A celebrity again, but will reality return to haunt OJ?

After a decade of notoriety, O J Simpson is seeking a new career in reality TV. <i><b>Andrew Gumbel </b></i>reports from Los Angeles
Click to follow
The Independent US

OJ Simpson is a deeply confused man. Almost exactly 10 years after the double murder that turned him into an international tabloid sensation and launched the quintessential trial of our 24-hour rolling news era, he seems to have sensed - correctly - that the media appetite for all things OJ is as voracious as ever.

OJ Simpson is a deeply confused man. Almost exactly 10 years after the double murder that turned him into an international tabloid sensation and launched the quintessential trial of our 24-hour rolling news era, he seems to have sensed - correctly - that the media appetite for all things OJ is as voracious as ever.

He was on the front of all the New York tabloids yesterday, as a prelude to a trio of television interviews that will be airing over the weekend. But he also seems to believe his media interviewers are his friends, that people believe he is innocent of the vicious murders of his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman, that the world, in short, is genuinely interested in his life and opinions and prepared to take them seriously.

On all those scores, he could not be more wrong. The OJ that emerged from sneak previews of the 10th anniversary interviews came across as rambling, out of touch and perversely insistent on insulting the memory of the murder victims he claims to have mourned as deeply as any of their nearest and dearest.

He told Fox News he was sometimes angry with his former wife, for getting murdered, for not being around to raise the children, for getting involved in a bad crowd that may or may not exist exclusively in his imagination. "There are things she could be doing with the kids better than I, you know?" he told Fox's celebrity legal interviewer, Greta Van Susteren.

"When it's emotional stuff, especially with my daughter, I am angry with her. I am angry that she found herself hanging out with the group of ... who are these people?"

If that was not enough to shock the conscience, Simpson, now 56, went on to give a spirited and decidedly tasteless defence of two of his more prominent successors in the celebrity trial stakes. He said Michael Jackson, the pop superstar facing child molestation charges, was "asexual" and his accusers were out to get him for less than honest motives.

Of the basketball star Kobe Bryant, facing charges that he raped a hotel employee in Colorado, he said: "When I was a kid growing up, just about every girl said no once. You know they had to because you'd think they were a slut or something."

Laughing, Simpson said the sexual positions Bryant and his alleged victim were in were not possible without some modicum of consent on both sides.

Such remarks are not just grotesque on their own terms. They cast a distinctly unflattering light on the serious accusations he has faced of wife-beating and murder. And they also show up the grotesque nature of the great American media machine, which is prepared to trade in on the notoriety of a famous trial 10 years later and reduce its flesh-and-blood participants to no more than fodder for tabloid gossip.

"Shame on you, Greta," an enraged Denise Brown, Nicole's sister, told the Daily News. "Shame on all of you who put him on." She called Simpson "a typical batterer who won't take responsibility for his own actions". Ronald Goldman's father Fred, said Simpson was a "lying lowlife" who deserved no attention.

The hope that the media will simply keep quiet is probably too much to hope for, given the extraordinary pop culture phenomenon that was the OJ Simpson trial and the irresistible looming date of 12 June, when Brown Simpson and Goldman were slashed to death in Nicole's condominium on Bundy Drive, in the ritzy Brentwood section of Los Angeles.

Almost every element of the crime, subsequent investigation and media-saturated trial has become a folk memory, a piece of shared history from that carefree interlude in world affairs between the end of the Cold War and the al-Qa'ida attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre.

There is hardly an American over 18 who does not immediately connect when reminded of OJ's chase down the San Diego Freeway in a white Ford Bronco, or the Bruno Magli shoes whose imprint was found at the murder scene, or the bloody glove OJ strained to put on in court only to claim it was too small. ("If it doesn't fit, you must acquit," his lawyer, Johnny Cochran, said.)

The nine-month trial in 1995 was the definition of a media circus, a self-perpetuating reality show that spawned thousands of hours of television discussion and hefty book contracts for everyone from the lawyers down to OJ's eccentric driver Kato Kaelin.

Someone described the whole spectacle as "a great trash novel come to life", which is how it was treated, much to the chagrin of the bereaved relatives, bitter about the trivialisation of their suffering. At the time, the OJ trial was deemed to be a genuinely traumatic societal event, not least because of the light it cast on the deep racial divide still haunting America.

Mark Fuhrman, the detective convinced of OJ's guilt who led the investigation, was exposed on the stand as a racist and a liar, key elements leading to OJ's acquittal by a jury that included nine black members. The country was split on racial lines, with blacks overwhelmingly convinced OJ had been framed and non-blacks equally certain he was stone-cold guilty.

In retrospect, the most valuable lesson of the OJ trial may be the distorting effect from such intense media scrutiny, an effect with us still as the media circus has moved on to Kobe, Jacko, the B-grade movie actor Robert Blake, the kooky music producer Phil Spector, and countless others.

A case that probably would have lasted no more than a month without the television cameras was stretched out to more than nine. A privileged Hollywood celebrity - black, yes, but hardly your average victim of racial discrimination - was somehow turned into a living image of prejudice and corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department.

Perhaps most tellingly, the top-drawer defence lawyers did inordinately well out of the whole thing, while almost everyone else ended up scarred or traumatised or disappointed or some combination of all three.

OJ won acquittal, but he became a pariah in the Hollywood community he once called his own and was forced to move to Florida where he has kept the lowest of low profiles. He was also found legally liable for the deaths of Simpson Brown and Goldman and ordered to pay $33m (£18m) in compensation.

The Brown and Goldman families have not only had to contend with the fall-out from the criminal verdict, they have also tried and failed to wrest custody of the two Brown-Simpson children from OJ.

Whatever one makes of the verdict in his criminal trial, there remains the indisputable matter of the emergency police call recording - aired in court at the time - in which Nicole is howling for help and describing an assault by her husband while it is going on.

Nicole's family believes OJ is an abuser as well as a murderer, although no evidence has ever come to light of mistreatment of the children, now nearing adulthood.

The trial's attendant brouhaha has also served to obscure the sheer viciousness of the crimes. Nicole was so brutally knifed that her neck was almost severed. Goldman struggled so hard that he was stabbed 30 times before he died.

His bad luck was that he was only in the condominium to return a pair of sunglasses that Nicole's mother had left that evening at an Italian restaurant - now out of business, partly because of the intolerable media scrutiny - called Mezzaluna. Simpson's story was that he was putting golf balls in his back garden up the hill on Rockingham Avenue at the time of the murders.

But when a limo driver came to take him to the airport for an overnight flight to Chicago later that evening, Simpson did not answer the door bell. He appeared half an hour late, saying he had been asleep.

When police came to arrest Simpson the day after the funerals, he jumped into a friend's Ford Bronco and took off down the freeway. The slow-motion chase that ensued spawned a decade-long fad of televised freeway chases, and it was never clear whether Simpson intended to make a getaway, give himself up, or kill himself. Police found an apparent suicide note in the vehicle, along with a false beard and moustache, a loaded gun, a passport and almost $10,000 in cash.

By the time the trial rolled around, the case was a hot topic even among those who had never heard of OJ from his professional footballing days. When Boris Yeltsin stepped off a plan to meet Bill Clinton in 1995, his first question was: "Do you think OJ did it?"

That question has lost a lot of its urgency, despite the controversy over the verdict, even if the lurid interest in OJ himself has not waned. His latest project, he says, is a reality television show in which he will go around playing pranks on people. No television network has picked it up yet; one wonders if any of them will.

Comments