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.