I’ve got nothing against fame. I’m famous myself. Sort of.
OK, not Will Smith famous. Or Ellen DeGeneres famous. All right, not even Marilu Henner famous.
I’m the kind of famous where you fly into some town to give a speech before that shrinking subset of Americans who still read newspapers and, for that hour, they treat you like a rock star, applauding, crowding around, asking for autographs.
Then it’s over. You walk through the airport the next day and no one gives a second glance. You are nobody again.
Dave Barry told me this story once about Mark Russell, the political satirist. It seems Russell gave a performance where he packed the hall, got a standing O. He was The Man. Later, at the hotel, The Man gets hungry, but the only place to eat is a McDonald’s across the road. The front door is locked, but the drive-through is still open. So he stands in it. A car pulls in behind him. The driver honks and yells, “Great show, Mark!”
The moral of the story is that a certain level of fame – call it the level of minor celebrity – comes with a built-in reality check. One minute, you’re the toast of Milwaukee. The next, you’re standing behind a Buick waiting to order a Big Mac.
That level of fame might stroke your ego from time to time, but it won’t isolate or imprison you. And it will leave you your dignity. Which is more than Britney Spears has right now.
I will leave it to others to talk about the child (the noun is appropriate) and her recent public meltdown, as captured on a jittery video showing her in the back of an ambulance after a three-hour standoff that began when she refused to surrender her kids to an emissary from her ex-husband. What gets me is that the jittery video exists. And that an army of photographers pressed against the ambulance so that it was forced to wade slowly through them. And that all this was captured from a helicopter overhead.
Friends and neighbors, that is not news coverage. It’s a stakeout. It’s harassment. It’s stalking. And there ought to be – I’m in earnest about this – a law. Call it the Get A Life Act of 2008.
Look, I understand that fascination with celebrity deeds and misdeeds is nothing new. It’s older than James Brown leading a police chase, older than Lana Turner’s daughter killing her mom’s gangster lover, even older than Fatty Arbuckle on trial for rape. I also understand that the relationship between celebrities and cameras is symbiotic. And yes, I know it’s difficult to work up empathy or outrage over something that affects a small class of people richer and better looking than the rest of us.
But see, I also know something has gone wrong, some essential perspective has been lost, when Julia Roberts feels compelled – as she did a few weeks back – to chase down a photographer who had reportedly been staking out her children at school.
I’m embarrassed as a journalist that these members of my professional family – distant cousins, granted – have found no level to which they will not stoop to feed the public fixation on celebrity gossip. But I am also appalled, just as a person, that we the people provide the demand that drives the suppliers, that we support this voyeuristic intrusion, all-access trespass, 24/7 surveillance, of other people’s lives.
For criminy sake, America: Do you really need pictures of Britney in an ambulance so badly? Go read a book. Play with your kids. Make love. Something. Anything.
One is reminded of how photographers stood snapping away over the wreck of Princess Diana’s car, like vultures feeding on carrion. And one is sickened.
If that’s what it means to be truly famous, keep it. I’d rather stand in line behind a Buick.