The end of celebrity is nigh

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The Independent Culture
For some time now I have been anxiously looking out for signs that the Age of Celebrity may be on the wane. My position is fairly pathetic, I freely admit it - but, in the way of these things, I can't ever quite abandon hope. I am possessed by the hallucinatory longing of a shipwrecked sailor, eyes peering into the uninterrupted blackness of media sycophancy, searching for that almost imperceptible thinning of the darkness which tells you that the sun is on its way. It is a condition of peculiar susceptibility, in which you can't really trust your perceptions. Is that really a horizon clarifying out of the gloom, or just the projection of a pleading mind flickering on the screen of the retina?

My first false hope was raised by a realisation that the actress interview (the very flagship of celebrity journalism) had begun to turn a little sour. A few months ago, for example, I noticed that expressions of petulance had become almost obligatory, as though the genre was beginning to break up under the burden of mutual pretence. First of all Andie McDowell was bad tempered with some unfortunate journalist, who then made the cardinal sin of admitting in print that she didn't really know why she was interviewing her in the first place. Then Amanda Donohue also turned out to have been thinking about this vacuous ceremony of candour: "If you don't want to be confessional and you don't want to get on a soapbox, what do you end up doing?" she snapped at Andrew Billen of the Observer earlier this year. "You actually end up talking about absolutely nothing of any importance to either you, the interviewer or the reading public." I couldn't, given the logic of my position, put up a pin-up of Ms Donohue, but I treasured her remark for months, sure that it was a straw in the wind - that journalism about ideas and arguments might one day replace the tyranny of the career biography.

Nothing came of it, of course. But this week I thought I had detected another glimmer of light. Hello! magazine published an extremely revealing set of photographs of Michael Jackson. This sounds inherently implausible, I know. After all, Hello! is the house magazine for the star dazzled, a publication in which you assume the principal editorial tool is an airbrush. And indeed the prose was exactly as you might have expected - a breathtaking indifference to unpalatable facts. Michael's "waxen pallor", we were told, had given way to "a healthier glow". But the pictures were cruelly explicit about the degree of artifice involved. You didn't even have to look closely to detect the line of mesh scrim supporting the singer's hairpiece, a Caucasian flop of jet-black hair; the lipstick on that rosebud mouth was smudged and the ugly battle between stubble and foundation was plain to see. Even the poses seemed designed to expose - in one picture the singer holds his wife's face as if it is a trophy, in another he conceals his nose and mouth with a startlingly pink hand - the only soundtrack possible for the image is an embarrassed titter.

If even Hello! has decided to leave Jackson high and dry, I thought, to withdraw the courtier's etiquette of the discreet touch up, then the revolution is surely upon us. If Hello! is mischievously experimenting with candour, dawn cannot be far away. I was wrong again, I fear, though, with the inventiveness of the truly despairing, I've even now found a new straw to clutch at.

My disappointment involved a slightly paradoxical discovery. Hello! magazine, it seems, only rarely retouches its photographic images - a fact which, in magazine terms, at least, makes it rather unusual. I was sceptical about this claim at first, but when you look at a copy closely you can see that it's true - indeed, it explains the distinctive style of Hello! photographs - that of celebrity snapshots, complete with irregularities of focus and clumsiness of framing. For all their synthetic poses, the pantomimes of uxorious devotion and familial solidarity - and for all the breathless adulation of the print beneath them - the pictures often withhold absolute perfection. This is true even for the magazine's most adored centrepiece - Princess Diana looks rougher in Hello! than she ever does in Vogue. The explanation, I'm sure, is dully economic - cheaper paper, less time, no expensive scanning. But, dreaming of the death of celebrity, I see it as a mirage, evidence of an insurrection against the tedious tyranny of fame. It is getting lighter, isn't it?