Our attitude to celebrities has got to change – for their sake, as well as ours, says former tabloid journo and celeb hunter
Being a celebrity makes you into a giant man-baby, reducing your capacity to be a fully-formed human.
To be an impeccable celeb brand, with a long shelf-life, you must renounce important parts of yourself. (By the way, celebrity means anyone in the public eye – regardless of what they do, or the talent with which they do it.)
For George Michael, this would have meant being a ‘straight celebrity gay’, the kind that lives a quasi-heterosexual life, with a ‘not-too-gay, gay partner’. Along with a couple of adopted kids and no behaviour in the bushes.
For Carrie Fisher, that would have meant being a size six and not eating. No drinking, no drugs, no smiling. No speaking your mind, no fun. No jeans, no trainers – and a chop-shop lobotomy.
Despite this, it was the flaws, the tender strain of humanity, that George Michael and Carrie Fisher exhibited, that made us love them more. More than the regular packaged fruits.
That they retained any part of their soul was a miracle. What the celebrity machine does, is simple – it takes the magic, constrains it, sieves it, and spews-out only the essence.
But to do this, is to screw the human being, too. Describing her mum and dad – who were post-war Hollywood royalty – Carrie Fisher knew how this machine operated, from the moment that she could articulate her thoughts.
‘My parents, Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, weren’t really people in the traditional sense,’ Fisher explained.
‘I think this was partly because they were stars before their characters had a chance to form.
‘A studio essentially designed my mom – they had her ears surgically pinned back, shaved her eyebrows (which never grew back) and changed her name. They made her into this celebrity someone, new and improved. A star!’
So, it’s little wonder she, George Michael and even stars like Prince, turned to drugs. Or hid away from the spotlight in a purple palace for a more balanced reality. Heroin is an analgesic. Coke is an anaesthetic.
I have more insight than most, as former showbiz journalist. Before I was a celeb-hunter for the tabloids, (a job, for the record, that caused me anxiety). I was a personal assistant to a musician, who was also an artist and a genius in his field. (I use that word sparingly. He was truly brilliant.)
He had been a child prodigy. This meant that he was like a scientific experiment: to discover how fame warps the adolescent mind – and the discipline required to manage praise in excellence. He taught me everything about what being a star is.
Back then, I was immature and selfish, and couldn’t accept the traits exhibited in a grown man. He regularly fired his friends and his staff. Me too, eventually, of course.
He trashed hotel rooms, showed disregard for the people around him and acted like a spoilt infant. The rider (luxury demands) for his hotel room read like an absurd shopping list from the Wolf of Wall Street crossed with Black Sabbath.
Including two magnums of champagne, humidity control devices, a two-room hotel suite separated by a lounge, and equipped with an almost-impossible-to-move-around baby grand piano, which often went un-played.
Now I’m older, I realise that he was only behaving in the way that people allowed him to. In an alternative reality created for the famous. One where they can act how they want, and ignore the tedious stuff most adults have to deal with.
It also meant he could concentrate on his musical gift, which was enormously difficult and all consuming. Something so challenging, that it required hours and hours of practise every day, to perfect.
A few years later, I was relieved to hear that he turned his back on it all, and moved to a country where he wasn’t well known and could live a relatively normal existence.
As a showbiz hack, I learned first-hand how to manipulate facts about celebrities to a given narrative. I wasn’t proud of these stories. We didn’t go looking for the good. We were on a mission for the other stuff.
Some celebrities, the successful ‘brands,’ secretly worked hand-in-hand with the tabloids. (You can work out who they are.) Not biting the hand that fed them. But feeding the hand that fed them. In the hope of not getting bit – and getting a bit rich with it.
But for many, especially the ones down on their luck, they were cannon fodder. It was common practice to make-up quotes in spoof stories, based on tit-bits of gossip, gleaned from half-heard party conversations, where everyone had had too much to drink.
Newspapers in the early nineties realised producing this sort of news, manufactured-at-your-desk journalism, was cheaper – and a useful distraction for their readers. These days, you don’t need have first-hand experience of celebrities to understand how this works. We are willingly casting ourselves as celebrities in our own right.
It’s perfectly possible to become famous. Even if you just launch yourself off the sofa into the jungle. Lose a bit of weight and have a make-over. The floor is yours.
You don’t need to be an artist with a beautiful soul. We measure ourselves in self-made popularity competitions according to how many followers we have on Twitter.
Or spend money on cosmetic improvements to achieve a ‘celebrity look’. We apply filters to our photographs to look better. All of this is to take us as far away from our real selves as possible.
Humans who age naturally, get fatter, decay faster, are flawed. Real people like George Michael – who often looked worse-for-wear after a mega blow-out we wished we could afford – didn’t play the game.
But won’t we end-up casualties, too, if we swallow this version of reality? Won’t we have to destroy ourselves for being flawed?
George Michael knew how tough the criteria were: ‘The most horrific thing that happened was I was photographed with my shirt off and I was fat. Can you imagine two worse things than being fat and gay?’
The George Michael I fell in love with fluttered out of the pages of a pop magazine with angel wings. He wore tight-fitting lemon Fila shorts and golden highlights shone in his hair. Wake me Up Before You Go Go was the first single I ever bought, 45p from Woolies in Mold.
A few years later, at a pop magazine I was lucky enough to edit, I learned a valuable lesson. We never hounded celebrities. Smash Hits didn’t revel in their inadequacies, or punish them when things went wrong. It celebrated their music and what it meant to be a fan.
It gently teased them, but didn’t goad them, and it enveloped them in a kind of warm, soft, cotton-wool pop cloud. We were a team. The fans, the journalists and the stars, all on the same side.
We should return to a time when we eased-up on the people who enhance our lives just a tiny little bit, and start being nice to them again. We should be accepting in ourselves and in the people who provide the cultural escapism that is the soundtrack to our lives. We should do this now. This minute, before popular culture becomes so bland, that we all merge into one homogenous reality.
Emma Jones was a showbiz reporter for, among others, The Sun and editor of Smash Hits magazine