Celebrities, we’ve now learned, are just like us. Probably no more attractive, now that you’ve seen them in Star’s truly astonishing “Celebrities Without Makeup” issue; richer certainly, but probably not happier. The public—still enamored of famous people, but now looking down at them instead of up, or at least sideways—picks over the hideous fashion choices, the delicious quotes, the overdoses, and the suicide attempts with the relish of hyenas tearing apart a wildebeest. The momentarily hot or fun celebs become fashion and lifestyle leaders, pushing trends (the Victoria Beckham bob is all the rage), but even this perch is tenuous. Once the meme has been propagated, the propagator is tossed aside, and must wait to be rediscovered by “the kids,” à la Tony Bennett.
Being a celebrity isn’t all terrible. Celebrities understand the power of branding, and they monetize their moment of fame as fast as they can, knowing that they could be swept away by the mildest shift in the cultural winds. Rappers, leading the culture here as in many other ways, have slapped their brands on everything from street wear to restaurants to beverages (50 Cent recently cashed in to the tune of $100 million when the company that manufactures his Formula 50 Vitaminwater was bought by Coca-Cola). In the rock world, David Bowie famously became the first artist to float his future earnings to the public as a bond offering in return for a quick payday. Today’s celebrities can sell off digital rights, international rights, gaming rights, and publishing rights, in ways celebs of yore never could. And who can blame them for doing so?
The most-successful entertainment figures are, in a sense, no longer celebrities at all, as they smartly rack up eight- and nine-figure fortunes behind a veil of normality that stymies the papparazzi. They live lives of conspicuous blandness, appearing in public as if to blend in with average suburbanites taking the kids to the supermarket. Will Ferrell, one of the biggest stars of the moment, recently was captured in Us out with his niece and nephew, wearing wrinkled clothes and a parti-color beard that would not have seemed out of place on a homeless man. Almost nothing is known about Matt Damon, Adam Sandler, or Steve Carell, all of whom, best we can tell, never go out and never do anything. Will Smith does go out to official events, but is almost never caught in mufti, managing to be seen only with his lovely wife and kids in tow. And Jennifer Aniston, late of Friends and Brad Pitt, has fashioned for herself a sob-sister role as the scorned woman. Twenty-million-dollar-a-movie stars: They’re just like us!
As an entire generation of 20-something starlets gets swept away by instantly disclosed public displays of dissipation, older and wiser celebs plunge into charity work with a gusto that would make Mother Teresa proud. The non-anorexic Jolie—at 32 a survivor of a decade of tabloid drama around her marriages, bisexuality, and intimations of vampirism—has refashioned herself as a global ambassador for refugee issues.
It would be churlish, and probably wrong, to question the motives of the celebrities who flock to such causes, for who among us can say our altruism contains no self-interest? But the panic with which celebs scramble to “give back to the community” does yield some telling moments. In May, Nick Carter, of the Backstreet Boys, was appointed United Nations special ambassador for the Year of the Dolphin campaign. “People like Bono, Angelina Jolie, and Nicole Kidman have inspired me to put my celebrity to good use,” Carter, who has no apparent dolphin-related expertise, told a press conference. With charming modesty, he added, “I am really excited, but also a little nervous about this much responsibility—it is an actual job. There are responsibilities and commitments that I must make to be the voice of dolphins, whales, and conservation issues, and the expectations are quite large.”
Or not. In the blogosphere, the an-nouncement, accompanied by a photo of the fresh-faced Carter posing with an inflated dolphin, was treated with gentle mockery—and promptly forgotten.
The public now is too sophisticated, too cynical, to take a face at face value. Madonna had thrown herself about publicly with great abandon, secure in the conviction that her every move—attending Kabbalah classes, adopting a Malawian child—would be accepted by her multigenerational fan base. But the digital era demands 100 percent authenticity, since inconsistencies between brand and reality can be easily parsed and exploited by legions of paparazzi and bloggers thrilled to take down someone who places herself upon a pedestal, who takes herself too seriously. Madonna is no more a hypocrite than the rest of us, but she is guilty of misreading the new culture—perhaps, in her book, a greater sin.
The savvier celebs—and there are a few willing to venture the rewards that come from acting like a star in the Marilyn Monroe sense—understand that poking fun at the artifice of celebrity is now a prerequisite for being one. Justin Timberlake, like Nick Carter a veteran ’90s boy-bander (in his case N’Sync), may be the only truly bankable star of the blogger era. He deftly melds old-school Rat Pack glamour with new-school multimedia omnipresence, talent, and taste. Unlike his more frantic peers, Timberlake makes no claims for himself (beyond “bringing sexy back”), which renders him blogger-proof; and he maintains a level of subtle self-mockery that suggests he’s in on the joke, that he hasn’t gone all Scarface with his fame. You can see him remaining a star into his 40s. Famously, Timberlake was duped in the first episode of actor Ashton Kutcher’s MTV show Punk’d, in which fake IRS agents repossessed his house, cars, and dogs. He later got Kutcher back, mocking him on Saturday Night Live. Then, last Christmas, again on SNL, he delivered his coup de grâce: a “digital short” with cast member Andy Samberg called “Dick in a Box.” Everyone goes on SNL to play at self-satire, but this was something new. The uncensored version (which NBC released on the Web) was a short-form work of genius, an unrelenting parody of precisely the kind of boy-band pablum Timberlake once inflicted on the public. Timberlake and Samberg, sporting ridiculous early-’90s facial hair, offered comically precise instructions, ripped from classically cheesy R&B via the boy-band hack book, on how a boxed penis is to be properly presented to a grateful lady. Timberlake played the skit straight-faced, even while prancing about moronically with a beribboned gift box affixed to his crotch. The video is now the sixth-most popular in the history of YouTube.
If you can’t imagine Madonna doing something similar, that’s precisely the point.