[Pardon the length of this offering; it was first posted–with minor changes–on the Psychology Today website, as “Michael, We Think We Know Ya.”]
We feel like we knew Michael Jackson. We share our tidbits and exchange questions about his life with one another as if we did. He spent hours studying movies of Fred Astaire. He had a horribly abusive father. Was he a pedophile? Did he want to die? In life and now even more so, we can’t help wondering what it must have been like to be him. He was like a neighborhood character, larger than life but still part of our world. And now we feel a strange sense of entitlement about knowing him.
Celebrities can feel like our acquaintances. They’re neither family members nor close friends, but we know facts about their lives and their histories–similar to knowing that Joe at the deli has a son in Iraq, or that the super in our building goes for a run at the end of every work day. We “knew” Michael for decades, or at least the public Michael. And as is obvious from the recent post-mortem, he elicited in many of us, a range of strong emotions. It seemed like a relationship.
But it was one-way; Michael knew nothing about us. At least Joe knows that you like smoked turkey. In fact, celebrities can’t open to themselves to strangers. There are too many banging at the door. Admittedly, some of us can be intrusive. We can’t seem to stop ourselves from staring at Candice Bergen who happens to be eating dinner at the next table–Nobu, 2004–or from commenting on Ed Burns’ baby-calming strategy. I can’t remember the restaurant, only that he was hiding out near the restroom area. It was in the early 00s after my first Baby Whisperer book came out. His response to my carefully worded advice (“It’s better if you don’t jiggle him so much”) was to look up at me and glare as if to say, “Who are you?” He was clearly not interested in opening the door.
The truth is, if you’re a celebrity, it’s probably not a good idea to court strangers. Rachel Maddow made this point when I interviewed her last summer, just as she was poised at the edge of stardom. She sounded a little wistful when she told me that she had already begun to need social padding–assistants whose main function was to cushion her against outsiders, vetting and blocking all the people who suddenly wanted to “know” her.
Sounds pretty lonesome, which is why a few of the famous fight back. Remember all the talks about Obama’s Blackberry and his desire to somehow counteract “the isolation of the Presidency”? Perhaps he’s just charming the pants off us, but he still appears to be genuinely determined not to give up his casual connections–other parents at soccer games, the guys at the burger joint. His ease in public fuels our fantasy that we know him; he’s one of us. But unless your child happens to go to Sidwell Friends, you don’t even have a casual relationship with him.
Bottom line: The famous are not our consequential strangers. But that realization begs another question: Will the Internet and the phenomenon Clay Shirky (author of Here Comes Everbody) calls the “mass amateurization” of media change all that? Ironically, either because of the cult of celebrity or as next stage in its evolution, lots of would-be fans now want wants their own fifteen minutes of fame. And, thanks to digital technology, they can have at least fifteen minutes of screen time, 140 characters at a time. We are all potential nano-stars. You don’t have to be “discovered.” Just stand in front of your Flip camera and upload youself to YouTube.
I doubt if a Michael Jackson will someday emerge from this more democratic world of broadcasting, but who knows? There are already Internet-made stars, among them techies, stay-at-home mothers, online marketing gurus, deep thinkers, and retired sex workers who quote inspirational sayings. I’ll bet you’re on the email list of some niche-celeb right now. Besides the fact that you both adore King Charles Spaniels, books, or vegan cuisine, part of the attraction is that, unlike old-fashioned luminaries, she seems accessible. You start by visiting her website. You follow her on Facebook and Twitter. Slowly, you become part of her ad-hoc community. She emails you and writes back when you send her a comment. You might wonder whether she sent the same message to countless others, or whether one of her underlings is at the keyboard, but you’re happy to hear from her nonetheless. She has become someone you know, like, and share ideas with–a consequential stranger.
But depending on how many others she attracts, in time will she really be any different from a mega-star like Michael Jackson or the hugely popular Rachel Maddow? At some point, your emails, IMs, and DMs will wither under the weight of the hundreds or thousands of other messages she receives daily. She might know you by your screen name, shake your hand warmly, and sign your program at a conference. Eventually, though, her fame will become something she needs to “handle.” She’ll don social padding, too, keeping her distance from you and most of her minions. Granted, in the normal course of life, most casual relationship come and go. Is she any different from a good friend who becomes successful and forgets the little people she left behind? Or were you never really connected in the first place? One difference between her and the old-time celebs: She won’t need bodyguards to fend you off, just a private email account.