Sophie Heawood: Fame is for the fatuous. Today's big names go for no name at all

Not every talented person wants to be forever in the public eye, jostling for space with WAGs and 'Big Brother' contestants. Sophie Heawood seeks out the new, publicity-shy anti-celebrities
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The Independent Online

Being a tabloid newspaper is a thankless task. You spend years filling your pages with vacuous fame-guzzling celebrities, then when you finally decide to make space for somebody truly talented, it turns out they don't want to be in there. The poor old Sun – it's all because we've lost the noble art of keeping one's head down.

You see, last week, alongside the usual pictures of bra-less celebrities "smuggling peanuts", WAGs falling out of nightclubs and Lily Allen falling out of her clothes, The Sun's celebrity pages wrote about a musician called Burial. Which came as something of a surprise to his fans, because Burial is a cult figure who avoids being photographed at all, so whether his preference is to smuggle peanuts, cashews or even macadamias remains unknown. He is a word-of-mouth success who rarely speaks to the press and doesn't do photographs.

But since Burial was nominated for the Mercury music prize, for his second album of dreamy city soundscapes, The Sun's celebrity editor has been on the case. Gordon Smart, a man whose surname was definitely not chosen by Dickens as a way of revealing something about his character, actually launched a nationwide campaign.

"Help me unveil Burial!" went his clarion call, asking readers to find out the musician's location and real name, seemingly oblivious to the fact that both had been published in The Independent some months before, in a widely commented-on round-up of musicians who had all, in recent memory, attended the same secondary school in Putney, south London. It was also on Wikipedia. Still, Smart Gordon spent the week baffled. "Even the combined skills of Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, Columbo and Rebus would struggle with this one," he wrote, adding that his sources suggested Burial might be an alias for Fatboy Slim, Aphex Twin, some bloke called Lewis or even somebody called Luke.

It says a lot about the state of the world when the best way to maintain your privacy is by publishing your full name and photograph on the internet, but that's what Burial subsequently felt driven to do, writing the following explanation on his MySpace page. "Theres been some talk about who i am , but its not a big deal. i wanted to be unknown because i just want it to be all about the tunes. Over the last year the unknown thing became an issue so im not into it any more. im a lowkey person and i just want to make some tunes, nothing else. my names will bevan, im from south london, im keeping my head down and just going to finish my next album."

Keeping his head down? It's something we've forgotten all about, and something The Sun can't quite understand, as it can only equate anonymity with intrigue. After a decade of reality TV stars, of children of the famous, of wingers and whingers and WAGs, even the celebrity industry is tired of people who are famous for being famous. The new thing is to be famous for not being famous. And being famous for not being famous is, of course, the best kind of publicity you can get.

First came Belle de Jour and her fellow bloggers, who used the anonymity of the internet to self-publish. Freed from their civilian identities, they could tell their stories and pass them off as true, whether they were or not. Belle did exceedingly well from her anonymity – especially when you think how saucy Billie Piper has made her character look in the telly series of the book, and then remember how one journalist who interviewed Belle in the flesh noted that she was not really all that attractive. What a blow to her PR campaign a nondescript face would have been – much better to have no face at all and let the readers do the imagining.

Then there was Banksy, the guerrilla graffiti artist who covered London and Bristol in his stencil art in the dead of night and who still now refuses to unveil himself, despite having work that exhibits in galleries and sells for squillions. Recent rumours have suggested that Banksy is a nice middle-class boy from a good home – what a detriment to his police-baiting, society-sneering, on-the-run art that identity might be.

Recently, a huge internet movement called Anonymous has sprung up, for which anyone can be a member or a spokesperson. There is no HQ, but members use the internet to arrange mass actions of masked mobs in real life, usually to bait Scientologists. Of course, being an anonymous creator is nothing new – earlier this year, John Mullan published a book called Anonymity, about the history of writers whose names have gone unpublished. But these were often people who risked their lives, not just their alimony, like the anonymous WAG, Fabulous, whose recent book, The Beautiful Life, describes her experiences of marriage to a footballer. In real life, she and her ex-husband were hardly A-list celebs, but the mystery adds that frisson of possibility.

And now there is Burial. Except, unlike Banksy and all the others, he has punctured his own bubble because he wasn't using the anonymity as his USP. Music-making, unlike being a hooker or a graffiti artist, doesn't break any laws. There's no mystery; he just wanted to stay in and write some tunes. He says he writes his music late at night, inspired by walking around London, tuning into the pulse of the metropolis. And if your art comes from the night-time, the sunshine of celebrity is so very daytime, dazzling you like a sunbed with its cancerous glare. It would be easy to blame the tabloid bimbos and publicity-hungry Big Brother contestants for this devaluing of fame, but it exists on a more highbrow level, too. We have an uneasy relationship with fiction these days – an artist is increasingly expected to stand behind their art. Wanting to send it out there to fend for itself makes you look like an errant parent allowing their child to wander off through the city all alone.

In the fine art world, autobiography has taken over, led by Tracey Emin and her life-as-art technique. In literature, J T LeRoy got exposed for not being a reformed boy prostitute – in fact, for not even being male. His fans weren't sure whether or not to keep loving the books they had loved so very much before they knew a truth different from the one they thought they knew. And when James Frey, author of the drugs memoir A Million Little Pieces, was busted for not having really lived the terrible experiences he wrote about, he said he had wanted to write it as a novel but the industry warned him that memoir was the only way to get these stories out there. (He has now published a novel which has received such rave reviews that it's a tragedy he ever felt compelled to pretend to be the tragedy himself.)

You can see why he did it, though – walk into any WHSmith's book section nowadays and there is a genre labelled "Tragic Life Stories", where you will be confronted with wads of best-selling books with wan white covers and a forlorn-looking child on each one, all following in the woe-is-me tradition of Dave Pelzer. These writers are lost people who have overturned their tragedies to become the hero of the tale; releasing the caped crusader they knew was inside to rescue themselves.

Superheroes have never been more in demand. Look at the film industry, or the success of Barack Obama. Banksy is a superhero, too: one swish of his cape in the night and in the morning you can see where his dagger has been. Belle de Jour is a superhero, turning the world of hookering on its head; screwing men for moolah and coming out on top. Tony Blair moulded himself on the world stage as a superhero, the liberator of Iraq, but Gordon Brown, the anti-hero, has trouble making love to his audience. And Burial is an anti-hero. Will he play a song at the Mercurys or accept an award? Will he even turn up? Or will he learn to love the limelight, start dating Fearne Cotton and sign a million-quid deal to endorse Lemon Fanta? Who knows? But let's hope he manages to keep on making music, keep on keeping his head down, and keep on keeping on.