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City Desk

Twilight of the Idols

by Richard Brookhiser

Celebrities are people you know even though you don’t know them.        

We know our family, friends, and colleagues. We know of the officers of movements we belong to, and performers in the arts and sports we enjoy. The people everyone knows are celebrities. You know, say, your sister, your favorite writers on the Huffington Post, and the bullpen of the Yankees. A small group will know your sister, a larger one will know the writers and pitchers. Everyone knows Obama and A-Rod. They are celebrities.

It was warm, not brutal, and my wife and I went to eat dinner at our favorite outdoor place. After two decades of steady custom every new generation of waitresses knows us (see the first category of knowledge, above). We anticipated an hour of service and people watching, the Versailles of the urban middle class. Next door to our perch, however, there were signs of an impending function — doorkeepers, look-outs. The fleet was in, and I saw uniforms. But this was a bigger bustle than an ordinary military PR exercise. A celebrity must be on his way.

I recognized cameramen, the comrades of my work when I have followed political candidates or made documentaries. Cameramen are a different species from writers. My impressions can be rearranged later, up until the deadline. Cameramen live for the shot. If they get it, paradise and 72 raisins. If they don’t, crap. This makes them insouciant until their moment — slovenly, easygoing. But when the moment comes, they are Neanderthals locked with the saber-toothed tiger.

Cameramen have been a feature of my professional life for 30 years. But over the last five, the cellphone camera has made everyone a cameraman. High-school students may not believe it, but there was a time when people at the back of crowds did not hold their arms up to “see” what was happening; photographs of distant historical events — Lincoln’s funeral procession, V-J Day celebrations, 9/11 — will confirm this. Now we are all Cartier-Bresson. We are also all networks, for the video we take can appear in a matter of minutes on YouTube.

So who was coming? Maybe it would be a woman. A woman at the table next to ours began to exclaim: “She’s coming! She’s coming!” I thought she was joking, just to stir people up, like throwing chaff, not fish food, into a pond. Then two fancy cars drew up. You knew they were fancy only because they were black and swollen. Luxury cars have become cheesy and ugly — a bad legacy of rappers, who will drive anything so long as it has a diamond-crusted steering wheel. These looked like fat Jeeps. The celebrity stepped out of the second of them. I assumed this from the pandemonium; I never laid eyes on her myself. She was a typical young modern celebrity. She has had a sex tape, a reality show, and a few records. She models a little, acts a little, and eats very little. When she dates or goes out dancing, tabloids and websites take note.

Who composes crowds like the one that gathered? There are the mercenaries, from event planners to sweepers, who are paid to make the thing happen — a sector of the economy that does not need stimulus. There are the fans — not the somewhat curious who, in their millions, are the constituents of celebrity, but the true fanatics, devoted to this particular saint. One man at the event had brought a homemade poster showing the south front of the White House, with the celebrity photoshopped onto the lawn, and a slogan: PRESIDENT [HER NAME]. This was quite odd. This celebrity is not a holder forth, like Bono or Sean Penn. And even though we have put a comic into the Senate, a Roman of the most decadent page of Tacitus would not consider installing this celebrity there. The thought processes of fandom resemble those of dementia. An Alzheimer’s sufferer will say that, for Memorial Day, everyone in the residence stood around the Christmas tree. He meant, the flagpole; he wanted a tall, festive totem, and Christmas tree was what swam through the plaque. I LUV YOU + THE PRESIDENT IS POWERFUL = PRESIDENT CELEBRITY.

There are the doubters. “Look at this crowd,” said a man on the near fringe of it, passing judgment on human sap-hood — then added, in self-deprecation, “I’m in it too.” Irony will not save you, sir. The ironic gawker still swells the headcount. If half the people at the execution of Louis XVI were ironic, or disapproving, future historians will still write of the size of the crowd, and Louis will still be headless.

 Finally, there are the haters. In some cases, they are also fans. Contempt and fascination can switch back and forth like alternating current. A woman, striding away from the event, shouted to the diners, “The lady hasn’t been 18 for years!” She did not say “lady.” She was simply expressing what every supermarket-checkout-line headline about celebrity fat, bad clothes, adultery, and addiction says: The gods are just like us, unlovely, ill-advised, uncontrolled, betrayed, beset. They can make us look at them, and as a result they have fame and lots more money. That’s why we have to get our own back whenever they stumble. Every jeer is a slave revolt.

One curious feature of the event was its slipstream. After the celebrity had gone inside, and many of the onlookers had dispersed, another young woman, not famous, began striking poses on the sidewalk. She was all dolled up — man’s straw hat, off-shoulder blouse, legs as far as the eye could see — and she knew how to work it. The cameramen, having got their shots and figuring they might get a little B-roll, snapped away (as she had expected). So did the cellphone cameramen who were left. An aftershock? An expanding ripple? More like a tic. How would we know we were alive if we were not on/behind the camera?

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