We all know Andy Warhol’s most famous quote and how it has come to be the modern secular equivalent of an eleventh commandment; and it’s tempting to envisage a future date in which the doss-houses of Britain contain more residents who used to be famous than those who didn’t. Somehow, at the back of my mind, I can’t help but think of the ‘Bicycle Repairman’ Python sketch, where every person is dressed as Superman and Michael Palin’s secret identity is that of an ordinary bloke in a flat cap. Before long, every pub bore or pissed-up bus-stop lecturer will be going on about how they were once on telly. Fifteen years of manufacturing instant celebrities as dispensable and disposable cartoon characters to cheer or boo and hiss has already left us littered with a lengthy litany of half-remembered and all-but forgotten faces that plummeted back to the obscurity they were plucked from, their reversal of fortunes as rapid as their rise to stardom.
Your average casual viewer, if asked to list half-a-dozen winners of reality TV shows – including those posing as musical ones – would probably struggle after recalling three or four; chances are Jade Goody’s name would appear, even though she never won ‘Big Brother’, and the guy with Tourette’s who had a habit of saying ‘wankers’ a lot would no doubt crop up, even if his name might be more elusive. He was called Pete Bennett and last week declared he was broke and had been homeless in recent years.
Contrary to my dislike of the plethora of useless celebrities that clutter column inches once reserved for news, I cannot help but feel sorry for Pete Bennett. He fulfilled the freak show remit that ‘Big Brother’ developed when too many Ordinary Joes and Josephine’s had viewers turning off in their droves, but one could say the round-the-clock exposure he received helped normalise a condition to the public that had previously been the province of serious documentaries. Was that condition exploited? Perhaps. Yet, the fact that Pete Bennett won the contest suggests his condition was perceived as a plus rather than a minus, which is no bad thing. What the decline and fall of his post-fame life represents, however, is part of a dispiriting and cynical cycle now so established that it’s a miracle anyone even yearns for their fifteen minutes anymore.
Famous faces have always sold newspapers; The Beatles and Stones were all over the dailies in the 60s; Rod Stewart’s love-life and every move made by The Sex Pistols provided great tabloid fodder in the 70s. But it was in the 80s that celebrity began to colonise the columns, with everyone from Boy George to the ‘People’s Princess’ edging genuine news to one side. Although the Gallagher brothers behaving badly made inroads into the populist end of Fleet Street in the 90s, it was Diana’s death in 1997 that marked the true turning point of journalistic priorities. Within months of events in Paris, Posh and Becks were crowned as Diana’s heirs and in their wake has followed every Jordan, Jade, Hilton and Kardashian since.
Reality television has been the midwife to the vast majority of those we are supposed to be fascinated by, yet such is the transient nature of their fame, far more have vanished off the radar than have remained irritating fixtures on it. Casually glance though the list of No.1 singles from 2000 onwards and well over half sprang to prominence courtesy of a TV show that has led them to currently reside in our ‘Where are they Now?’ file. David Sneddon, anyone? Darius? Michelle McManus? Steve Brookstein? I wonder if these deluded butterflies were made aware of the deal with the Devil they’d entered into; I doubt it. Take a supermarket check-out girl on the minimum wage and tell her she can be famous overnight if she is prepared to endure the humiliation of Simon Cowell comparing her voice to the sound of a buffalo giving birth and chances are she’ll probably acquiesce.
But what happens when the next one comes along? There’s only so much space for half-a-dozen rubbish celebrities at any given time, and the turnover is pretty swift. What does the check-out girl who used to be famous do then? Go back to Poundland? If she became well-known because she couldn’t hold a note, she should never have been afforded any attention in the first place; and this is the kind of contemporary fame that is most puzzling to me, the fame someone who has no evident talent is given, and the fact that the masses are obsessed with these characters. Why? Just existing is enough to justify a front-page photograph, not the ability to act or sing or write or produce one intriguing idea. Paris Hilton took part in a sex tape that ‘went viral’ (as the kids say); Kim Kardashian has a gargantuan arse. And this is judged to be sufficient grounds for inspiring worldwide adoration.
The advertising industry sells unattainable dreams, as does Hollywood; that has been the case for practically a century. Every movie or billboard that interrupts the daily drudgery is supposed to be necessary escapist fantasy, and the mutual agreement between producer and consumer is based upon the knowledge that this dream will remain unattainable. When I was a young teenager and Duran Duran were huge, I used to be irked by footage of them swanning about in exotic locations, but I was aware there was a good five years of thankless slogging around midlands clubs that predated their ascension to the jet-set. I felt like they were rubbing my nose in it by showing-off, yet I acknowledged there was a reason for their fame; they were a group of musicians who wrote catchy pop songs that appealed to millions of adolescent girls. They had, in a sense, earned the right to revel in their gotten gains. I don’t see that so much anymore.
Through their glossy promo videos, Duran Duran, whether intentionally or not, were selling a lifestyle in the same way that the advertising industry and Hollywood always have; and if you liked their music, the lifestyle was part of the package; if you didn’t, the package provoked either anger or resentment. But at least it provoked something. The Kardashians of this world provoke nothing in me other than bemusement as to why anyone else should remotely care what they do. Whenever I exit my inbox, I’m taken straight to the Google ‘headlines’ and every time, there’ll be another celebrity I’ve never heard of (and have no interest in) hogging them. What purpose do these people serve?
It’s possible the more ordinary they are the more within reach and attainable their fame appears to be, giving the impressionable adolescent the belief they too can achieve a similar route out of their moribund existence. Were they blessed with an indisputable talent, such a gift is known to be rationed and therefore cannot be replicated with the same speed as someone who videos themselves being shagged and then posts it online. The awestruck audience that stretched out to make contact with their idol when Ziggy Stardust sang ‘Gimme your hands’ never believed they could be their God; to just be in the same room as him was as good as it got. This doesn’t apply with the famous today; they look like you and talk like you; they could be you; and you could be them.
But Pete Bennett is more representative of the legacy of this poisoned chalice than a fat-arsed chancer who married a millionaire rapper. His decline and fall is the story of our times, the story of a culture that has reduced people to the status of fast-food; and like all food, it goes in one end and comes out the other.