Our stars have fallen to earth

'Even the drug-propelled deaths that the stars used to meet only served to underline their different, fiercer and wilder world'
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The Independent Online

When Victoria Beckham went out and about on the publicity circuit last week in her fierce desire to sell her first solo single, there was one aspect of her personality she was eager to ram home to the interviewers. Posh she is not. As with every celebrity these days, she was desperate to insist on her blank, bland ordinariness.

When Victoria Beckham went out and about on the publicity circuit last week in her fierce desire to sell her first solo single, there was one aspect of her personality she was eager to ram home to the interviewers. Posh she is not. As with every celebrity these days, she was desperate to insist on her blank, bland ordinariness.

"I'm not cool," she told one interviewer. "I don't even know what cool means." Against all the evidence to the contrary, she told others that she never goes to parties. She said, as she has done time and again, that her favourite way to spend an evening is with her husband, her baby, a takeaway and a video.

When this clean-living young mother goes to Ibiza to promote her single, she may have to spend a night in a club performing, but for the rest of the time she is just sitting with her sister by the pool, suffering from food poisoning. And as the tabloids giggled, she spent last Tuesday promoting her single not in some swish celebrity hangout, but at Woolworths in Oldham.

In fashioning herself as the most ordinary girl ever to find herself in front of a paparazzo's lens, Victoria Beckham is doing exactly what all celebrities are doing these days. To be sure, her ability to project an aura of unadulterated ordinariness is particularly impressive. She might have had to get used to living her life refracted through the glare of publicity, but she still talks as if she's straight out of stage school, desperate for her first break. "I was so nervous that David had to literally put me on the stage," she said of a recent performance.

There was a time when girls and boys entered the music world to try to escape from ordinary fears and routines, to touch a hedonistic, freewheeling lifestyle that they could find nowhere else. That lifestyle appeared more intense, more sexualised, more vivid, at once more comic and more tragic than everyday routines.

Last week, on the back of newly released documents, some newspapers revisited the moment in 1967 when the police raided Keith Richards' Sussex house to find nine people, including Marianne Faithfull in a fur rug and nothing else, and "a strong, sweet unusual smell in all rooms". Pink ostrich feathers, books on witchcraft, dagger-type weapons, incense, cannabis and heroin were found by the intrigued police officers. Can you imagine those rock stars protesting that they never went to parties?

That aura of glamorous chaos, so well captured by films of the era such as Performance and Blow Up, was what enticed fans in those long-gone days. Those larger-than-life figures within and around the Stones played out a desire on the part of the audience to escape from everyday life. Those audiences weren't interested in hearing that their stars were nervous before performing: they wanted them to crash insouciantly from party to orgy to a blaze of light on the stage.

Even the drug-propelled deaths that some of the stars met only served to underline their displacement from ordinary life into a fiercer and wilder world. And however hard those stars really worked, their creativity was always presented as a burst of drugged-up madness, and nothing to do with the rigours of the ordinary working routines that their fans knew so well.

But a thoroughly modern star like Victoria Beckham never holds out the possibility of escape from the everyday. On the contrary. Far from finding her fuelling her creativity with incense and drugs, interviewers see her sipping at a diet coke and nibbling a few grapes. "I'm not the best singer or the best dancer in the world, but I work hard," she told one interviewer last week. "I think I'm a pretty positive role model for kids."

There is nothing unique about what Victoria Beckham is doing. Every celebrity now is keen to project an ordinariness so unexceptional that even Mr Pooter might have tired of it. The Hollywood stars are as good at this as the inhabitants of the music world. Open this month's Vanity Fair and you'll see page after page of the golden girl of the screen, Gwyneth Paltrow, dressed to look like one of the cool goddesses of yesteryear in Balenciaga and Prada.

But turn to the accompanying copy, and what do you find? Gwyneth the girl-next-door, naturally, eating a take-away in the journalist's apartment. Don't worry, the copy tells you, she may look like this - aristocratic, distant, fairy-tale - but in fact she's just like you, not too bright, not too sexy, not too ambitious, not too proud. The interviewer telling us he has learnt to "see the classiest young actress of her day as a normal, everyday person who just happened to stop by for lunch".

A far cry that is from the Hollywood publicity machine of old, which relentlessly rewrote the lives and loves of its stars to make them as large, as glittery, as abnormal as possible.

"My character changed frequently, depending on the film I was working on or the ideas of the head of publicity. One month I was publicised as Joan of Arc, the next as Lucrezia Borgia, and the following as Salome. There were also the periods of Mata Hari or Cleopatra." So spoke Greta Garbo of the work the MGM publicity machine did for her. Whatever the kernel of the star's personality - Katherine Hepburn's independence, Liz Taylor's sexiness, Audrey Hepburn's elegance - publicity then was all about souping that up, making it bigger and brighter until it almost hurt to look at it.

Now, even the stars who once looked greedy for the glitter of superstardom are happily confining themselves to the new, blander role mapped out for them by the media. When Madonna moved to Britain to be with her new partner, Guy Ritchie, it was only a matter of time before the star who once couldn't move without her bodyguards and her high-wattage outfits was seen washing the car with her boyfriend in a London street.

As soon as the news was released of the arrival of her new baby, or of Catherine Zeta Jones's new baby, the celebrity magazines went into overdrive to emphasise the ordinary family life to which these once larger-than-life stars really belong. "The screen goddess comes from a very stable and humble family background," said one of Jones. "They will be very good parents," said another of Madonna and Ritchie. "They are now properly human, and we can feel all chirpy, just as if they were our friends," wrote one commentator.

But if all they do is reflect back to us our own ordinariness, why rely on them for our entertainment? And the answer to that is... perhaps we don't really need them, not any more.

Now that the stars are all falling to earth, audiences will quite happily satisfy their thirst for spectacle in watching people who aren't at all talented, or brilliant, and certainly nothing like Joan of Arc or Salome or Cleopatra.

It's hard to get away from Big Brother these days. But doesn't its popularity show you something weirdly obvious? It isn't, now, any duller listening to Mel or Craig or Nick and their circular, familiar, banal conversations, than it is hearing Victoria or Gwyneth telling interviewers that they don't smoke and they work hard and they love their parents and they are really just like you and me.

Maybe it's true, as a fine writer once said: "Unhappy the land without heroes? No, unhappy the land that needs heroes". But when you look at the smaller-than-life figures that haunt that cultural space once reserved for the proud and the mad and the gorgeous, it's hard, sometimes, not to lament the grand old days.

* n.walter@btinternet.com