Thought Depp v. Heard, the six-week trial held in a Virginia court tasked with adjudicating a defamation suit filed by actor Johnny Depp against his wife, fellow-actor Amber Heard, may have been tawdry – given all that dirty laundry aired in public before the trial concluded on June 1 – it was the tawdriness, incongruously, that raised seminal questions about what social scientists call the phenomenology of fame, which humble folks like us who speak plain English take as a reference to both people’s obsession with celebrity and the ruinous effects of celebrity status on the mindset of the celebrated.
I’ll tell you this before we move on: I found the trial to be a snoozer, unlike those millions of Americans and millions more elsewhere around the world who watched it being massively covered live on TV. The trial was a snoozer, I felt, because it panned out to be, from gavel to gavel, a he-said, she-said mudslinging fest between two people with a “hole in the soul”, a term originally used by blues artists to refer to the loss of beauty and meaning in modern American music, but one that in recent years we have picked up to describe individuals who, though they have it all, feel an emptiness at the core of their being.
So, what is it with celebrities and, yes, why have they become a central fixation in our lives, in our culture, in our media and, darn it, at times in our thoughts?
I see the relationship we have with celebrities as being symbiotic – a word we have appropriated from Greek that tellingly means “living together” – and like other symbiotic relationships there’s something in for both parties.
World of glitz and glamor
And what’s in it, you ask, for celebrities? Stardom, that world of glitz and glamorous inhabited by the “beautiful people”, folks with looks that swivel eyes, who elegantly walk the red carpet garbed in pricey brand-name gowns or equally pricey custom-made tuxedos. Folks ready with a bon mot when they receive awards in recognition of their talents, charisma and élan as film, music, sports, media and political leading lights.
Folks with oodles of money (Johnny reportedly has a $ 100 million property portfolio, while Amber, well, not so much, though the last time we checked, she was not on food stamps) who live in spacious mansions, travel on private jects, stay in ritzy hotels and party in trendy clubs.
And what’s in it for us? The chance to live these folks’ lives and be who and what they are – even if only vicariously. Celebrities, by definition of their style, embody the polish we aspire to possess. We watch, admire and emulate them. They are so interwoven into the social fabric, the preoccupations of our culture and even, on a subliminal level, our quotidian lives, that we treat them like family, like friends, like colleagues, alternately idolising them, as we did Muhamad Ali, for his achievement-based bravado; demonising them, as we did Vanessa Redgrave for her ideological views; and penalise them, as we did Bill Cosby for his villainous acts.
And we love them so even when – indeed, at times especially when – they go engagingly rogue, morphing into rascals who break rules and mock norms, the “cool dudes” in our imagination we trace back all the way from James Dean to Malcolm X and, more recently, from Hunter S. Thompson to Mick Jagger – rebels with a cause we project ourselves on.
But wait. Really, it’s all hall-of-mirrors.
The celebrity self and the authentic self
Celebrities – who, once fame hits, find their personality split into two, the celebrity self and the authentic self – are essentially tormented souls who had made a pact with the Devil, who they now find lurking around the corner asking for his fee this fee to be paid. They are trapped in a Sartrean huis clos, a fenced-in artificial world that many struggle but often fail to escape. Not all pick up and go, as Marlon Brando did, to Tahiti, in search of a sheltering refuge from the terrors of combat
in Hollywood, refusing to attend the Academy Award ceremony in 1973 and to accept the Oscar it wanted to present him for his performance in The Godfather.
Oh, celebrities. We want so much to be them but, when it all gets down to the get-down, they more so want to be us.
In August 2013, Amber Heard complained to a reporter about how she wished she could, much as ordinary folks like us could, take a pleasant walk in the park, go shopping for groceries and sit on the terrace in her neighborhood cafe sipping on an espresso without being noticed or bothered.
“I want to be an artist,” she said. “I don’t want to be a celebrity.”
Sorry, Amber, The two come as one. In today’s world, certainly in today’s America, being an artist and being a celebrity are a package deal. You live with it and finally you get used to it – a condition that is both the pride and burden of those who are so unfortunate as to be saddled by fame and fortune.
Fawaz Turki is a noted thinker, academic and author based in Washington DC. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile