Terence Blacker: Stephen Fry and the art of inauthenticity

Clearly, the creation of a public version of the self is more than mere marketing; it is a method of survival

Related Topics

In a cynical, marketing-crazed world, it is probably absurd to be distracted by three words on a promotional poster.

All the same, one or two people might have registered the mildest start of surprise at seeing a quote which appears beside the head of Stephen Fry in advertisements for his new one-man show. It reads: "'A towering genius.' Melbourne Age."

If this is one of those clever, semi-ironic, self-mocking jokes, it has backfired. Fry is now so loved by his fans, representing wit and sanity in a mad, humourless world, that the attachment of the word "genius" to what he does poses no problem whatsoever to them. Presumably, though, as someone who cares about the use and misuse of language, the man himself might have wondered mildly where the genius resides. He writes funnily and well, is an engaging performer, and he has the nerve to speak up bravely about matters of public interest – the Pope's visit, the hypocrisy of the press, timorousness at the BBC, and so on.

None of that quite amounts to towering genius. Here, the original Australian review from which the quote is lifted (and quietly given an indefinite article, cranking up the compliment a couple of notches) is of some help. "It seems impossible that such towering genius can be more than a crafted pasteboard mask," wrote the Melbourne Age's John Bailey, "but if the Fry we follow is something of a lie, it is of the sort his personal messiah Oscar Wilde would approve: a lie that speaks a greater truth. In this case, Fry proves we can take power over, and joy in, the role that is ourselves." Now we are getting somewhere. Fry's genius lies not in any conventional work, but in being Stephen Fry. It is a strange and very contemporary kind of expertise: the highly successful creation of a public self.

Schoolchildren have learned this basic fact of modern life. They want simply to be famous. Ask them what they want to be famous for, and they will be genuinely confused. What is Jordan famous for? Or Paris Hilton? They are simply themselves. Creating a public persona is trickier than it may appear. It requires the right balance between reality and marketing, between the authentic and the created. An element of vulnerability needs to be in the mix, crossed with a capacity to take the knocks. You need to be able to show just enough of your own personality – a loss of temper here, a touch of mild vanity there – to remind fans of your humanity.

On the other side of the compact, the fan gains virtual friendship (more valued sometimes than the real thing) and a sort of reflection of themselves – only wiser, wittier and more successful. To read some of Stephen Fry's fan mail on his own website is to realise how much he means to his followers. What seems to make him genuinely loved is that he neither looks nor sounds as if he comes from another planet, occupied exclusively by the brilliant and the beautiful. He is Everyman writ large, ordinariness made extraordinary.

Few manage this creation of a parallel public version of their private selves with any degree of success. David Beckham did it brilliantly. Tony Blair, in the years before 2003, was a master of it. A few authors – Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, Bret Easton Ellis, Jeanette Winterson – pull it off while others, notably Kazuo Ishiguro, work hard to avoid doing so.

Quite often the public persona becomes hopelessly confused with the real thing. At one point, Ricky Gervais appeared in interviews to have become the sneering bigot he parodied in his one-man shows. When he tried to explain that that he was impersonating a role, an arrogant celebrity-Ricky who has let fame go to his head, it was too late. Everyone was too confused to care.

The recently released film I'm Still Here is a disturbing portrait of what happens when a constructed identity falls apart more dramatically – or, rather, ceases to be the identity which the public has chosen for it. Purporting to be a fly-on-the-wall documentary, the film follows, often uncomfortably, the psychological meltdown of the actor Joaquin Phoenix after he has decided to abandon his acting career in order to become a (hilariously bad) rap singer. Although a few of the scenes in the film have a whiff of fakery to them, the general direction of the various rows and acts of humiliation and cruelty seems entirely convincing. It is, we are now told, a spoof. According to Phoenix, he and his director Casey Affleck "wanted to do a film that explored celebrity and explored the relationship between the media and the consumers and the celebrities themselves". They succeeded, and, weirdly, the fact that the whole thing turns out to be a clever hoax does little to undermine its effect. There is a tug of voyeurism and cruelty, it suggests, in the relationship between an object of fame and his public. Once the star steps out of character and the genuine human being reveals himself to be all too genuine and human – that is, a pain in the arse – admiration quickly turns to contempt.

The film shows the nastiness of online critics and the show-business establishment in the face of what appeared to be mental illness. Indeed, by playing a heartless game with the audience, Phoenix and Affleck are part of the same process. In the end, everyone feels less. Any sympathy for the suffering actor turns out to have been misplaced. He was having a laugh at our expense all along.

Clearly, the creation of a public version of the self is more than mere marketing; it is a method of survival. The effect on the rest of us is more debatable. By putting inverted commas around everything which is said and done, the process turns human beings into consumer items, with all the contradictory, embarrassing stuff of normal, everyday life removed – or at least buffed up and glamorised.

When the image slips, as it does (or appears to do) in I'm Still Here, the reaction of the world outside is ugly. We want our celebrities to be vulnerable, but not that vulnerable. When they do the unforgivable, and show contempt for the PR-fuelled merry-go-round of celebrity, there is a bitter sense of betrayal.

It is, in other words, a game, not a lie that tells any greater truth. The idea that a famous person can, by acting the part, show ordinary mortals how to gain control over their lives is a comforting and slightly dangerous illusion.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Digital Optimisation Executive - Marketing

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's fastest growing, multi...

Recruitment Genius: Professional Sales Trainee - B2B

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: First things first - for the av...

Recruitment Genius: Creative Web and UI Designer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An experienced creative web and...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - PHP

£17000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity is now ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Caitlyn Jenner's first shoot is a victory - but is this really best version of femininity we can aspire to?

Sirena Bergman
The sun balances next to St Albans Church in Earsdon, North Tyneside.  

The world’s nations have one last chance to slow climate change

Michael McCarthy
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral