The Year of Celebrity: Has fame become too expensive?

Consensus over the "spirit" of a decade usually hardens unbidden aboutthree-quarters of the way through it. No such simple characterisation ever emerged for the Nineties, even though the election of a Labour government in 1997 was briefly heralded as some kind of vindication of optimistic predictions back in 1989 that this would be the "caring" decade.

The nearest we've come to anointing the Nineties is to tentatively refer to it as the Lifestyle decade, which in itself is confirmation of what we all know - that the Eighties were simply a dress rehearsal for the next 10 years. Over the pastdecade we have primped and polished and made more widely acceptable the preoccupations of the Eighties - money, power and rampant individualism. These three dubious barometers of personal suc- cess have crystallised into the apotheosis of a single obsessive national hobby - celebrity watching.

The phenomenon has always been with us, but gathered pace afterthe invention of film. Now, even the most minor of celebrities and the most banal of talents, can command frighteningly obsessive interest. Wewant celebrities not only to entertain and fascinate us, but also to provide leadership and inject meaning into our lives. We want them to stand for everything, which is precisely why Jeffrey Archer was allowed to try for mayor of London; we do our best to overlook all other content, beyond that which celebrity itself confirms.

The last year before 2000 was in that sense the year of Victoria Beckham, who without any special qualities at all beyond a talent for being famous and a member of the Spice Girls band, has somehow come to personify the zeitgeist of 1999. She has oodles of money and a prominent position on the Sunday Times "Power List". She is rarely out of the papers. But while the birth of her son and her marriage to footballer David Beckham was one of the most "significant" celebrity stories of the year, it is two other tales that offer a real glimpse of the darkness and danger underlying the treacherous surface of this most shallow of cultural signifiers.

One of the stories is trivial, featuring sex. The other is one of a sudden, violent, incomprehensible death. Yet they are on sides of the same coin, representing all there is to say about the currency of fame and the infinite ways it can be debased.

The first is the strange tale of the brief union of Geri Halliwell - ex-Spice Girl - and television company owner and presenter, Chris Evans. Infected as much as anyone by the national sport, I feel personally involved in this particular tawdry tale, because in a series of coincidences I saw it unfold. One Saturday morning, while filing into a chapel for a christening, I noticed a woman also going in who had the same outfit as Geri Halliwell wore during the previous evening's TV show, TFI Friday. It took me a moment to realise that this actually was Ms Halliwell, and that, probably, She Hadn't Been Home The Night Before, Wink, Wink. At the reception she told me this was a week that had been very weird and exciting for her. She seemed a bundle of nerves, her eyes constantly flickering around the room, touchingly vulnerable. About 10 days later I went to a birthday party for a childhood friend of my husband. Again I saw a girl, this time an exuberantly happy and high-spirited girl, who looked a bit like Geri Halliwell, with a man who looked a bit like Chris Evans.

Two days later the "romance" was all over the papers, broadsheet and tabloid alike, as was the supposition that this was all a publicity stunt cooked up between the pair to ensure that Ms Halliwell got to number one in the pop charts at the weekend.

A couple of days after this supposed aim was achieved, the alleged affair was declared over, and another hyped up story of media folk passed into legend. Except that the girl I saw was, to quote a hit movie about how the mega-famous are just like us really, "just a girl standing before a boy, asking him to love her".

I've no idea what was true and what wasn't about this short allegiance. But I do feel that, for this woman, fame is an addiction and a curse, and that she is confused, isolated and damaged. The strange events of that week, and the even stranger frenzy around them, form part of the story of public success and private failure for which we have an appetite, for which we are as hungry as the people who feed it to us - and as empty.

Until the morning of April 23 this year, Jill Dando could have been held up as an antidote to this messy, compromised, disastrous version of fame. Her celebrity, through again television work, seemed, benign, sensible and under control, seeping minimally into private lives, part of the deal for a popular presenter who slipped comfortably into the middle market and coped uncomplainingly with the stresses and strains imposed by a career in the public eye.

After her doorstep assassination in Fulham, west London, the phrase that appeared to sum her up best was "ordinary but extraordinary", even though the words are an uncomfortable reminder that the most extraordinary thing about Ms Dando proved to be the manner of her death.

The murder seemed inexplicable and, to date, remains unsolved. The exhaustive police investigations ruled out the possibility of her having been killed by someone linked to her personal life, and so the conclusion is the one that initially presented itself - that her death was provoked in some way by her fame. While this is not the first time that a famous person had provoked the attention of a fanatic to such an intense and disturbed degree, it was the first time that murder becamethe fate of such an innocuous, uncontroversial presence. What was considered valuable in the "saleable commodity" of her personality was her ability to make a connection with people which was "truly genuine".

Except that of course it was not. Ms Dando may have had a special talent for projecting her likeable and unassuming self into the nation's living rooms, but the connection, despite the transparent honesty of the transaction on its own terms, was an unreal one.

It now seems reasonable to assume that for somebody the virtuality of the relationship was fatally misconstrued. Perhaps somebody who "felt they knew" this person, also felt that this was a reciprocal relationship of a kind that could not exist. Somebody felt let down by her - because she was engaged to be married, because she had appeared in photographs dressed in leather, because of some other as-yet-unspeculated-about failure to behave as Somebody demanded.

It is also safe to assume that that Somebody is suffering from psychosis and that no general conclusions about the behaviour of an entire culture can be drawn from the actions of Somebody. Except that a blameless young woman is dead and gone now, sacrificed on the altar of celebrity.

But while we may have mourned this woman, our need for new hero-victims appears unabated and the price we expect those we worship to pay for their privilege, seems destined to continue to rise.

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015