The reality of modern celebrity

We've got to the point where it's possible to be a celebrity and dispense with the requirement that you need to be famous

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A recent piece of scientifically-conducted market research has thrown up some interesting facts about public attitudes towards contemporary fame. Oh, all right, I mean I phoned up six friends and asked them whether they'd heard of anyone appearing in this year's
I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!

A recent piece of scientifically-conducted market research has thrown up some interesting facts about public attitudes towards contemporary fame. Oh, all right, I mean I phoned up six friends and asked them whether they'd heard of anyone appearing in this year's I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!

Of the six, one told me promptly to go away and stop wasting his time. Taking the other five as the basis of the survey, 100 per cent immediately recognised the names of Janet Street-Porter ("Well, she writes for the same newspaper as you") and Paul Burrell ("He's that sweaty screaming butler"). Sixty per cent, surprisingly, thought they knew who Joe Pasquale was, although one respondent burst into a not obviously relevant rendering of The Birdy Song.

There was 20 per cent spontaneous recognition of the names of Natalie Appleton and Sheila Ferguson, rising to 60 per cent and 80 per cent respectively when prompted with the words "All Saints" and "The Three Degrees".

Of the others, nobody could offer any explanation of the existence of Fran Cosgrave, Antonio Fargas, Nancy Sorrell, Brian Harvey, or Sophie Anderton, and no clue, however detailed, could improve on the standing of any of those apart from the actor who used to play Huggy Bear in Starsky and Hutch. "Hmm, interesting," I said. "Yes, terribly," one respondent concluded. "Now get off the bleeding phone, I've got better things to do."

To most rational people of my age, I suspect, the bizarre thing about these findings is that they relate to a programme called I'm a Celebrity... One had always assumed that the defining fact of celebrity was that those in possession of it were famous. It was surreal enough when it became possible to be a celebrity without actually doing anything beyond being famous, like Paula Yates; now, we seem to have got to the point where it's perfectly possible to be a celebrity and dispense even with the requirement that you need to be famous first.

I notice the producers of this programme have issued the participants with jackets bearing their names in large letters; since neither their faces nor their names mean anything to anyone, this may be a necessity. Adding to the air of utter confusion, Brian Harvey and Fran Cosgrave, who you haven't heard of anyway, look exactly the same, as do Nancy Sorrell and Natalie Appleton, whoever they may be.

Someone like Fran Cosgrave now represents the contemporary nature of fame - you haven't heard of him, perhaps to the point that you were surprised, like me, to discover that he was a man. But, to elucidate, he is famous because he runs a nightclub, and has been out with a girl from Atomic Kitten called Natasha, who one can't remember, and another girl called Jodie Marsh who, as far as one can discover, has done nothing but walk almost naked through Leicester Square when there were photographers around.

Perhaps not too much weight should be placed on this. After all, about 15 people I know have been asked at some point to go on this programme. After a few more series, they will certainly have run out of all possibilities, and be reduced to people who once won The Weakest Link and the landlord of the Dog and Duck in Parsons Green.

But all the same, a certain shift has taken place in the whole concept of fame, which, it must be assumed, corresponds to a shift in the nature of ambition more generally. Although there have always been those famous for nothing very much, like the Rector of Stiffkey, previously, if you wanted to be famous, you did something; you achieved public recognition; your fame was tied to your work.

Now, no longer: and it is fair to say that, in the minds of many people, "celebrity" is merely a job, or category of existence, and it is so little tied to achievement or even to intrinsic fame that it is sometimes quite hard to remember what those who really are famous for something have actually done. I spent a good 10 minutes recently trying to remember why Victoria Beckham was famous in the first place.

All of which, naturally, brings us back to the Prince of Wales. His comments on modern ambition leaked out in such a peculiar way, and were so strangely expressed, that they were rather misunderstood. It was also predictable that, coming from such a source, most of the responses were on the level of "Well, what have you done to justify your position?", as if he shouldn't be allowed to comment on the position of anyone less fortunate than himself. Furthermore, he didn't do himself any favours by expressing these thoughts against what was surely a reasonable suggestion, that junior members of his household might, through merit, be considered for more senior jobs.

Nevertheless, patiently disentangled, his comments did have something of a point. What he was saying, it seems to me, was that many young people have a vague idea that they want to be famous without accepting that fame, even now, is not worth having unless it is connected to public achievement. Such public achievement is not, in the main, possible without the sort of hard work and dedication that few of those hungry for fame seem willing to attempt.

Doesn't he also have a case in suggesting that it is damaging and sad that so many young people, aiming for celebrity at all costs, regard the kind of useful and, indeed, rewarding careers their parents would have regarded as appropriate ambitions with contempt? How many of those sad cases who turn up on television talent shows saying that all they've ever dreamed of is a career singing or presenting children's television would actually make very good maths teachers or nurses? Isn't it worrying that so many people, inevitably failing in their fantastic dreams through lack of talent and lack of application, embark on a life they will always regard as second best?

The phenomenon is not, altogether, a new one, but it does seem extraordinarily widespread these days. Even at the infinitesimal level of celebrity of a newspaper columnist and novelist, I fairly often come across people who assure me that it's their dream to be a writer. In some cases, it turns out that they've never read a novel, don't read newspapers, and, if asked, can't write a grammatical or correctly-spelt sentence. The ambition, separated from any interest in the field they want to master, seems entirely impregnable, and any gentle scepticism, or encouragement to go away and do some work first, is met with the reassurance that "It's always been my dream." Whatever that means.

The awful thing is that fame itself is a horrible thing. It's worth having if it creates an audience for what you want to do or say, and even then the problems it creates can't be very pleasant. But what happens if there is no "what you want to do or say"? Why would you want to be famous, but not actually be able to do anything with that fame; to be recognised in supermarkets, to find false stories about yourself in newspapers, to know that people you will never meet will know the colour of your sitting room walls and have opinions about whether or not your marriage is likely to last?

Well, fortunately, the way things are going, that, too, will disappear. Because, based on current trends, celebrity soon will mean simply this; that like everyone else, your face and name are entirely obscure, and, in most cases of non-achievement and non-ambition, for very good reasons.

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