You're famous aren't you? Er, what was your name again?

Trevor Phillips On the art of fame

Share
Related Topics
In this week of new beginnings, it may be time for an ur-text. Of course you know what an ur-text is - the original, unexpurgated text, musical or literary, showing the author's or composer's work without modification, allowing us to translate or interpret all further texts. Everything is built on that foundation.

If this column has an ur-text, it is a profound meditation on the nature of identity, in the work of a little-recognised group of philosophers who sum it up thus:

Who do you think you are?

Some kind of superstar?

The questions which week after week we worry about are bound by this couplet, the work of Mel B, Mel C, Geri, Victoria and Emma. Weeks of debate over the referendums; millions of words about the British nation after the death of the Princess; the unceasing search of the Blair Project and its acolytes for the New Britain; the backbreaking research of dozens of university departments - all condensed into 10 words masquerading as a pop song. It is awesome.

This week I found out that the second line of the rhyme has its own special meaning. It is in effect, no less than a critical meditation on the nature of celebrity. This is something I know about. I am myself at best a nanocelebrity - my recognition factor being somewhat smaller than a weasel's wedding tackle, as Blackadder would put it. I believe that there are fewer than two dozen people in this country who are so famous that they genuinely need no introduction. The test is whether nine out of ten of us can both recognise them and name them. You would probably recognise the Queen, but you'd miss Prince Edward in a crowd; you'd know Cilla; but, I promise you, you'd never know that Liam Gallagher wasn't his brother. Tony Blair, yes, but Michael Meacher? No way. There is an exquisite humiliation for anyone who imagines that appearing on TV makes you famous. Having been on the screens of the capital for more than a decade, on average once a week, I have learnt this the hard way. A few months ago, whilst filming on the streets of Hackney, I was approached by a young man who said how much he admired my programme. I promise that the pride I felt was not personal, but on behalf of the hard-working creative team that produces the show. As he turned to go he threw in one last query: "Oh, by the way, is your dad still reading the news, then?" I haven't yet figured out a way to tell Trevor Macdonald that he's acquired a new relative.

It may be that the young man was taught in Hackney's schools, and never got round to the lesson where they teach the distinction between a forename and a surname; but even so, I think it's a bit hard on poor old Trevor to suggest that he might already be reaching for the bus pass.

Not that he'd mind, I suppose. Oddly enough, the truly famous can be unusually modest; they remember your name, for example. As I examined some elephant dung at the Royal Academy's Sensation exhibition this week, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to be greeted by The Most Famous Living Author In The World. (Sorry Jeffrey; I could arrange the fatwa if you really fancied it, but it would make running for Mayor of London very, very hard - security would probably soak up next year's advance. It's Salman Rushdie I'm talking about.)

I hadn't seen Salman for some years, except across a crowded room, so I would not have expected him to remember me (shouldn't think he watches television a lot); more important, I wouldn't expect him to remember my wife's name. But he did. There is a class of hugely well-organised Americans who have your family history down in their address books, so that no business conversation passes without an enquiry about your younger daughter ("she must be nine now, right?") leaving you bewildered at their powers of recall. But he didn't have an aide-memoire, so it must have been genuine. Anyway, TMFAINTW was charm itself. So was The Great Interrogator, whom I had not met properly before, and to whom I'd never been properly introduced, yet who greeted me as an equal.

Yet 10 minutes later I bounded up to a lesser-known scribbler who has from time to time been paid by TV companies, and whom I had met briefly on a couple of occasions. I have never spoken more than a dozen words to the man. Yet he asked me if I was still doing the TV programme that he and I had hosted together, on a channel that I have never been near, and then started to talk about the times we worked together. Clearly, the old adage that we black people all look alike still holds for some. The chap has probably met only one black person in his life, and now imagines that we are all the same fellow. He may suffer from the same disease that afflicted the porters at my university. The son of Archbishop Tutu also happens to be called Trevor. Being what he is, and what I am, we came to know each other well, since we would regularly get each other's mail. Not that the envelopes said "Please give me to any black male answering to the name o Trevor"; they would clearly announce themselves as for "Phillips" or "Tutu". Somehow it all seemed too much.

But the people I feel really sorry for are those whose fame has become an adjunct to someone or something else's. The name Lorraine Chase will probably mean little to most of us; but "the Luton Airport Girl" places her instantly. And imagine being known only as Margaret Thatcher's husband. It's not worth it really, is it? That is why, to return to our ur-text, the Spice Girls have it right.

You're swelling out in the wrong direction

You got the bug, superstar you've been bitten,

Your trumpet's blowing for far too long ...

Andy Warhol promised fame for 15 minutes to everyone. Oprah, Ricki Lake, Esther, and, God help us, Vanessa are doing their best to deliver. But be warned .You can't be too careful with celebrity. Embrace it gingerly if you embrace it at all. It's not all that it seems.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows, Network Security)

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows...

Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Directory, ITIL, Reuter)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Dire...

PHP Web Developer (HTML5, CSS3, Jenkins, Vagrant, MySQL)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: PHP Web Develo...

Network Engineer (CCNA, CCNP, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£40000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNA, CCNP, Linux, OSPF,...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: The final instalment of our WW1 series

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

Simon Usborne: The more you watch pro cycling, the more you understand its social complexity

Simon Usborne
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice