Yesterday a rather interesting email popped into my inbox containing a link to a collection of photographs of Britney Spears being ‘papped’ as she got out of a limo. Britney had decided to have a hedonist night on the town with her pal Paris Hilton, sans knickers. The short skirt she chose to wear from her extensive wardrobe, indicated that she was “unaware” of the publicity stunt potential of a night on the town. Her need for publicity is a given; distorted by the adoration heaped on her by her fans that fuel her need for constant attention to identify her celebrity status.
Compare this motivation with the extraordinary life of Virginia Hall, who today is being honoured 20 years after her death, for her extraordinary work during the Second World War as a spy. She was also known by many aliases: “Marie Monin,” “Germaine,” “Diane,” and “Camille.” Her niece will receive a Royal Warrant, signed by George VI, for the work she did during the War. Virginia worked for Churchill’s Secret Operations Executive, the forerunner of MI5. She conducted guerrilla operations behind lines every day, risking her life. She organised underground activity and helped crews escape back to England. The Gestapo declared Hall “the most dangerous of all Allied spies” who had to be destroyed. And they offered a reward in Wanted Posters for her demise. She was also known as the woman with a limp — a hunting accident early in life left her an amputee. After the Gestapo wanted posters made her situation untenable, she fled through the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. During the journey, she sent a radio message to London, reporting that “Cuthbert”— her nickname for her prosthetic leg — was giving her trouble. Her commanders didn’t understand the reference, and their reply suggested the gravity of Hall’s circumstances and her value to the Allied cause: “If Cuthbert troublesome eliminate him.”
She was never caught, and after the war she continued to work for the CIA but slipped away into anonymity. She never sought any reward or adoration for what she did and chose obscurity which ultimately fuelled myth and legend.
At roughly the same time, Daniel Boorstin the social historian, telegraphed the dawn of the coming age of celebrity when he wrote the following:
“Our age has produced a new kind of eminence “celebrity”. The celebrity has been fabricated to satisfy our exaggerated expectations of human greatness. The hero was distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark. The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media. The celebrity is always a contemporary. The hero is made by folklore, sacred texts and history books but the celebrity is the creature of gossip of magazines, newspapers and the ephemeral images of movie and television screen. Celebrities are differentiated mainly by trivia of personality. Entertainers are best qualified to become celebrities because they are skilled in the marginal differentiation of their personalities… Anyone can become a celebrity if only he can get into the news and stay there. Figures of entertainment and fashion fill most of the celebrity ranks, in part because they have at their disposal a well-oiled publicity machine. There is an obvious financial incentive for creating celebrities: Movies, TV programs, popular music all revolve around them; the advertising industry regularly avails itself of their services and endorsements to sell a wide range of products. Most celebrities come from the world of entertainment because the entertainment industries occupy such a prominent place in public life.
Never has an academic’s words been more relevant. Perhaps the events of the last year have signalled that the ephemera of celebrity needs to be challenged. Images of Britney’s “tush” should be relegated to the dustbin of history whilst images of bravery and sacrifice need magnification. If we can amplify heroic lives such as Virginia Hall, perhaps then we might generate a new hope and better values in life. If we don’t, we might see the fundamentalist PC visionaries impose a new straight jacket on morality. I feel unease at being part of an industry that is happy to plunder for profit moronic values. Let’s face it, they are part of a complex industry captained by shadowy captains, new masters of the universe laughing all the way to the bank in Lichtenstein. They will chew up a generation and create a future legacy that will see a hapless demographic flounder airlessly on the bank, struggling to understand the contact they made with the devil.