Category Archives: Celebrity

Harry Styles’ deal with the devil

IS HE RENEGING ON A FAUSTIAN BARGAIN?

harry styles, where have you come from. amazing

Q: So what’s all this about Harry Styles? He’s taken out an injunction. What’s that?

A: An injunction is a court order or warning, restraining people from continuing an action that threatens the legal right of another. Harry says photographers follow him and invade his personal space.

Q: Which is?

A: 50 metres. So now photographers can’t stake out or loiter within distance of him.

Q: He’s not the first celebrity to do this, is he?

A: No. There have been several. Cheryl Cole won a similar high court order last year after complaining about the “intense and very annoying” experience of photographers camping outside her home. Lily Allen too. And the late Amy Winehouse. In 2008, when Britney Spears was taken to hospital, the ambulance needed at least 12 police motorcycles to escort it through a swarm of photographers.

Q: So you can understand why they get annoyed.

A: You can. But it’s like a professor getting annoyed by persistent students who are always asking questions, calling him at home and constantly asking for reviews of drafts. The students might be a bit annoying, but without them the professor would be sunk.

Q: You’re not serious. That’s a ridiculous comparison.

A: Follow my logic. Without students, a professor has no one to educate, no one to read his or her books and articles, no one who is interested in learning, no one to lecture. So the prof might get the occasional student who calls at inconvenient times or bombards him or her with drafts of essays. But that goes with the job. It’s not 9 till 5. Celebs need exposure: they become famous because the media, especially the paps, give them phenomenal publicity. Someone like Harry has been elevated to stardom courtesy of television (he shot to fame with One Direction on The X Factor) and has been in the public eye ever since. His band’s records sell in their millions and their concerts sell out. But can you imagine what would happen if the global media decided to ignore them?

Q: All their fans, the “Directioners” would kick up a fuss and … well, I’m not sure what would happen after that. What?

A: We’d all forget about them, stop buying records and all the other merchandise. Television shows would lose interest and stop booking them. And twitter traffic would eventually slow down. The band would still make a living, but, without the kind of media attention 1D now enjoys, it would be headed for oblivion.

Q: You say, “enjoys” but clearly the band, or at least Harry, isn’t enjoying all the attention, is he?

A: Apparently, not. Though the phrase “goes with the territory” should mean something to him. The band has shot to global fame in a relatively short period of time. They appeared in the 2010 X Factor. Harry is still only 19, remember. The band finished in third place behind Rebecca Ferguson, and winner Matt Cardle, neither of whom has made nearly as much impact as 1D. Imagine if they commanded the same kind of attention as Aiden Grimshaw or Katie Waissel, both of whom were in show’s finals, but never registered with the media. I think that when people go on a show like The X Factor, they strike a kind of Faustian bargain: they trade in their right to a private life in exchange for a shot at fame, riches and A-list status. In 1D’s case, the deal came off and the boy band got what it wanted. But Harry seems to want to renege on the deal.

Q: A bit harsh, isn’t it?

A: It sounds it, but surely anyone who contemplates fame – and a great many people, young and old, do – must know that being followed by paps is part of the definition. Being a celeb means that the media are going to chronicle your every move and convey this to consumers. If they lose interest, then chances are fans have either already lost interest or soon will. That’s just the nature of celebrity culture nowadays.

Q: So what will happen?

A: Either this is an astute career move for Harry and he is intent of becoming the most prominent member of the band. He probably already is. Or he could scare off the paps and they will just ignore him. I think the former is more likely. Interest in the band is inevitably limited by time. In a couple of years, fans will move on: look at JLS. But my suspicion is that Harry will try eventually to establish himself independently of the band. @elliscashmore

 

Sir Alex’s torment

“The big problem for me … he fell in love”

I remember getting a call in my hotel room in Manchester in February, 2003. It was from a radio station that wanted me to go on air to talk about David Beckham’s fraying relationship with the then manager of his club Manchester United, Alex Ferguson. “Why? What’s happened?” I asked. “Apparently Ferguson has cut Beckham’s eye.” It became known as the “flying boot incident.” Ferguson had vented his rage at Beckham after an FA Cup tie against Arsenal and, for some reason, kicked a stray boot, which flew through the air and collided with Beckham’s face. With his typical flair for dramatizing small incidents, Beckham wore his hair fastened back with an Alice band so that the wound – treated with steri-strips – was clearly visible. The professional relationship between the two men had probably been deteriorating for a while, but this was the first tangible evidence. I could only speculate on radio that this was probably the beginning of the end. Ferguson was irritated that the player had become a focus of more media attention than Manchester United. One can only imagine what torment Victoria caused him: it seems she was pulling her husband in many directions, all of them wrong from Ferguson’s perspective. If she wasn’t taking him to Lenny Kravitz’s birthday bash, she was displaying him on the front row of Giorgio Armani’s new launch or introducing him to her friends Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana. For the hard-bitten Glaswegian, it must have been purgatory.

Ferguson’s new autobiography confirms what we all knew about his loss of patience with Beckham, though at the press conference to accompany the book’s publication, Ferguson let slip arguably an even more interesting insight: “The big problem for me [was] he fell in love with Victoria and that changed everything.” Read that again: the big problem for Ferguson was that Beckham fell in love with Victoria. This is exactly the kind of blunderingly insensitive remark that earns Ferguson respect from many people, who regard him as a kind of master of the dark arts of psychology. But is he?  He’s a good … no great football manager, perhaps the best there’s ever been, but he can also be boorish, crass and frequently shows no feeling or concern for others. How unfortunate for Ferguson that Beckham met a woman, fell in love, had children and became a celebrity athlete on par with Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Beckham, writes Ferguson in the book, thought “he was bigger than Sir Alex Ferguson.” The very idea, eh? “The name of the manager is irrelevant. The authority is what counts.” Football fans might argue that successful managers have to be authoritarian in the sense that they need obedience from players at the expense of personal freedoms. But this statement sounds like it comes from someone who can’t bear the prospect of one of his minions having the temerity to challenge him or even occupy other people’s attention. When Ferguson writes, “I could see him being swallowed up by the media or publicity agents.” You wonder what irked him more: the fact that Beckham was distracted by the lure of celebritydom, or that global interest in Posh and Becks, as the couple was then known, eclipsed interest in either the club or Ferguson. There was clearly a clash of egos at the club and, with no prospect of limiting Beckham’s celebrity ambitions or prising him away from Victoria, Ferguson’s only option was to release him. Beckham transferred to Real Madrid within months of the flying boot incident. Ferguson regards this as a “shame because he could still have been at Manchester United when I left. He would have been one of the greatest Man United legends.” We’re all sure he could too. But instead he became just a common or garden global icon.

 

Exposing our private parts

Keith Lemon thought

Privacy. Has it vanished? Is there part of your life that you jealously protect, don’t want observed or discussed with other people and restrict to yourself and perhaps very close confidantes? Or do you live a life that’s pretty much open to inspection by all and which you’re happy to share with others, even people you don’t know and will probably never meet?

In the 1980s when BBC launched its show Through the Keyhole, it was a daring innovation: the host Lloyd Grossman led viewers into the homes of famous people, scrutinizing the décor and furniture in an effort to disclose aspects of their character. The show was predicated on the intellectually respectable assumption that the physical places in which people live offered a reliable reflection of aspects of their “real” personality rather than the public persona they presented to their audiences. It was a legitimate invasion of privacy and offered viewers a rare sight of the largely hidden side of the rich and famous.

Last Saturday, ITV revived the concept, replacing the vowel-strangling gastronome with “Keith Lemon,” alter ego of Leigh Francis. Unsurprisingly, the show removed any intellectual pretensions or ingenuity. The formula was camped up, but the pleasure it offered viewers was essentially the same.

At the time of the original series, most people would have felt slightly uncomfortable about wandering into the homes of other people and poking around their personal belongings. But only slightly. And when viewed through the filter of television, the whole experience seemed completely wholesome. The beauty of the show was that it effectively turned us into shameless peeping toms.  No one felt guilty about invading others’ privacy.

Since then, we have less respect for other people’s private lives. Celebrity culture is founded on our curiosity: we don’t just want to know about other people’s private lives – we demand they don’t have private lives at all. We insist on having access to all areas of their lives. And, in exchange, we’re prepared to share our own lives. Facebook, twitter and other social media have painlessly removed any semblance of privacy – or perhaps, more accurately, they have turned it inside out. Many people provide minutely detailed logs of their daily lives, complete with accounts of their own views, opinions, feelings, emotions and all kind of personal states that they wouldn’t have dreamt of discussing in public in the 1980s. In recent decades the old-school privacy has receded. Television has both initiated and responded to this. Just look at the Jeremy Kyle Show: people clamour to appear on telly to reveal the most intimately embarrassing details of their lives in front of 1.5 million viewers.

Privacy has been under assault in all sorts of other ways: CCTV cameras surround us, many of your newspapers and magazines are dedicated purely to discovering dirty little secrets, credit card companies store an astonishing amount of detail on us. And we don’t seem to mind; we just accept that today’s society is like a vast panopticon – a circular prison in which prisoners can at all times be observed.

We’re both parts of and creators of a voyeuristic culture: we neither object to be being watched and infiltrated, nor mind admitting that we enjoy watching and infiltrating others.  Ravenous for information on other people, not just celebs, but anyone we care about, we’ve become nosey parkers. If you don’t probe others’ lives, you can’t really care about them at all. No one, it seems, feels embarrassed about tweeting the kind of information that would have made them squirm a few years ago.

The new show is in this sense catches the zeitgeist much more than the original. Back in the 1980s every scene set a question and we, assisted by Grossman and, later, the recently deceased David Frost, were invited to supply an answer. Lemon is less complex. The problem is: does the new show still have the power to surprise? After all, part of the pleasure of the first show lay in the little thrill of penetrating someone else’s private domain. Now we know full well the homes may be owned or rented by someone else, but we also know they are allowing cameras free entry because they have to: they are just filling their side of a bargain. That’s part of the deal in celebrity culture: anyone with aspirations to become a celebrity has to surrender their private life. In a way we all surrender our private lives.

Consumers today insist on a constant stream of information and, if they don’t get it, they lose interest. Once that interest has gone, the celebrity is effectively consigned to oblivion. This is a problem for the new show: it’s going to have a tough time presenting us with anything new; so it can’t really surprise, less still shock us in the way the Grossman show managed. We’re no longer peeping toms who need our pangs of guilt assuaged. We’re inquisitive, intrusive, snooping eavesdroppers and not the least bit embarrassed by our nosiness.

In defence of Gordon Taylor

I’m not an admirer of Gordon Taylor, but I’ll defend his right to spend his £1 million yearly salary however he chooses. The papers are roundly condemning him for his gambling habit. The chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) – the players’ union – has warned his members about the dangers of gambling and has even used the term “zero tolerance” to deter his members from betting on matches. Certainly, there are strict rules about players betting on games in which they are involved. This is no more than common sense.

Taylor has also stated: “Gambling is possibly the biggest danger facing our members.” Even allowing for a measure of exaggeration, there is nothing inconsistent about this statement. Taylor may truly believe gambling does pose dangers for young men who find themselves in positions where they command the adulation of fans and the kind of money they could barely have dreamt of.

Taylor is acting responsibly if he advises his members to guard against gambling irresponsibly. But, if he enjoys a bet himself, so what? He earns the kind of money that allows him to place bets of £25,000 a pop without any undue discomfort. And if he ran up debts of £100,000, as one newspaper reports, so what? This is like someone who earns £50,000 a year owing £5,000 – a considerable chunk of change, but not ruinous.

Taylor’s advice to players on gambling has credibility: he is someone who obviously likes a bet and presumably enjoys the thrill or frisson that’s peculiar to gambling. So when he counsels players about the subject, his advice has substance because he knows about the attractions of gambling. Were the advice to come from a goody-goody who was sternly opposed to gambling, players would pay it no heed.

Who has the right to tell Taylor how to spend his money? He is not a gambling addict – in fact, there is no such thing: the medical profession abetted by uncritical social scientists has perpetrated this myth. Same goes for “problem gambler”: this is another fiction. There may be gamblers who have problems, but that is another phenomenon. And in any case, Taylor’s only problem at the moment is a pious media seemingly hell-bent on destroying him.

Were it discovered he drove an Aston Martin One-77 at just under a million quid, would he be disqualified from issuing guidance on expensive cars? Players favour Bentleys and Lamborghinis, as we know.

I have not agreed with many of Taylor’s decisions in the past and have criticised him for his stance on other issues, but, on this occasion, I am with him: he is perfectly entitled to spend his money however he chooses. Gambling is legal in the UK. It is not hypocritical for him to talk on the subject and offer advice to his members.

What connects 1D fans with the girls in Peru?

One Direction

Chaos theory concerns connections between seemingly unconnected events: like a temperature rise in the Atlantic initiating a hurricane across the Indian Ocean and a tsunami in the Pacific. 70,000 young people flocked to London’s Leicester Square to catch glimpse members of One Direction as they attended the premiere of the band’s film.  6,000 miles away in Lima, Peru, two 20-year old women attended their first formal hearing after being caught with £1.5million worth of cocaine hidden in their suitcases at the airport. They face up to 25 years in prison, if found guilty. The two events have a common source.

Young people today are fascinated by glamour: the attractive and exciting quality that makes certain people or things seem appealing has never gripped them so tightly. They are enchanted, captivated, thrilled by the glitz and pizzazz they find not just surrounding them but invading their imaginations.

<p class="MsoNormal" Directioners are not dimwits: they love the band, but they know that, in a sense Liam, Harry, Zayn, Niall and Louis are their proxy: after all, the band is a product of The X Factor and its success on the show (3rd place, 2010) was made possible by viewers’  — in other words, their — votes. 1D fans are rightly proprietorial – they behave as if they own the band. So when they see the band enjoying the highlife, appearing in every conceivable media, leaping from one triumph to another, they too experience a strong vicarious gratification.

Michaella Connolly and Melissa Reid may be fans of the band.  Even if they’re not, I’m sure they share with Directioners the craving for what the writer Christopher Lasch called “the good life,” in which there is  “endless novelty, change and excitement [and] the titillation of the senses by available stimulant.” (Check Melissa’s Facebook photos.) Exotic images of luxury, romance and affluence dominate the media that engulfs, not just them but all of us. This is modern consumerism and, whether we like it or not, we are part of it.

Michaella and Melissa are indistinguishable from the thousands who congregated at Leicester Square. They’re products of the same culture, one that emphasizes impulse rather than calculation as the determinant of human conduct. They’ve all learned to spurn traditional values of thrift and self-denial and respond to every new demand our media issues. But young people are not hapless fools. Anything but: they know there is a manipulation going on. When they see the latest smartphone dangled in front of them, they tumble to what’s going on. Use values have been replaced by exchange values, events by images and quality by newness.

Obviously, I can’t know the exact motivation of the young women now awaiting their fate in South America. But I’m pretty sure their ill-starred adventure had its source in the desire to find an alternative to the unendurable settled life they saw lying ahead of them at home. They were prepared to travel thousands of miles to escape their humdrum existences. Their restless ambition and nagging dissatisfaction with things as they were encouraged by an appetite for excitement, glamour and celebrity. In this sense they are connected as if by an invisible chain to the thousands of worshipful young fans of 1D.

Diana’s death fascinates us as much as her life

Princess Diana

Sixteen years after her death, Diana, Princess of Wales, continues to enchant us. A new claim that the Special Air Service (SAS) was involved in her death is being investigated by the Metropolitan Police. In the immediate aftermath of the fateful night of August 31, 1997, everyone struggled to make sense of arguably the most devastating death of the century. The shock and prolonged sense of grief occasioned by Diana’s utterly unexpected death has scarcely a parallel in world events. The deaths of social and political giants such as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and cultural icons like John Lennon and Michael Jackson, stunned people the world over. But none of these evoked an emotional response so long and deep as that following Diana’s death.

The response to Diana’s death defined an emblematic moment, one of transferred emotion. In the days leading to her funeral on September 6, over a million people flocked to pay their last respects, many leaving bouquets at her London home at Kensington Palace. Her funeral attracted three million mourners who cast flowers along the entire length of the journey. A global television audience of twenty six million watched the day’s events.

The near-inevitable conspiracy theories surrounding the death were like those about the moon landing, the JFK assassination or 9/11. More rational attributions of blame centered on paparazzi, who pursued her into the tunnel in Paris on that fateful night. “I always believed the press would kill her in the end,” said Diana’s brother, the Earl of Spencer. “Every proprietor and editor of every publication that has paid for intrusive and exploitative photographs of her, encouraging greedy and ruthless individuals to risk everything in pursuit of Diana’s image, has blood on his hands.”

Few wanted to extend that same argument further. If they had, they would have concluded that the paparazzi were motivated by money offered by media corporations that could sell publications in their millions to consumers whose thirst for pictures and stories of Diana seemed unquenchable. In the event, the photographers were cleared of any wrongdoing by a French court in 1999. The fact remains: all parties, from the paparazzi to the fans were connected as if by invisible thread.

Anyone who was aware of Diana — and it’s difficult to imagine anyone who wasn’t — was forced to think about the way in which news values had been subverted by entertainment values. After all, Diana’s greatest triumph was not so much in ushering in world peace, or saving the planet, but in offering so pleasure to so many people. Yet the inspection was momentary. It didn’t bring to an end the gathering interest in figures, who, like Diana, offered pleasure while presenting absolutely nothing that would materially alter their lives or the lives of any other living thing. Then, after a spell of critical evaluation of the media, the interest resumed and theories of skullduggery, connivance and subterfuge began to circulate. It took ten years before an official investigation lasting nearly two years concluded the death had been an accident and there was “no conspiracy to murder the occupants of that car.

Now police are investigating a fresh claim that the SAS was involved in Diana’s death. Like the other theories, this one appears to lack that all-important constituent of a credible theory – evidence. So you might wonder why the latest one has prompted action from Scotland Yard. “The Metropolitan Police Service is scoping information that has recently received,” is the official response. “Scoping” is an unusual choice of verbs: it’s typically used informally for looking at, or scanning something or someone. But the meaning is clear enough: the Yard is taking this seriously enough to look into it.

A few people will suggest a different kind of conspiracy: a new film Diana is shortly to be released to coincide with the anniversary of the Princess’s death. A new theory is bound to be good boxoffice. But it could be just an astonishing coincidence. I suspect this will not be the last theory of this kind we will hear. Diana’s death, like her life, is a subject of endless intrigue. Her singular capacity to lure, charm and draw people of diverse backgrounds has survived her and will probably outlive anyone reading this.

 

The most eagerly awaited birth in history

new-royal-baby-CarmenRodriguez-NaturalHealthStoreUS

“I wonder if one of the midwives will tweet news of the baby before the official announcement on the easel.” My friend, a professional broadcaster, was wondering out loud. Naively, I hadn’t considered the possibility. “You mean subvert the monarchical protocol?” I asked. It would have meant that potentially a half-billion people would have known the sex of the baby before the official announcement. “The tweeter would’ve ended up in the Tower at one time in history.”

Of course, it didn’t happen, but I’ll bet a few anxious people at the Palace were keeping their fingers crossed while the couriers made their way from St Mary’s to the Palace, where the royal easel stands.

This has been the most eagerly awaited birth in history. I can remember 1982 when Princess Diana gave birth to William and, while I can’t remember the anticipation over the birth of Lady Caroline of Monaco in 1958, I understand this too was an international event. But both births were before social media revolutionized the way we communicate – and think.

There has never been a mediated birth on this scale. By mediated, I mean involving intermediate agencies. The traditional press and broadcast media were geared up for William’s birth. But by current standards, they were restrained, if not cautious. Today’s media are less likely to observe procedure, and, as last year’s Leveson Inquiry shows, prepared to go to any lengths, legal or illegal, for a story.

Today’s media are constituent parts of celebrity culture. And, whether she likes it or not, so is the Duchess of Cambridge. The nearest recent contenders in eagerly-awaited-births are Beyoncé’s Blue Ivy and Kim Kardashian’s North; though neither generated the global interest of the new heir to the throne.

Kate, like Diana, is a knowable figure. She has a similar regal aura, but she combines this with ordinariness. People seem to love her, but not in a worshipful way. It’s almost as if they feel they could stand next to her at the Tesco checkout and strike up a conversation: “What did you make of last night’s X Factor?”

In a way, all the royals are more human nowadays. Before Diana, they were remote, inaccessible, godlike creatures. Diana humanized royals: she gave royalty a human character (there’s a biopic due for release later this year, by the way). When she arrived in the public consciousness, celebrity culture was in its infancy. The spread of celebrities means that we are no longer in awe at prominent figures from politics, entertainment and sport: we know they are just like us, with the same kind of weaknesses, imperfections and inadequacies. We know the royals are not exquisitely, sublimely flawless. And we like them all the more for it. We feel a peculiar kind of intimacy with Kate and her new baby. Most of us will never stand within ten miles of either of them. There’s no irony in that: familiarity and distance are no longer related.

Celebrity lookalikes are the real thing

Our captivation with some celebrities just about makes sense. You don’t have to share the fascination with people who make no material impact on our lives to understand it. We live in and are parts of a culture that places great value on people who appear regularly in our media and who engage us in a way most of us find agreeable, if not totally spellbinding.

But figure this out: shopping at my local Aldi recently, I noticed a crowd gathering around a young woman who looked like Kate Middleton. On closer inspection, it wasn’t Kate (at Aldi?) and when she spoke in a Brummie accent, everybody within earshot knew. But she certainly looked like her, at least in a superficial way; she had a bump, and, while she wasn’t dressed in Alexander McQueen and LK Bennett, her overall style was reminiscent of the real Kate’s.

Initially, I wondered if the shoppers gathered around her realized this wasn’t Kate Middleton, but just someone who resembled her and probably made a living impersonating her. Of course. They must have. But then why did they hustle her for photos on their smartphones and ask her for autographs on those Bargains of the Week leaflets Aldi produces? (“Make it out to Sarah and sign it ‘Kate’, will you?) We’re not only fascinated with celebrities, but with people who look like celebrities.

In the 1950s, two American psychologists introduced the term parasocial relationships. Television was then in its infancy and viewers were forming unusual attachments. They were developing “friendships” with tv characters, some fictional and others real (like chat show hosts, or weather presenters). They also cultivated a “hated” towards some of them. Familiarity led to a sense of intimacy. Viewers actually felt they knew the figures they saw on their screens. They interacted with them parasocially. The relationships were and still are strictly one-way.

It’s called parasocial because para means beyond, as in paranormal. The viewer’s attachment might only have been as strong as a beam of light from a cathode ray tube. Yet it was experienced as strong and meaningful. It’s an old idea but it’s still relevant and helps explain why, for example, Lady Gaga’s 39 million twitter followers feel they have their own special relationship with Stef. Practically all of us have parasocial realtionships; they are unavoidable. Just reading a newspaper or listening to the radio involves us in learning about the adventures of Kerry Katona or Nigella Lawson. But trying to comprehend the relationship, not with celebrities, but with people who just look like celebrities is bewildering.

And before you dismiss my Kate@Aldi moment as a one-off episode, consider the plight of Xenna Kristian who has the looks and voice that allow her to perform as a Taylor Swift lookalike. In May, she was beaten up by people who, it seemed, just didn’t like Taylor Swift or the way she looked.

The chances of meeting a celebrity who arouses strong emotions, ranging from loving to loathing, in us are remote. For the most part our parasocial relationships remain distant and remote. Sofia Coppola’s new film The Bling Ring is about a group of Californian teenagers, who in 2008 and 2009 burgled the homes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and other celebs not so much to steal their jewellery and clothes (though they did do this), but to be that bit closer to them. Obviously, most of us don’t resort to such extreme measures, but we share longing to lessen the distance between us and them.

So when we see someone who might be a celebrity, we get excited. It’s a short-lived excitement, of course: it probably lasts a few seconds before we realize that it’s just somebody who looks like a celebrity. That in itself is enough though. By some weird alchemy, we remind ourselves this is an imposter, then, almost instantly, move towards them with an interrogatory impulse, “So what?” They become an inviting blank slate on which we write our own fantasies. Most are benign, like the photos and autographs; some are malicious, as Xenna/Taylor reminds us. We blur the characters in kaleidoscopic patterns so that their real identity doesn’t make too much difference.  Celebrity culture gets no crazier than this.

When you think about it, celebrities are not real people, anyway. They are largely products of our imaginations, so we can make them do or say as we wish. The “real person” has become immaterial. In fact, the “real” anything has become immaterial. If I’d waited in Aldi long enough, I’d have come across a shopper carrying a bag that closely resembles a Hermès or Louis Vuitton number, but which is knockoff. Everyone knows. And no one thinks it’s the genuine article any more than they believe a tribute artist or band is the real thing. They’re simulacra – representations of something or someone. We’re savvy enough to know this and still not care. Same with celebrities: it doesn’t matter if “Kate” isn’t the Kate: she’s close enough the rest we can trust to our phones, our signed leaflets and our imaginations.

The Rihanna narrative

In the mid-1970s, it wasn’t unusual for bands to spit and throw drinks at their audience. Fans felt as if they’d been anointed: conferred divine or holy status by their favoured bands. Or maybe they were just too drunk to care. At any rate, they spat back and hurled drinks, making gigs a kind of ritual exchange of bodily fluids and lager. Fans loved it and, most bands didn’t mind the reciprocal abuse.

Rihanna wouldn’t have enjoyed it one bit. Earlier this week, when mingling among her adoring fans at a concert in Birmingham, she offered her outstretched arm as rock stars often do nowadays. One adorer clung to her arm for a little longer than she would tolerate. Remember: fans like the communion that touching, holding, or being covered in phlegm often brings. Rihanna did not quite … err … grasp this and walloped the clingy fan with her microphone. The video of this incident is right here. Unrepentant, Rihanna explained the strike tersely: “That bitch [the fan] won’t let me go.” There was no apology or hint of remorse.

RiRi is right up there with Beyoncé and Lady Gaga. Still only 25, the Barbadian born Robyn Rihanna Fenty has made eight albums, appeared in four movies and is currently on her fifth tour, the latest a sell-out (a standing ticket at the Birmingham concert would have the fan back £95). Forbes lists at number four in their top global celebrities, estimating her wealth at $53 million (£34.25 million). In common with many female divas, much of her income comes not from music, but from advertising deals. As well as endorsements with the likes of Vita Coco and Nivea, she has her own fragrance, Reb’l Fleur. She has 75.5 million likes on her Facebook page and a twitter following roughly the same size as the total population of Peru (30 million). Her all conquering Diamonds tour stretches over eight months and across all continents. Even before the tour started Rihanna had won 6 Grammy Awards and sold 37 million albums and 146 million digital tracks. If last year belonged to Lady Gaga, 2013 is Rihanna’s year.

A couple of weeks ago, I was called by a Colombian journalist, Sandra Janer, who writes for a Bogotá-based magazine Fucsia. She wanted to know why Rihanna is so popular. Her logic was that Rihanna has been involved in a well-documented abusive relationship with rapper Chris Brown, to whom she has returned, despite, it seems, taking some beatings from him. Sandra Janer’s assumption was that people instantly lose respect for women who take punishment from a man yet forgive him repeatedly.

Actually, I replied, Rihanna’s tumultuous relationship with Brown is exactly what makes her fascinating. Far from being turned off, we become perversely intrigued: why would a fabulously wealthy celebrity who, it would seem, is spoiled for choice when it comes to men, opt for a guy who knocks her about? I was reminded of an argument by cultural historian and film critic Neal Gabler. “Celebrity really isn’t a person. Celebrity is more like a vast, multicharacter show,” he suggests. “Celebrity is narrative, even though we understandably conflate the protagonist of the narrative with the narrative itself and use the terms interchangeably.”

While he doesn’t define what he means by narrative, I presume he refers to an unbroken account, consisting of incidents and people that connect to form an overall story. The story may be a chronicle, or a history to record events and it may incorporate elements of a fable in the sense that it conveys a moral or lesson. Without diminishing RiRi’s vocal talent or the quality of her music, her global popularity is still astonishing. But it makes more sense if we view her less as a person, more as a narrative, a story with a moral. And, of course, the violent relationship with Brown is an integral, perhaps the most important, part of her story. Celebrity culture functions as a kind of drama we stage in our own minds. Our dramatis personae are the actors we see in the popular media and we write our own scripts, according to our own imaginations. It’s impossible to see an image or hear the name of Rihanna without thinking about her turbulent love life.

Where’s the moral in her story? It still isn’t clear.  Some say Rihanna is right to endure cruelty in the pursuit of true love, while others think she is a sucker and that her conduct is typical of a powerful woman who is simultaneously disempowered. That’s the fascination: we debate this endlessly without ever reaching a definite conclusion; the moral of Rihanna’s narrative is indeterminate.