OK, authors who’d score higher on Pointless than Kim Kardashian and Jedward? Well, Shakespeare and JK. It says something about celebrity that my greatest literary heroine, George Eliot, isn’t one. But as the song says, if we’re talking fame she’ll live forever – like Van Gogh, who died poor and rejected. There are days when I find myself besieged by awestruck kids who want autographs and photos, and I can’t pretend I don’t enjoy it. It’s a buzz, and a useful antidote to “Who’s she?” But that’s just ego. A celebrity lifestyle with its obscene excesses has zero appeal, and I could do without the fear that my bin could be searched by tabloid hacks, or that any unguarded word that spills out of my mouth could be used against me. I can’t comprehend that any celebrity could enjoy this way of living, and yet many of today’s kids claim that’s just what they aspire to. Celebrities make money and money’s like war: it distorts values we know to be true. With war and money, we never learn.
Business knows that any product with an A-lister fronting the campaign will sell. And in return the success of the brand will sustain the celebrity of its ‘face’. In the book world books are now ‘products’ too, and a celebrity ‘author’ can be relied to sell better, even with a ghost-written novel or autobiography, than a gifted writer no one knows. Business needs celebs, and celebs need the media to create them. But once human beings achieve that level of recognition, it makes them vulnerable. The press can sell papers by attacking or exposing them, turning the public against the same figures they used to admire or adore. (See The Prostitute State by Donnachadh McCarthy for an insight into the horrifying scale of this media power.) If you’ve heard Charlotte Church or Hugh Grant giving evidence in the Leveson Inquiry, you’ll have some understanding of the personal cost of celebrity-as-fair-game. But are we really so nosy and lacking in empathy that we want the paparazzi to intrude on our behalf into private lives? Do we sign up to a deal that in exchange for their celebrity these human beings forfeit the basic rights we ourselves enjoy? And if it’s jealousy that twists our thinking, what on earth are we jealous of? Can we really hold on to some princess-at-the-ball fantasy that fame and fortune make anyone happy, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary?
Last weekend I encountered two examples of talent, with and without celebrity, and the difference was striking. Firstly, my husband and I took his mum out for a birthday treat, to see a show fronted by a Strictly dancer. We’d always thought he seemed charming and modest, and we’re fans – of great dancing in all its forms. So we were unprepared for the orgy of adulation and narcissism to follow! Between dances, the celeb in question played the audience in a live but scripted I-know-you-love-my-body way, answered predictable questions predictably and, in a giant montage, posed relentlessly so that we could admire him, suited and buffed, from every angle – like the Venus de Milo. And as we left, we found chairs arranged in the bar, to face the single chair that might as well have been a throne on a dais! The ‘soul’ he talked about feeding – and I don’t doubt his passion for dance, or his gift – felt sold.
By contrast, the following afternoon we went to a gig in a coffee bar near us, to support a Green rocker we know who was playing an acoustic set with other young local musicians. The show was free, all two hours of it. You won’t have heard of these guys, but they write their own music and they play for love of it. Can you imagine the polar opposite of the bland, same-old-same-as music that now infiltrates primary school assemblies? What we enjoyed was vivid with raw and stirring creative energy. Their names are Ky Fawkes and Silo 18. And like Tom Billington and Steve Rodgers (pictured at top), Minnie Birch and Daria Kulesh, they make most pop stars you’ll see on your TV look like musical beginners working towards Grade One.
So when kids ask me for advice on becoming an author, I say, “Don’t even try, unless you have to – because you love writing, and believe in the deep, creative power of words and stories.” Not, I stress, for fame and fortune. If that ever came my way, I’d be crying out, “I’m a celebrity – get me out of here!”