Using a meatcleaver to kill a moth

A new book on celebrities taking over the world spends so much time taking petty, heat-style potshots at Paris Hilton’s miniature dogs that it forgets to mention Bob Geldof, George Clooney, the Redgraves…

Emily Hill

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It’s a fact frequently quoted – to energetic eyeball rolling – that celebrity biographies sell more, year on year, than the entire Booker Prize back catalogue. But the thing that gives me the daylight REMs is that publishers continue to shell out five-figure sums for the warmed-over chip-wrappings of star newspaper columnists. Surely, in this day and age, the desperate fan can Google and print?

Marina Hyde’s Celebrity: How Entertainers Took Over the World and Why We Need An Exit Strategy is just the latest column digest to trundle off the assembly line – a tarted up version of Hyde’s ‘Lost in Showbiz’ slot in the G2 section of the Guardian, with all the bits about Jordan dismantled, apparently in the hope that it might appeal to an ‘American audience’.

Celebs sell, but the sales logic behind this is baffling. If you like celebrities, why would you buy a book dedicated to chastising the public for taking an interest in them? If, on the other hand, you can’t stand celebrities, why would you cough up for 239 pages in which the world of celebrity pets is exposed in more malicious detail than heat could stomach? (‘Tinkerbell grew too large for Paris’ liking, and was subsequently replaced with a younger, hotter, smaller version called Bambi. Tinkerbell now lives in seclusion at the Hilton family mansion, perhaps watching old paparazzi videos of herself solicitously lapping Mommy’s vomit from the pavement after another mistimed nightclub exit.’)

There is no logic to this. There is only irony, which only piles a further layer of comedy eyebrow-raising on a book already buckling under it. IRONY (in block capitals) has already been ladled on to every sentence with a forklift truck. What you’ve really paid up to read is Hyde being snide.

The central argument of Celebrity is that celebrities should get out of politics, but the book falls down on a number of points.

Firstly, Hyde labours under the misapprehension that celebrities now routinely pontificate on the Big Issues Of The Day because they simply have an egomaniacal desire to do so. ‘Entertainers are formulating aid policy, and backing legislative bills, and dominating the news media to the exclusion of almost everything else.’ Bono may have given it some welly, yes; but Hyde misses the point. Most celebrities are begged by charities and politicians to raise the profile of their initiatives because they have lost any sense of how to engage the public. When London mayor Boris Johnson wanted to make it clear that he was concerned about knife crime, he got pop star Lily Allen in to talk about it. Gordon Brown may have promised us, when he was chancellor, that we are ‘moving away from a period when, if you like, celebrity matters’, yet one of his first acts after pushing Tony off his throne was to put it about that he was having ‘secret drinks’ with Kylie Minogue. Last year, he offered a ministerial post to a GMTV presenter.

Hyde is also extremely selective in her targets. The bulk of opprobrium is lumped on Paris Hilton (for keeping too many Chihuahuas), Sharon Stone (for threatening to snog for peace in Israel), and people who used to be famous – like Richard Gere. She takes a token swipe at Bono. She does not mention Bob Geldof or George Clooney, the Patron Saint of Darfur. Where would Hyde stand on the Redgrave dynasty’s stellar record of lunatic political stances? Probably with a cap doffed in due deference to luvviedom. Would she object to Joanna Lumley (whom 74 per cent of Guardian readers declared in an online poll ought to be the next prime minister) campaigning on the Gurkhas?

In total, none of the behaviour rehearsed in the book seems particularly bad. Sharon Stone may argue that cutting caffeine is a cure for cancer, but day in day out the British press reels out stories about how burnt toast is carcinogenic or how a red wine a day can delay your tumour. The star of Basic Instinct isn’t the problem here.

Even when Hyde does hit on a point she botches it. The best section of the book, which concentrates on how Tomb Raider star Angelina Jolie closed down Namibia in order to give birth, is liberally (ahem) borrowed from Brendan O’Neill’s excellent articles on celebrity colonialism – but it misses the wider point about the colonialism. When Hyde sneers at Gere’s claim that he ‘speaks for the entire world’ when he tries to intervene in the Palestinian presidential elections, you don’t imagine she’s outraged because the only people who ought to influence the outcome of the Palestinian elections are the Palestinians. If the UN or Obama wanted to get involved, well…

By training all her ire on particular individuals, Hyde misses what makes celebrity worth commenting on in our society – namely that it is being given so much attention thanks to a void opening up in political life. Celebrities are latched on to in order to ‘get the message out’, because governments and other worldwide agencies have lost belief that the message should speak for itself and that they are capable of delivering it.

When a party lacks convictions, personality politics become key – people voted for Blair, the argument went, because he was a pretty straight kinda guy. Nominally a politician, his white teeth and sure touch made him into a star himself. David Cameron is now trying to pull off the same shtick. An analysis of how celebrity culture has come to colonise public life and shape debate on political and social issues merits a book, but Hyde’s method – of taking a meatcleaver to moths – misses the target.

Emily Hill is a reporter on the Londoner’s Diary at the Evening Standard. Visit her personal website here. Read her Cult of Celebrity column on spiked here.

Celebrity: How Entertainers Took Over the World and Why We Need an Exit Strategy by Marina Hyde is published by Harvill Secker. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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