Fallen Stars

Can celebrities survive the age of too much information?

For more than two decades, Madonna was the consummate celebrity-image manipulator, a changeling nonpareil, a coolhunter’s coolhunter. That is, until she agreed to perform at this past July’s Live Earth concert, an all-star worldwide event designed to increase awareness about global warming. She had even written a song, “Hey You,” expressly for the event.

A straightforward mid-tempo number, “Hey You” was proof, she must have felt, that her heart was in the right place. The lyrics boldly preached that purifying one’s own soul can open the way to changing the minds of others, and the accompanying video was classic celebrity agitprop: a procession of glossy images of environmental devastation (fires, nuclear power plants, suffering animals), alternating with images of visionary leaders (Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Gandhi) and current hacks (George W. Bush, Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy). The video culminated in an image of underdressed but nonetheless festive African children tossing a globe into the air, where it resolved into an image of the Earth seen from space. During her appearance in London, Madonna exhorted the crowd: “If you want to save the planet, I want you to start jumping up and down. Come on, motherfuckers! If you want to save the planet, let me see you jump!”

VIDEO: “Hey You” by Madonna

What was to have been a standard act of drive-by do-gooderism became a PR muddle, when Fox News revealed that Madonna’s charitable foundation had invested in a host of ecologically offensive car, oil, and timber companies. Worse, the BBC subjected her to an “environmental audit” in which her carbon footprint was found to be roughly 100 times that of the average U.K. resident (six cars, nine homes, a global concert tour with at least 100 people in tow, etc.). Hordes of bloggers called her out as a hypocrite. And worse: Some began examining footage of the concert to determine whether the star’s raging ax work during her performance of “Ray of Light” had been pantomimed.

When the master of the art of celebrity—someone who took on the Catholic Church, mainstreamed gay culture, more or less invented the now-common art of voyeuristic celebrity peekaboo with her documentary Truth or Dare, then put out a book of high-end porn and got away with it all—missteps so publicly, you know something has changed. Indeed, can we, at risk of mock-epic portentousness, call this a moment of celebrity crisis? Going further, can we posit that the very idea of celebrity, which has held for much of the past century, is itself facing an unprecedented challenge, one that has turned actors and musicians and all-around famous-for-being-famous people from demigods into lab rats, to be momentarily toyed with by the public and then discarded once their narratives become tiresome?

Surely there has not been a more embarrassing time for celebrities. A remarkable portion of young Hollywood has been arrested or almost certainly will be arrested at some point. Lindsay Lohan, at 21 the most promising actress of her generation, may well have become uninsurable after a numbing series of arrests and stints in rehab, putting her career on the shelf for at least the near future.

Older stars have had their preposterously botched plastic surgery picked over by “experts” in weekly magazines, while their confreres’ pill-popping, alcoholic antics are retailed in real time on blogs. Even Angelina Jolie, the queen of Hollywood, is apparently reduced to having her representatives plead with the public, via People magazine, to contemplate a history of Angelina photos purported to prove that she is not anorexic or suffering from a mystery disease, but in fact has always been skinny. And she is too still in love with Brad, despite what people say.

Blame, as always, digital media—underminer of newspapers, magazines, music, movies, and television—for eroding our traditional notions of celebrity. And celebrity, it should be said, is something distinct from acting or singing or doing. Celebrity is a state of pure fabulousness, in which one’s aura is projected across the land, inspiring envy, fantasy, endless curiosity. But as the number of celebrities grows, and as their likenesses proliferate, their carefully constructed personae are increasingly disputed terrain.

A story from the pre-digital era: When I was an editor at Esquire a bit more than a decade ago, I discovered some pictures in L’Uomo Vogue of Tom Cruise—taken by the photographer Herb Ritts—that showed him frolicking in the Malibu surf, his erect nipples poking through a half-wet tank top. Cruise was dogged even then by rumors of homosexuality, and the photos, which read as “gay,” had been restricted by Cruise’s publicists (in the analog age this was still possible) to European publication. Presumably this was because the international market was less interested in such issues or had a different signification system—perhaps in Italy, erect nipples are a sign of extreme butchness.

Regardless, precisely because Cruise’s sexuality was in question, the photos were quite hilarious, and would certainly cause a ripple were one to appear on the cover of Esquire, itself a publication prone to strenuously restating its commitment to hetero-male values. Four months of negotiation ensued, during which the PR folks bartered the right to use a Ritts photo for various assurances that the accompanying story would contain virtually nothing of interest to anyone. And because the gatekeepers for Cruise (only one of the firm’s many A-list clients) knew that magazines lived or died as a result of favors granted or denied, they wielded their power ruthlessly. Victory, when it came in the form of permission to use a single photo on the cover, was so sweet that I rallied the entire staff to go out and celebrate. The story, needless to say, was a fluffer.

This image control, different in form but similar in kind to that exerted by publicists and moguls and producers from the dawn of the entertainment business, used to be key to sustaining celebrity. With breaches in the 1950s, which had its scandal rags, and in the ’80s, when Spy magazine broke the cozy compact between celebrity and media, the control has always been top-down. Celebrities were manufactured, their brands honed by teams of marketers, then maintained through elision. The public never knew enough to truly understand, and hence judge, a celebrity, and therefore he or she could be described as “glittering,” “larger than life,” a figure of mystery and intrigue.

Now, of course, we have too much information: TMI. We are told that Britney Spears swam topless with her former assistant, that she ran crazed into a beauty salon and demanded to have her head shaved (the photos were online within hours), and that she feeds her two children ice cream and Doritos. Hollywood is besieged by wildcatting madmen on motorcycles swarming the city like locusts and capturing anything anyone of note does—preferably embarrassing, but mundane is fine, too. The more- colorful content finds its way onto blogs like Perez Hilton, the Superficial, Pink is the New Blog, and the Time Warner–owned TMZ.com, which features unedited video of drunk celebs getting into fender-benders or pathetically rationalizing their inability to gain admittance to the club of the moment. The British weekly heat, which should be required reading for any student of the age, focuses surgically, preposterously, hilariously, on celebrity minutiae. A recent feature—pure tabloid genius—centered on shocking celebrity sweat stains. Other stories have homed in, titillatingly, on unbuff celebrity midsections, best and worst hindquarters, and the ugly knees of otherwise-hot celebrities. The less-shocking content, purposefully banal, finds its way into the U.S. category leader, Us magazine, which features a weekly spread showing that celebrities are “just like us.”

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.