How long before the Hollywood illuminati take out a hit on Dennis Rodman? They must be close to breaking point. Just as the public seemed ready to take celebrity diplomacy seriously (Penn in Haiti, Oprah in South Africa, Jolie around the world) along comes a conspicuously fruity ex-pro basketballer with a fondness for North Korean dictators to not so much jump the shark as leap off its back for a slam-dunk.
Rodman, an NBA Hall of Fame inductee, has just returned from a second whistlestop tour to Pyongyang, as the guest of Kim Jong-Un. This time he presented the Supreme Leader with some basketballs, held Mr Kim’s newborn girl, and broke news of her name, Ju-ae, to the international press. On return, Rodman said “I know in time Americans will see I’m just trying to help us all get along”. The subtext: any peacekeeping George Clooney can do, I can do bigger.
This is one of those stories that might have been scripted by South Park duo Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Not only does it feature a celebrity with delusions of grandeur, it makes you shudder at the influence of marketing and money on politics. Rodman’s voyage was sponsored by Paddy Power, the bookmaker. Power admits the idea was “a bit bonkers”, but pressed ahead with it anyway, in the spirit of a good old laugh. And it’s side-splitting, isn’t it? Funding a man with a history of erratic behaviour to cosy up to a regime that has threatened to use nuclear weapons, is systemically starving its own people, and keeps 200,000 political prisoners locked up in a vast gulag. Ho ho ho.
Rodman embodies the reductio ad absurdum of the celebrity-ambassador. But it’s public indulgence of superstars that has helped to carry equally underqualified A-listers across the threshold from entertainer to expert (according to a Reader’s Digest poll, the top three ‘most trusted’ people in America are actors, i.e. people paid to deceive on screen).
Some deserve the veneration. And in cases such as One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson, whose star status has seen him sign as a non-contract player for boyhood team Doncaster Rovers, not too much can go wrong. He is fulfilling a childhood dream and raising money for charity. When Tomlinson was reminded that he is a singer, not a footballer, as Gabby Agbonlahor careened into him at Celtic Park last Sunday – the only damage was a spot of priceless celebrity vomit on the turf.
But a lot could go wrong with Rodman in North Korea. A lot did go wrong in Haiti, flooded with well-meaning celebrity NGOs after the 2010 earthquake. And a lot might be reassessed in a culture that so regularly prizes glitz and PR value above uglier, duller expertise.
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