Role models? Who needs 'em?: Setting heroes on pedestals is courting disappointment, says Geraldine Bedell

HE WAS a sports star and a movie star, a personification of the American dream. Black, and so by definition disadvantaged, O J Simpson started out in the Chicago ghetto, and ended up in Hollywood. He made his own way to money, celebrity, a beautiful blonde model wife and repeated requests from corporations to endorse their products.

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

with me.'

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.

(Photograph omitted)

News
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
news
News
peopleFox presenter gives her less than favourable view of women in politics
Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into disastrous conflicts
News
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
musicReview: 1989's songs attempt to encapsulate dramatic emotional change in a few striking lines
News
Mario Balotelli has been accused of 'threateningly' telling a woman to stop photographing his Ferrari
peoplePolice investigate claim Balotelli acted 'threateningly' towards a woman photographing his Ferrari
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Voices
Don’t try this at home: DIY has now fallen out of favour
voicesNick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of it
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Sport
Phil Jones (left) attempts to stop the progress of West Bromwich Albion’s James Morrison on Monday
I'm not worried about United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Arts and Entertainment
Saw point: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in ‘Serena’
filmReview: Serena is a strangely dour and downbeat affair
Life and Style
The Zinger Double Down King, which is a bun-less burger released in Korea
food + drinkKFC unveils breadless meat beast
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Computer Science Teacher required

    £7200 - £36000 per annum: Randstad Education Nottingham: We are currently recr...

    Teaching Assistant Plymouth

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: TEACHING ASSISTANTS NEEDED FOR PLYMOU...

    SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

    £50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

    Nursery Assistant/Nurse all cheshire areas

    £7 per hour: Randstad Education Cheshire: We are a large and successful recrui...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker