PROFILE: She may not be one of us, but she shouted for us all

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The Independent Online
It's difficult to imagine that Diana Ross's recent performance at Heathrow Airport was about anything other than being Diana Ross, a pampered intemperate prima donna who refused to countenance a routine, if unpleasant, search and pitched a tantrum that got her arrested. Such episodes amuse us, chiefly because we like to see celebrities badly misjudge those rare situations when being Diana Ross doesn't count for anything. We enjoy seeing them brought low, which is to say down to our level. Ha Ha.

What's not so funny is how unpleasant our level is. Most of the other people who set off the airport metal detector last Wednesday morning would have endured the subsequent patting-down calmly, knowing far worse was to come, when they queued for the privilege of being packed like anchovies into a 747 for eight hours, while Miss Ross, fresh from custody, enjoyed Concorde's fine selection of exotic juices. Even after five hours of police questioning, chances are she'd still beat the others to New York. The real crime isn't the indignity of being frisked at the airport, but how rich you have to be to get enough space to uncross your legs.

Diana Ross, superstar that she is, simply isn't used to regular and extreme violation of her personal space. Under the circumstances her reaction was perfectly understandable: she went bananas. The mother of Spice Girl Mel C was similarly distressed by a search at the airport the same day. Most of us require a three- or four-foot capsule of personal space around us, which others violate at their peril. In our daily life we are often forced to allow people into this zone, but this is a temporary arrangement, an uneasy truce which requires mutual co-operation. We all face forward in the lift. We avoid eye contact. The same happens on crowded public transport. We retreat into an inviolable private world, to the point where we can't converse with acquaintances we meet in the supermarket.

It's safe to assume that Diana Ross lacks the training to cope with the hustle and bustle of life's chalk face, and that her personal space capsule is large and limousine-shaped, but this doesn't make her response to being frisked less understandable. When a violation of personal space catches you by surprise, everything goes haywire. The reaction is automatic, primitive and generally over the top. Recently at the Notting Hill carnival I watched a woman dressed as a butterfly with a 20-foot wingspan reach the end of her fuse as tourists who ducked under ropes to cross the line of the procession jostled her huge antennae. Eventually she shrugged off the costume and started knocking people to the ground, creating a ripple effect in the crowd that sent a chill down my spine. I winced for her victims, none of whom had any idea why a giant butterfly woman was punching them, but my sympathies, I'm afraid, were with the aggressor.

Road rage, air rage, stair rage, trolley rage, desk rage and pavement rage are all triggered by someone encroaching on territory you consider your own. Few of us ever lose it the way Miss Ross or the butterfly lady did, but we've all come close enough, on the Tube, on the bus, in the street or in a queue. We spend every day thinking things we know we can't say: come on, Grandma; shove over, Fishface; I hate you; and you; please go away; please die. We don't say these things because we know it isn't their fault that the room is too crowded, that only one No 7 bus has come along in the last 45 minutes, that the escalator is broken, that only half the tills are open. We also know that we ourselves are part of the problem. Diana Ross, whatever you think of her, isn't part of the problem. She mostly keeps out of our way.

Personal space is also something that becomes less elastic and more, well, personal, with age. Over time rock concerts, theme parks and night clubs lose their appeal. You don't have to be agoraphobic to find Sunday in Camden Market a highly stressful experience. You just have to be over 30. In middle age much of our disposable income is put towards the purchase of a little extra leg-room or head-room, a bit of peace and quiet or a touch more lateral space, and we think it money well spent. At a time when the Government is trying to coax more people on to public transport, many of us are reaching an age when we can no longer cope with the current levels of human density.

Into this shrinking space steps an unlikely heroine, Miss Diana Ross, striking a blow, or rather copping a feel, for the common man's struggle to retain control of the air rights around his person. By any standards she chose her venue poorly: the cold-hearted, rights-free limbo air-side of passport control is no place to assert yourself, especially with reporters and photographers looking on. Her subsequent statement urging women to fight "intimate body searches" was a rather transparent attempt to make a loss of temper sound like political activism, and many people will probably feel that the too-big-for-her-boots Miss Ross got exactly what she deserved. But there is something a little mean-spirited about giving celebrities exactly the same treatment everyone else gets, especially when the treatment everyone else gets amounts to breezy procedural contempt. She deserves better, if only because we do too. Whether she meant to or not, when Diana Ross shrieked "How do you like it?" at Heathrow, she went some way to giving voice to the silent cry which wells up in every one of us, every day: GET OUT OF MY FACE!