Let's play hunt the famous

Concluding his series on the nature of fame, Peter Popham examines the inner life of the stalker, who may easily become as famous as the object of attention

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They were laid out across the front page of Wednesday's Daily Mirror like stamps in an album or butterflies in a glass case, the "beautiful middle-aged celebrities" who between them had received more than 2,000 obscene letters over the past 12 years - Helen Mirren, Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, Joanna Lumley, Virginia Bottomley, Nyree Dawn Porter, Alexander Bastedo and Britt Ekland. And one's first thought was "what taste! What a gift for the designer!"

And one's second thought was that he had done it, whoever he was; he had achieved what he was after. Though identified only by the usual "pervert" and "sex fiend" labels, his 12 years of hard graft had paid off. Until now, his affair with the most beautiful women in the country had been a murky secret known only to the women themselves and their families and agents.

Suddenly, the secret is out, the connection is public and can never be disclaimed. His existence and his effort are acknowledged. He has passed through the looking glass into the land of celebrity.

Famous and distinguished people have always had their fans and camp followers and hangers-on; a small proportion of these have probably always been crazy, even homicidal, their helpless adoration curdled by rejection. But the celebrity stalkers of today are as distinctive a product of the age of television and tabloid newspapers as are the celebrities themselves.

The gulf between celebrities and their fans remains as wide as ever. But today, it seems unfair in a way it never used to be; unfair yet readily bridgeable by the truly desperate.

It seems unfair because the notion that the famous and glamourous were also heroic, on a morally superior plane to the rest of us, was jettisoned long ago. Hollywood gradually scaled down its epic stars to human proportions; television shrunk them to the size of puppets. You know these people in more intimate detail than anyone else, except your nearest and dearest. Yet they are oblivious to your existence. How wrong. How unfair. So the challenge is to overcome that ignorance, to make them know you and then make the world acknowledge the connection, too.

Stalking is not, however, an option arrived at by cold logic. The stalker must fall in love, or fancy himself in love: because unreciprocated love is the model, within normal, non-celeb human intercourse, of his non-relationship with the celebrity. And he must then strive to do the impossible - to make the loved one love him back.

In this way, stalking becomes a sinister mirror of the way celebrity affects ordinary people. A famous person such as Madonna or Michael Jackson is thrust on our attention day after day, week after week - we are helpless to resist or reject their advances, and only someone who's been living on Mars or under a rock could have missed the latest whatever. Now the stalker turns the tables on the loved one, besieging her with reminders of his existence and his feelings.

"The process of stalking forces a relationship on the victim whether they want it or not," says Professor R J Badcock, a leading forensic psychiatrist. "It is impossible to get the stalker out of one's life. Carrying out stalking activities makes people feel immediately successful."

Stalkers range in the gravity of their behaviour from people who are merely a little sad and obsessive to psychotic killers; from people such as Bernard Quinn and Professor Klaus Wagner - respectable professional people fallen on hard psychological times and obsessed with Princesses Anne and Diana respectively - who make thorough nuisances of themselves but seem to pose no serious danger, to Robert Bardo, the man who shot the actress Rebecca Schaeffer dead with a single bullet when she answered the door of her Hollywood home.

But the man who epitomises the successful struggle of the stalker to clamber up to the glittering palace of celebrity through extreme acts is John W Hinckley, Jr (pictured).

Hinckley was only one of many young men who became infatuated with the actress Jodie Foster in the years that followed her success in Taxi Driver. It is said that she received 3,000 fan letters a month. But Hinckley was determined to matter to Jodie with the same intensity that Jodie mattered to him; he wanted the two of them to be linked in perpetuity. The actress was now a freshman at Yale, so Hinckley visited the campus, tried (and once or twice succeeded) to reach her by phone, slipped notes under the door of her room, and by dint of sheer persistence and menace finally began to impinge on her awareness. Hanging out around her dorm, he wrote in one note that he had "come to realize that I'm the topic of more than a little conversation, however full of ridicule it may be." He felt "very good", he wrote, "that you at least know my name and know how I feel about you."

But knowledge and acknowledgement were not enough - and so Hinckley set off on the fatal trail that led to him to imitate the behaviour of Travis Bickle, the Robert de Niro character in Tax Driver, buying guns and shooting President Reagan.

Hinckley is a schizophrenic, and at his trial was found not guilty by virtue of insanity. But his grasp of the significance of what he had achieved, expressed in a letter written after the trial to Stuart Taylor Jr of The New York Times, was astonishingly lucid.

"Jodie Foster may continue to outwardly ignore me for the rest of my life but I have made an impression on that young lady that will never fade from her mind," he wrote. "I have made her one of the most famous actresses in the world. Everybody but everybody knows about John and Jodie. We are a historical couple whether Jodie likes it or not.

"At one time, Miss Foster was a star and I was an insignificant fan. Now everything is changed. I am Napoleon and she is Josephine. I am Romeo and she is Juliet. I am John Hinckley Jr and she is Jodie Foster. The world can't touch us. Society can't bring us down."

It's totally crackers. But in terms of the way modern celebrity can be achieved, Hinckley's analysis is also staggeringly clear-sighted - Jodie Foster did indeed become far more famous after Hinckley's assassination attempt; her name will always be shadowed by his. And by dint of bloody- minded determination, by dint of madness, Hinckley has placed himself among the immortals.

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