Matthew Reisz: Knock the glad rags, not the fab dad

Children of celebrities suffer from a poisonous mix of adulation and vicious envy
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The Independent Online

Last weekend, the fashion designer Jeff Banks lashed out at London Fashion Week as "largely irrelevant", described Alexander McQueen's clothes as "totally unwearable", and suggested that only a tiny couture "mafia" would ever have made McQueen British Designer of the Year. It all makes good copy, and he may well have a point.

But Banks also launched a more personal attack on Stella McCartney as an "amateurish" designer who had only been praised "because of who her old man is". As an argument, this seems pretty implausible. At 60, Banks is from the generation which was blown away by the Beatles. For the people most likely to buy Ms McCartney's clothes, Sir Paul is an ageing rocker who sang very badly at the Queen's Jubilee last year - surely as much of a liability as an asset to a fashion brand. If the frocks really looked frumpy or fell to pieces, they wouldn't survive for five minutes just because of the McCartney name.

But the real point is the cheapness of Banks's criticism. Let him savage McCartney's cuts, her colour sense, her working methods, her technical skills. All of those are fair game. But none of us can choose our parents. Ambitious people naturally make good use of what they've been handed down, whether manners, looks, brains, contacts or style. They exploit their talents and seize the PR opportunities. (Money and classy connections can be turned to good account, but so can street cred or lowlife links.) And they don't waste much time tormenting themselves about where they'd be today if they'd had different parents.

High achievers start from different places, and have different weapons in their armoury, but all need similar qualities and use similar techniques to get to the top. It is easy to sneer at the success of Martin Amis, George W Bush or Michael Douglas, as if they had just taken over a thriving family business. But most sons of leading novelists, American Presidents and film stars don't step straight into their fathers' shoes. (The route from pop star's daughter to fashion designer is even less direct.) Much of their success is clearly down to their own efforts, and any worthwhile criticism should acknowledge this.

Stella McCartney was potentially (very) rich and vicariously famous from the day she was born. Anyone who has ever been anywhere near celebrity knows that this is a burden as well as a blessing. There are no doubt many worse things than being a "poor little rich girl". But it is still genuinely unpleasant to live one's life totally without privacy; to be constantly pigeonholed as one's father's offspring; to feel one's parents are public property, surrounded by star-struck sycophants posing as surrogate children; to know that people are never interested in you for yourself. It is, however, notoriously difficult to make this point without sounding absurd. Even major artists such as Woody Allen and Philip Roth fell into a kind of preening self-pity when they tried to express their sense of the horrors of being rich and famous. In a short newspaper profile there's no chance at all. Hence the dilemma of interviews for people with famous names. They will invariably be accused of "cashing in" if they mention their family or being coy if they don't.

Children of celebrities suffer from all the poisonous mix of adulation and vicious envy that fame stirs up in us. We half convince ourselves that money can buy happiness and success, yet we gloat over the casualties from famous families (if celebrities aren't punished themselves for all their privileges, we can at least console ourselves that they make rotten parents and have ruined their children's lives). Harshest of all, where a Stella McCartney does excel, there is always a Jeff Banks to deny that the achievement is really hers.

The moral is clear. Let people criticize Stella McCartney, like Bush, Amis or Douglas, as much they want - but for their own actions and achievements rather than for who their fathers are. In the case of Bush, I would hardly know where tostart.

Matthew Reisz is the son of the film director Karel Reisz, and the editor of the 'Jewish Quarterly'

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