Role models? Who needs 'em?: Setting heroes on pedestals is courting disappointment, says Geraldine Bedell
And then last week, it all ground miserably to a halt. The American football running back had run out of places to run, and he was arrested in connection with the murder of his wife and her male companion. The many people who had invested emotionally in the life and career of O J Simpson felt anguished. 'Say it isn't so,' sobbed a young black fan on a television talk show, summing up the mood: 'this keeps happening to our heroes.'
Other black superstars who had toppled from pedestals were remembered: Mike Tyson, jailed for the rape of Desiree Washington; Earvin 'Magic' Johnson, relentlessly promiscuous and HIV-positive; Michael Jackson, the subject of child abuse allegations; Marion Barry, the former mayor of Washington, accused of crack dealing; Snoop Doggy Dogg, the rap star, now facing murder charges.
All this, it was feared, could only confirm the worst suspicions of white people: that you can take the boy out of the ghetto, but you can't take the ghetto out of the boy.
So should we now be worrying about our own black celebrities? Might Linford Christie and Lenny Henry suddenly reveal an unexpected nasty streak? Is Naomi Campbell about to do something much worse than produce a bad novel? Will Diane Abbott and Moira Stewart, Trevor McDonald and Frank Bruno, Ian Wright and Jeremy Guscott prove to be quite, quite different from the people we thought they were?
Unlikely. The American problem may be less with the people who are put on pedestals than with the pedestals themselves. We British don't expect our celebrities to be exemplary in all respects; we don't have quite such fervent faith in them in the first place. The American media glorified O J Simpson - not quite as a saint, but very nearly.
Real saints, though, have to be dead before they can be canonised, and so run little risk of ruining everything by being found to snort cocaine or harass women. In America, a country in which social problems are widely associated with black ghettoes, role models are deemed to be both necessary and desirable: if these people could make it out of the illegitimacy and crime cycle, the thinking goes, so could you. Role models are an American insitution.
But O J Simpson has prompted a good deal of soul searching about whether they're really such a great thing. Do they, perhaps, suggest that black people need to study celebrities before they can organise their lives? Do they compound the belief that the black population is composed of a handful of superstars at one end, and a vast underclass at the other? Or that black people can only really make it in sport or entertainment? Do white people enjoy a kind schadenfreude if these role models go to the bad; do they perhaps allow the rest of the population to conclude that black people trying to integrate inevitably face disabling identity crises?
Role models have become quite so significant partly because of the rise of the victim culture, or (depending on where you stand) the acknowledgement that some groups are structurally disadvantaged. This, believes Andrina Louis, co-ordinator of the Build mentoring project in Nottingham, is why we need to think about role models here: 'The educational system is not geared to black children in this country. There's no black history taught, for example, and expectations are low, and Afro-Caribbean children are failing exams, failing to get worthwhile careers, and many young boys are turning to crime. Often there isn't any ambition at home.'
The Build project pairs teenagers with black professionals who can steer them towards careers, or give them a sense of possibility. But this is rather different from celebrity role models, and Andrina Louis seems slightly exasperated with the American habit of turning celebrities into mentors-at-a-distance: 'They live in cloud-cuckoo-land there, I'm sorry.'
That said, there is far more mentoring in the US than there is to date in Britain. General Electric funds a scheme at Aiken High School, in Cincinnatti, Ohio, that six years ago, sent five students, about one in sixty of the school's pupils, to college. Last year it sent 73, one in four. Mentors help with tuition, college and grant applications, and offer social guidance to those who may never have eaten at a restaurant.
Women have also set up networking and mentoring groups, to remind each other that it is possible to become a company director, and to offer concrete help in doing it. 'Networking has been derided as boosterism, as selling out to the male, clubbish way of doing things,' says Rachel Ellis, an accountant. 'But I want to be a finance director, and there are so few female role models for me that unless I go looking for them, it's very easy to think that this is a world that has nothing to do
The great pre-mass media advocate of public role models was Samuel Smiles, the author of Self Help (published in 1859). His heroes were entrepreneurs, and his faith that anyone could strike out and achieve, regardless of their background: they only needed an example before them, and his book could provide it. 'Biographies of great, but especially of good men, are most instructive and useful, as helps, guides, and incentives to others,' he wrote, larding Self Help with potted histories of men he admired.
This was a strongly individualist notion (Sir Keith Joseph wrote a preface to a recent edition of Self Help), and often seen as not entirely attractive to those with more collectivist tendencies. Basil Lewis, a black Tory councillor in the 1980s, summed up the Conservative belief that individualism was both good, and inimical to the Labour Party, when he explained that he had rejected Labour 'because it tries to condition people to think and be small. It doesn't want them to do their own thing; it wants them to be dependent on the state, and therefore, on the Labour Party.'
These days, it is hard to find anyone to argue seriously that role models aren't a good idea; it would be like arguing that motherhood is not a good idea. In the absence of positive role models, it is now accepted, young people will find negative ones. Charles Murray, the American polemicist, argues that there is a growing underclass, which can be defined principally by illegitmacy. Without fathers - 'good' male role models - he says, young boys in the ghetto will turn for their idea of masculinity to the biggest, toughest man around, who will probably be earning money through crime, possibly drug-related, and violent.
But should those in need of role models attach themselves to celebrities? Lurline Champagnie, a Tory councillor in Harrow and parliamentary candiate for Islington North in the last election, says: 'Your heart lifts when you see another black person do something outstanding.' But her own role model was her grandmother, 'a very sedate old lady with a lot of values - in manners, behaviour, discipline, education. Her view was that anything you can do I can do too.'
Isabel Appio, editor of the Weekly Journal, looked to Trevor McDonald. 'When I was growing up, it was impossible get a sense of what you might do unless you saw someone doing it ahead of you. Trevor McDonald is probably why I'm in the media.' John Taylor, parliamentary candidate for Cheltenham in 1992, who is also a barrister, television presenter, and company director, kept ahead of him the example of West Indian cricketer Sir Learie Constantine, who was a barrister, and a friend of his father.
Highly public role models may fall short partly because of the pressures of their position. 'So much is invested in them,' says Isabel Appio. 'Any black person who becomes successful almost automatically becomes a role model. They then have a great responsibility to live up to certain ideals: the more people admire you, the further you have to fall.'
The TV presenter Chrystal Rose, conscious, presumably, of the criticism that some black celebrities - Naomi Campbell, Frank Bruno, Lenny Henry, John Barnes, Paul Ince, Jeremy Guscott, Bernie Grant, John Taylor - have faced for marrying white people, claims she is determined to fulfil her obligations as a prominent black person, and marry another black person.
No wonder role models disappoint us, if they have to live with such absurd constraints. And no wonder that many of the most famous British black people decline to talk about themselves as representatives of a race, or indeed, in any way that exposes their personal lives.
'Nobody could be that good, that perfect,' as Boris Becker said when asked if he felt that being married to Barbra Feltus made him a symbol of a new Germany.
Becker is right: nobody can. It is significant that when black people fall from grace their colour is mentioned, in a way that Woody Allen's or Tonya Harding's or River Phoenix's never is. (The editor of Just 17, Toni Rodgers, says her readers - average age 14 - were incredibly bitter about River Phoenix, who was supposed to be living such a worthy life.) Meanwhile, in the media's rush to treat personal disasters as symbolic of a wider, racial, unease with aspiration, the untainted role models get forgotten. The Americans still have Jesse Jackson, Colin Powell, Bill Cosby, and Oprah Winfrey, and a sizeable black middle class, if they bothered to take notice of it.
Everybody needs role models. Just 17 readers, according to Toni Rodgers, most admire Darlene from Roseanne, on the grounds that she's so cynical. A recent poll of older teenagers found that their role models were Richard Branson and Anita Roddick. But whether it's entirely advisable for so many people to place quite so much faith in someone who just happens to be a great running back and pretty cool actor is a moot point. That, though, is less a black issue, than a comment on the absurdity of the whole celebrity circus.
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