream of getting on a spaceship. It would scare the shit out of me.’ Often the interior version of the experience is enough. You don’t actually have to attach an elastic rope to your ankle and jump off.
Bowie also commented that the twenty-first century had so far been disappointing. Jury’s out, I guess, but he did live to see the availability of free personal micro-celebrity through social media. You can now repeatedly photograph yourself and share that image instantly with hundreds of people, in what must come close to an ultimate act of narcissism. Where previously it was the province of the traditional mass media to propagate images publicly, now pretty much anyone can do it. Your own face, your meals, your animals, what you are about to drink. Up to you really. It’s your Lazarus moment.