A well-known scene has just played out on televisions across the country. A much-loved parent was made to choose which of their three children to exalt. Two offered honeyed words and matchless sentiment in what were ultimately flawed performances; the third attempted to get by on honesty, natural talent and the genuine demureness that comes with good, old-fashioned humility.
But it wasn't King Lear that we were watching, it was The X Factor, and we were searching not for a new monarch, but for the next singing sensation – at the very least, for this year's Christmas number one. We watched in horror as the usually beneficent judge and queen of our hearts Cheryl Cole turned away modest Gamu Nhengu, whose goal was to make her mother proud, in favour of Katie Waissel, who told us she wanted to become "an icon in art, culture and medicine" before flubbing her lines, and 17-year-old Cher Lloyd, as riddled with tonsilitis as she was with streetwise attitude, who croaked her way through half a song and eventually walked out of the audition.
Predictably, chaos ensued: there was outcry in the village squares, peasants and villeins were up in arms, and the mob wanted blood – on Twitter at least. Right-hand-man Simon Cowell said nothing, and fellow judge Louis Walsh – surely the Fool in this scenario – spoke out against Cole. Soon came the anger, next the opprobrium, and then the death threats.
For Cheryl Cole née Tweedy – once the most adored woman in Britain – the wheel of fortune had turned and the backlash had begun. It is set to continue tomorrow night, when the next instalment of the X Factor drama unfolds.
Victoria Kennedy, editor of the celebrity gossip magazine Now, says: "Two months ago, when Cheryl had malaria, she could do no wrong. But people are disappointed in her right now, they feel let down. They're wondering why she did this and they can't relate to the decision she made."
A badly chosen outfit, a drugs scandal, a clandestine love affair, political proclivities that ought never to see the light of day (yes you, Gary Barlow) can all conspire to sweep the latterday icon off their pedestal and into the gutter, their public petticoats awry to reveal feet of clay.
In The Aeneid, Virgil describes fame as a monster with hundreds of eyes and mouths that grows and struts.
"Fame originally comes from the Latin fama, which means rumour," says Tom Payne, author of Fame: From the Bronze Age to Britney. "In Greek, pheme just means speech. Fame ends up being what we all agree on, there's something very bonding about it."
Conversation and interest drive celebrity, regardless of activity or talent. When we complain about the likes of Paris Hilton and the Geldofs, when we wonder what it is they are actually for, we are feeding the media coverage that perpetuates their celebrated state. Fame is a set of ideas that a community bonds over and forms shared notions about; in this way, humans are herds to be driven by their tenders, either the media or the publicists.
Once there is a sense among the public that someone has done wrong or been wronged, communal feelings are amplified until they are expressed in their most extreme form – in Cole's case, and in the case of so many celebrities that have fallen foul of public favour, as a backlash designed to eradicate the positive feelings that were once so ubiquitous.
The footballer Wayne Rooney has come under similar attack from his fanbase with the announcement this week of his intention to leave Manchester United. His is a story not unlike Cole's: the working-class hero, whose lack of airs, and indeed any sort of grace, endeared him to his public. His childhood sweetheart, his stellar talent, his foibles (mature women and Bermuda shorts) have all contributed to the creation of his legend. So the recent volte-face and, as the public sees it, rather venal logic is a defiant show against the populace, and therefore against the very force that made him what he is. To put it simply, he has got too big for his football boots.
"With Cheryl Cole, things turned very suddenly," continues Tom Payne. "Suddenly it was okay to snipe about her – at one point, saying anything bad about Cheryl Cole was taboo, because she climbed Kilimanjaro for charity, for instance. It was impossible at one stage for Grazia to publish something about her that wasn't euphoric."
From our general disdain for Cole's new hair colour (a lurid auburn) to audible booing as she handed down her judgement on the X Factor participant Aiden Grimshaw last Saturday, the public have marked their displeasure. Such rebellion would not have been possible during the ubiquitous pre-backlash Cheryl love-in.
The pendulum swing from revered to reviled structures much of our culture through literature and ethics. Aristotle cites peripeteia, a reversal of fortune, as crucial to the storyline of any human existence. Greek tragedy is still as gripping as any reality TV show – it kept the ancients as firmly glued to their seats as Katie and Cher's false lashes are to their respective eyeballs. The Elizabethans knew it too, with their odes and sonnets to Dame Fortune. It's no irony that the music playing as the X Factor judges take to the stage is Karl Orff's "O Fortuna" from Carmina Burana, although the sentiment may be lost to many viewers.
Oh Fortune – like the moon you are changeable, ever waxing and waning;
hateful life first oppresses and then soothes, as fancy takes it;
poverty and power, it melts them like ice.
And you thought it was just football music to rouse rabbles. Maybe Cheryl Cole will take extra note of those words after the week she has had.
"Tabloid journalists don't sit around and decide to knock someone off their perch," says Polly Hudson, columnist and celebrity commentator at The Mirror. "When a celebrity gets to a certain level, anything vaguely negative about them becomes interesting. Anyone else would get away with it – but Cheryl hasn't put a foot wrong, she doesn't wear things we don't like, and the public gets bored of people who are too perfect. We need something more controversial."
Cole has been nothing but controversial, but she has managed to retain a certain human aspect. "We'd always put Cheryl on the cover over, say Nicole Kidman," says Victoria Kennedy of Now magazine. "You can't relate to someone like that, you wouldn't see her in Tesco."
Every part of Cole's life has been played out for us, from her thrilling ascent to fame as part of the award-winning pop group Girls Aloud, who were themselves picked by judges on a reality TV show, to the scandal of her having assaulted a cloakroom attendant in a nightclub in 2003; from the whirlwind romance of her marriage to the footballer Ashley Cole to the very public disintegration of their relationship after several lurid allegations; from her Gloria Gaynor-esque assertion of independence from him and a week of joint number ones in the single and album charts, to her subsequent collapse during the filming of the X Factor auditions, which has been attributed to exhaustion and a bout of malaria.
Her decisions as a judge have been widely attributed to her illness, which serves only to cast Cole more and more in the light of some afflicted tragic hero in the grip of some Senecan madness. As with Britney Spears and Susan Boyle before her, we love nothing more than for a consolidated personage to crumble either physically or mentally before our very eyes.
"It's not a question of behaviour," says Chris Rojek of Brunel University, whose book Fame Attack is published next year, "but of exposure management. You have to be seen in the right light all the time. But of course it's never just a public face, everyone is a private person – and that raises formidable questions about the nature of celebrity."
The public make, create and destroy you," says the PR mogul Mark Borkowski. "The news cycle is months now, rather than decades, and your Warholian 15 minutes ultimately rely on how you shape your own narrative. You can plunder it like a soap opera as Jordan has, or you tackle the highs and lows with energy – you master your narrative, like Lady Gaga."
Gaga and SuBo represent both ends of the modern fame spectrum; they both sing and they're both a bit weird. One of them inspires distaste and fear, the other more often contempt and ridicule; but who is more deserving of which? There is a delicate balance of aspiration and envy in our relationships with stars; we don't want to feel inferior to them, but neither do we want to feel too equal. Susan Boyle was striking because of her normality; she then became risible for it. Gaga, meanwhile, remains so outré, her orbit so elliptical, that she leaves us wanting a little more, and we continue to assume that she is worthy of her notoriety. Because who would wear a meat dress if they didn't have a higher calling? The pendulum is not just between liked and loathed, but also between the right sort of weird and the wrong sort of weird.
Celebrities live what is called a 'frontier experience', both emotionally and socially," continues Chris Rojek. "They experience extreme pressures that we can't understand, so they have a licence to behave the way they do. They have more opportunities, but similarly more pressures. The public do go along with the idea of celebs as victims, put upon by the media and so forth, but only to a certain extent."
The tipping point seems to be when we stop celebrating someone's success and start analysing their trajectory. Ideally, celebs shouldn't give us a reason to start pondering how they got to where they are. When Britney Spears shaved her head, she breached the realm of parody and her character book was blotted by a tendency toward caricature. Such was her transgression that it has become hard to think of her without reference to the event, impossible to praise or admire her in the way many did before her 'troubled phase'.
Likewise, we feel our celebrities should never be too hungry for their fame, too aspirational without reason or talent. There is something grasping about Katie Waissel's drive to become, in her own words, "a legacy". The difference between Cole and her protégée is the same as the one between Oedipus, who stumbles into crisis unknowingly after a series of rather self-aggrandising decisions, and Macbeth, egged on by the darker forces of consciousness to fulfil what he perceives to be his unquestionable potential.
"It's known as the 'mirror effect'," says Rojek. "Thanks to the cult of celebrity, there is a widespread feeling of entitlement amongstyoung men and women these days, a feelingthat your opinions matter. People want the acclaim without actually having done well.Reality TV shows pander to this – you seepeople turning up to talent contests with nodiscernible talent whatsoever."
"It's impossible to be a celebrity if the public don't like you," adds Mark Borkowski. "There's a warmth to Cheryl, she's honest and she's one of us, she speaks from the heart. As a brand, Cheryl Cole can't deal with rejection: her relationship with her public is who she is – the archetypical girl next door." This is especially important in a competition like The X Factor – and Britain's Got Talent, in the case of Susan Boyle, or Big Brother in Jade Goody's – where the audience have control over a contestant's destiny. We either reject contestants outright (and pretty, middle-class, ambitious Katie Waissel had no chance) or we embrace them as if they sprang fully formed from our own heads.
And the Wheel of Fortune – whether spun by the Olympians or by Nicky Campbell, whether you're a goat-herd or in a girl group – can roll back round to the top as well, just as Jade Goody sprang phoenix-like from her own ashes. Her race row with the actress Shilpa Shetty became the moral impetus that drove the remainder of her career. Having once borne the contempt of the nation, in her sad, inexorable fate, she became its sweetheart.
"Celebrities either seem talented or bogus," says Chris Rojek. "By the end, Jade had become a saint, and was celebrated as a force for good, as women became aware of the dangers of cervical cancer."
We don't mind our celebrities erring, aslong as this too is done within the mould ofwhat the mob deems acceptable. And where Cole, like Goody, has brought about her own misfortune, she will shake it off once she has paid her dues and acknowledged that without us, she's nothing.
"Cheryl can redeem herself," say Victoria Kennedy. "She's due to appear on Piers Morgan soon – she'll open up, talk about the divorce and people will warm to her again."
Katie Waissel and Cher Lloyd meanwhile, the Goneril and Regan of the scene, seem destined to fall into what Mark Borkowski describes as a "prefab hell". "The public will eradicate Cher and Katie," he predicts, "and then we'll be back on track to a language that is more familiar, no more of this doubting – you need to communicate trust in a brand, and Cheryl Cole needs us to be who she is."
Indeed, with a new album released on 1 November, Cole needs us more than ever. The cynical might say that this controversy has been timed perfectly to coincide with the release of her latest project, but the fame cycle dictates that Cole must first do penance for having flouted one of the fame maxims, for not cosying up to the public on this one decision, before we reward her with our cash and condescension.
"When Katie goes, it will help Cheryl," says Polly Hudson. "She just needs a couple of good outfits, some nice smiles, she'll tell us a joke, and we'll forgive her."