This vicarious obsession with celebrity marriages

Like the gods in Greece, stars have become stellar embodiments of our own hopes and insecurities
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The Independent Online

It is an odd, tense moment, a time when we know that something is about to happen but remain unsure as to how it will affect us. Seeing troop carriers sail off to distant war is not new, nor knowing that terrorists wish us harm, but this time the war is more mysterious, the threat vaguer and therefore more menacing. It could be in the air we breathe, the food we eat, or carried by the person standing next to us in the queue.

It is an odd, tense moment, a time when we know that something is about to happen but remain unsure as to how it will affect us. Seeing troop carriers sail off to distant war is not new, nor knowing that terrorists wish us harm, but this time the war is more mysterious, the threat vaguer and therefore more menacing. It could be in the air we breathe, the food we eat, or carried by the person standing next to us in the queue.

Of course, that is how our leaders want us to think. A nation afraid is one that is easy to take to war. With the help of heartless, exploitative newspapers, it will make vulnerable outsiders the focus of its fear and paranoia. Petitions may be circulated on the internet, marches and demonstrations organised, but a sense of fatalism and impotence is never far away.

The instinct at times like these is to turn in on oneself, to take refuge in small, domestic certainties, but in 2003 even those tend to be shaky and unreliable. The media does its best to ginger up the fantasy of home, providing guides to private contentment in the form of cookery programmes revealing how to prepare the perfect dinner party, and makeover series showing us how to turn our house into a home and/or profit centre.

Novels provide narrative versions of the fantasy. Not so long ago, glitter, money and high-octane sex were the staple ingredients of a would-be bestseller. Now it is finding the right partner, setting up home, starting a family and then juggling the demands of career and parenthood, being precisely the right kind of harassed, busy, successful, caring and attractive parent.

But, for all the practical guides and the contemporary fairytales, the problem of family happiness, of making it last and keeping boredom and staleness at bay, remains unresolved.

The perfect expression of all this, a public version of private anxiety, has become the celebrity couple. A small number of eagerly publicised love affairs and marriages involving famous people has, as never before, become a media obsession. It is as if, like the gods in ancient Greece, the stars of television and of Hollywood have become stellar, larger-than-life embodiments of our own intimate hopes and insecurities.

Right now, I'm becoming very worried – I guess we're all worried – about Jude Law and Sadie Frost. It is not that I know anything about Jude and Sadie, but they look like a nice young couple, have lots of children and have somehow avoided that whey-faced, crushed look of the over- domesticated. That business of their two-year dropping an E at a Soho club did them no harm either. Like Jacko's baby-dangling act, it was the kind of ghastly thing that can happen to any busy parent.

Now, apparently, their lovely relationship has gone a bit pear-shaped. She is terribly depressed – in a clinic, some say – and he's out in Hollywood seeing that Nicole Kidman, who is probably no better than she should be. According to the papers, unnamed close friends of the couple are "very concerned" about the future of the marriage.

We know enough about the modern press, with its fondness for teasing a story out of nothing and making it happen, to be able to guess that most of this is baloney – and yet it still fascinates us. After all, this was one of the few celebrity relationships of which we have been led to approve, like that between Brad and Jennifer, Madonna and Guy, Posh and Becks or (they are not together, but we just know they should be) Hugh and Liz.

We just know, with media guidance, that other showbiz marriages are as doomed and dysfunctional as the others are sunny and perfect. Les and Amanda were wrong for one another (he's too old, she's too flighty), as were Tom and Nicole (it all felt a bit iffy), and Kate Winslet and the husband who wasn't famous (that was just plain unnatural). When these relationships break up, with the feverish help of the press, no disappointment is felt but rather a general sense of relief, as when, at the end of a pantomime, the ugly sisters are humiliated.

How demeaning it all is, this vicarious dabbling in the private lives of others, the way we have come to treat the private lives of the famous as exemplars and archetypes for our own lives. However good or bad the marriages are (and, of course, they are likely to be a bit of both), however dutifully the protagonists hold hands for the cameras and mouth the right inanities in interviews, they can rarely survive the cruel distortions of publicity.

When they inevitably fall apart, we feel a bit sad and then move on to the next victims, content in the knowledge that, while celebrities may be accomplished, pretty and well-heeled, they are, in one area at least, as messed up and unhappy as the rest of us.

terblacker@aol.com

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