The Spice of sudden fame

This is an age when nonentities are catapulted to fame within days and destroyed by the press just as swiftly. In the first part of his new series, Peter Popham looks at the making of the modern celebrity
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Before our eyes, Oxford Street is mutating into a celebrity zone. It's a Thursday evening in early November and the dusk is closing in. Outside HMV's record shop near Bond Street Tube, workmen are stringing lights and mikes to a cherry-picker. Stacks of loudspeakers flank the entrance of the shop. Buses and taxis, tourists and shoppers grind past, but as the accoutrements of celebrity and the impedimenta of an event accumulate, more and more of the curious are snagged like fish in a net.

"Who is coming here?" a tall German asks a policewoman in fluorescent green.

"The Spice Girls."


"Yes, you know them just as much as me."

"What are they doing?"

"Turning on the lights."

Celebrity is all around us these days: we live our lives in a fog of it; it comes at us from all directions, from advertising and tabloids and television and recently even from the broadsheets. Nowhere is safe any more from a gratuitous display of celebrity. More and more bits of more and more newspapers are devoted to celebrity lifestyles. Hello! the celebrity mag par excellence, whose demise has been mistakenly predicted with monotonous regularity ever since it was launched, has a heavy responsibility for this state of affairs: far from going away, it has spawned a ghastly brood of imitators, such as Here! ("My time in a mental hospital, by The Street's Tracy Shaw").

Old-fashioned celebrity was simply the due reward for achievement or social status. If anything, celebrity was in short supply: beyond the confines of royalty or show business, it was conferred with arbitrary meanness: Don McCullin was not the only distinguished Vietnam photographer or Christiaan Barnard the only heart surgeon, nor were Richard Rogers and Norman Foster the only important British architects. But the public, and certainly the media, had mental space for only one or two famous names per profession, if that.

Today, celebrity's A-list survives mostly unchanged. If you are the most brilliant comedian, playwright or novelist of your generation, fame will find you out. But this perennial band of worthies has been joined by an immense troupe of people who are famous for three months or two weeks or half an hour: people who are famous for having survived disasters or hideous ordeals, people who are strikingly foolish or unlucky, people pretty and thrusting enough to persuade some PR man or woman that they can make it as a model. Vastly expanded print and television channels have produced a gluttonous appetite for celebrity, and in this ferocious cramming binge, all concern for quality has been jettisoned.

That is one striking change. In the past, celebrity followed achievement. Today, often, it is the other way about, as Liz Hurley has demonstrated most brilliantly. First, by one brilliant PR coup (that dress) force yourself on the nation's attention; only then, using this impudently acquired status, commence to build the career.

But there has been another change, too, a more sinister one. Just as the media's need to invent celebrities has exploded, so has their delight in tearing them down. Celebrity was always an ambiguous gift: long before the murder of John Lennon, there were obsessives and psychopaths lurking among the legion of admirers. But now the demolition of celebrity is not the result of bad character or atrocious luck: it follows as night follows day that the Pamela Anderson we gawped at will not long after collapse amidst our sneers and guffaws.

These two changes have come in tandem, and have their roots in the work of two gay iconoclasts of the Sixties and Seventies. The debasing of the currency of celebrity was predicted by Andy Warhol: "Everyone will be famous for 15 minutes". The sadistic gloating exposure of every dirty little celebrity secret was the work of the alternative film maker, Kenneth Anger, through his Hollywood Babylon books. Both trends started in the depths of the alternative culture of 25 years ago. In the Nineties, with nuclear annihilation off the agenda, they have taken over the mainstream. Trivia rules!

But if celebrity has been debased in this way, how is it that it continues to fascinate us?

Celebrity, the invisible, odourless gas, was what was gathering there in Oxford Street on that evening three weeks ago. The Girls were due on at 6pm. By 5.30 the buses and taxis had been diverted, and a sort of hush fell. The lights on the cherry-picker came on, and the numbers began to build. The tourists and mums and dads with their pre-teens, who'd arrived ludicrously early to get a place at the front, were joined now by the teenage fans, the shoppers and rubbernecks and people going home from work who stayed to catch it, whatever it might be.

The waiting throng, numbering now perhaps 3,000; the St John's Ambulance up the side street, the attendants lounging in and around the open back of the vehicle; a young black man prowling through the crowd with a string of green plastic light sticks; the photographers camped on the porch roof of the hotel opposite - in all these details, expectation was snagged, the sense of pure occasion built, almost empty of content, but none the less delectable for that.

Suddenly two gleaming black Daimlers rolled into the space cleared by the police in front of the store and wheeled around, and the Girls jumped out and pranced around the inner perimeter of the crowd, waving and blowing kisses and touching people in a sort of ecstasy of celeb-hood. That was the moment when that corner of Oxford Street practically crackled with celebrity: it was almost coming off their fingertips like static, rushing into the lungs of all and sundry like laughing gas. And you knew they liked it and that this was for real, because when they had done their stuff, gone up in the cherry-picker, said hello to the Mayor, answered daft questions and turned on the lights, they came down and bounced around the cleared space and did it again, touching and waving and blowing kisses and picking up one small boy who made it into the magic circle and giving him a hug. In the end, one of the group had to be seized from behind and wrestled back into the car for her own security. Afterwards, fans drew near to the now empty cherry-picker as if it were the Ark of the Covenant - fans who one or two months ago had probably never heard of these five women.

Now and for a few weeks or months more, until they start collapsing from exhaustion or worse, the Spice Girls possess celebrity in its most innocent and desirable form: theirs is the exaltation of new-found fame, a sort of simple-minded rapture (the early Beatles had it, too), an intoxication so compelling it seems to blur the vital line between the admired and the admirers, so that celebrity becomes a sort of communion in which all barriers are momentarily abolished.

That's the champagne version, all bubbles and hiccups. But there are older, heavier, more sultry vintages of celebrity, all its sugar long digested and on the verge of turning to vinegar. A few days after the Spice Girls anointed Oxford Street, the Princess Royal came to Hackney in East London. Midway through the afternoon, as founder and figurehead of the Princess Royal Trust for Carers she came to Sutton House, a grand old pile in Homerton , for a meeting of people involved in the Trust's work.

It was all quite smooth and practised and clinical: a police car, a palace co-ordinator with a mobile phone, the Caring ladies in their best suits. The two middle-aged lady onlookers on the pavement were there by accident: they had been visiting the house, a National Trust property, when told they would have to leave because Anne was on her way. "We only stayed because it's her," one remarked sniffily. "For several other members of the family we wouldn't have bothered."

In a moment the black Bentley had purred up to the kerb and the tall, stoical-looking person with her hair up marched into the house looking neither to right nor to left, and attended stony-faced as the curator described the property. We members of the Press - two from the Hackney Gazette, and me - cowered at a safe distance. "If you get closer than about seven feet she'll tell you to eff off," the photographer told me under his breath with an air of once bitten, twice shy. "She never cracks a smile as long as there's a camera around. You'll never get her to look into the lens. When she's talking in public, her gaze is fixed to the back of the hall."

This is celebrity, stoically endured.

"It's like having a permanent root canal thing going," Richard Schickel, author of a new biography of Clint Eastwood, told me from Los Angeles, having shared Eastwood's life at close quarters during a recent publicity trip. "You get through the dental appointment as fast as possible."

In the case of Anne, you might also think that by force of bloody-minded will she had abolished her own celebrity outright. You would be wrong. The climax of her visitation to Sutton House was a public meeting of carers and social workers: as she entered the hall we shot to our feet as one body, a bizarre, forgotten reflex response to royalty, followed by a stifled tittering of self-surprise. More subtly, her sourish vintage changed the mood of the entire proceedings. The other people on the platform, natural adversaries in municipal life, were there together only because of her. She said almost nothing - one forgettable, commonsensical comment - but the event had a charge of potential significance, potential for change, that in her absence it would have lacked.

Then she got up and marched out. Outside on the kerb a dozen small boys in school uniforms, black and Asian, were hopping up and down in anticipation, spitting out cheek and mischief. Then suddenly she was among them, and with the same lack of intention that had forced us to our feet, they were suddenly all clapping. As she bent into the Bentley, Anne mustered the ghost of a smile.

Celebrity means discrimination: those who look and those who are looked upon. In an age that fancies it has done away with elites, the discrimination that is celebrity has not merely survived - witness Hackney shooting to its feet - it has spread like a fungus. Yet in an age when other social issues are endlessly dissected, celebrity as a phenomenon is almost completely ignored, as an embarrassing anomaly that ought shortly to wither away.

But it will not wither: on the contrary, its effects have spread beyond the traditional spheres of show business and royalty into all corners of our national life. In a trivial age, eager for quick intoxication, celebrity is the sweetest hit of all.

Tomorrow: where madness began.