Why are so many of us fascinated by the lives of celebrities? When did interest in the dark side of celebrity become mainstream? Sharon Marcus, author of The Drama of Celebrity and a professor at Columbia University, recommends books to better understand the phenomenon of celebrity.
You’ve recommended books to help us understand the phenomenon of celebrity. Before we get to those, an initial question: at the beginning of your book, The Drama of Celebrity, you ask, ‘Why do so many people care so much about celebrities?’ What do you think, ultimately, is the answer to that question?
The typical answer is that people have a prurient curiosity about other people. Sometimes that curiosity is difficult to satisfy when applied to people we know, because they might resist being gossiped about. When we can satisfy that prurient curiosity with total strangers, we are disinhibited. Celebrity allows us to surrender to our voyeurism, our need to pry into other people’s lives, our need to judge them.
But our interest in celebrities is not all negative. We also need to admire people. Celebrities are figures that we idealize out of all recognition, and even elevate into the role of demigods and demigoddesses. Academics have tended to answer the question ‘Why do we care about celebrities?’ by arguing that celebrity is a seductive deception. Various powerful entertainment industries create stars who embody norms in order to get us to identify with society’s dominant values. Many cultural critics consider celebrity to be a form of propaganda: we’re fooled into caring about these fake people.
“Celebrity allows us to surrender to our voyeurism, our need to pry into other people’s lives”
Others argue that caring about celebrities distracts us from more important problems, because people in power prefer that citizens be distracted from participating in politics. More recently, many have suggested that fandom is a form of community. People care about celebrities less because of the celebrities themselves and more because star worship allows us to bond with other people who care about the same celebrities we do.
All of this boils down to three claims. First, that it’s the celebrities themselves driving our interest. They are beautiful and talented, and we are interested in them because they are exceptional. Second, that celebrity culture is driven by the media, which is an illusion machine. Because human beings easily fall prey to illusions, celebrity culture sucks us into believing in false, empty images created by the entertainment industry or publicists. Third, that celebrity culture is driven by publics. Fans create celebrity and fall in love with our own creations.
What I argue in my book is that all of these answers are correct. We are interested in celebrities because often they are talented and beautiful or shocking and attention-getting. We like to debate our values, and celebrities can be a good way to do that, either by embodying our values or challenging them. We like to gossip. We are voyeuristic. We also are aware—and I think this is the meta-element of celebrity culture—that by paying attention to celebrity culture, we help to sustain it. Celebrity is a complex game in which we, the public, play a part—but not a fully determining part. We’re not just interested in the content of celebrity; we’re interested in how we ourselves play a role in driving it.
As a result of these complex interactions, there’s a suspenseful unpredictability to celebrity culture that has all the hallmarks of a good story. If you can predict exactly how a story will end, you won’t be interested. But in most cases, it is really difficult to predict how an individual celebrity story is going to unfold. Nor are celebrity stories like those we find in movies or books, completed at the time we consume them. Celebrity stories are more like interactive games, where our own actions determine how the story unfolds.
Who qualifies as a celebrity? If you’d asked me 20 years ago, I would probably have said film stars, but now I’m a bit confused. Are politicians celebrities?
My definition of a celebrity is any person known to more people than could possibly know one another. Celebrities run the gamut from microcelebrities and local heroes to superstars recognized around the world. Since at least the eighteenth century, celebrities have belonged to many walks of life: athletes, politicians, pilots, inventors, military heroes. Celebrities have never exclusively been performers, and there have always been scales of celebrity from the micro to the macro.
Interestingly, in the 19th century, the majority of those called celebrities were men. There’s an 1879 book of interviews with 82 celebrities by Edmund Yates called Celebrities at Home. Almost all of them were men: authors, inventors, scientists, ministers, the Pope (whose home is the Vatican), painters, aristocrats and a few performers.
“Modern celebrity is characterized by ordinary people making ordinary people famous”
Modern celebrity is characterized by ordinary people making ordinary people famous. Queen Victoria was a celebrity, but not a representative one, because as a monarch, she had an unusual ability to determine how she would appear in public. Similarly, Napoleon was a celebrity, but he literally controlled the press and used it as a propaganda machine. The typical modern celebrity cannot literally force the public to consume his image; Napoleon could.
Would you say celebrities always have a choice to be a celebrity? Or do you think some are celebrities even though they did not want to be in the public eye?
There are reluctant celebrities, and this will come up when we talk about Michelle Obama. There are also people who, because they rescue someone or are trapped in a mine for days, become celebrities, but not by conscious choice.
However, I think that most of the time people do have a choice. They are free to refuse to talk to the press. It’s difficult in this day and age to prevent your image from being published; in the United States, people don’t have the right not to be photographed in public. But if you decide you’re going to do as little as possible to feed the celebrity machine, your celebrity will die out very quickly.
Let’s now look at the books you’ve chosen to illustrate some of these points about celebrity and help us understand the history of the phenomenon better. The first one on your list is My Double Life. It’s the autobiography of Sarah Bernhardt, a world famous actress who died in 1923. Do you want to tell me why you’re recommending it?
Sarah Bernhardt wrote My Double Life at the peak of her fame. I chose her autobiography because of her centrality to the history of celebrity.
Sarah Bernhardt was born in France in 1844 to a Jewish Dutch courtesan who made her living in Paris. No one ever knew who Sarah Bernhardt’s father was. She discusses him quite a bit in her autobiography, but she never names him. That establishes, right from the start, her willingness to be a social outlier: she trumpets her illegitimacy. She was very enthusiastic about not being like other people and the image she presents of herself in her memoir is the one she cultivated as a star: defiant, eccentric, willful and rebellious.
Bernhardt’s career coincided with the emergence of photography, sound recording and, when she was in her sixties, film. She made use of each of these technologies to take control of her own image. Beginning in the 1860s, ordinary people could easily buy cheap photographs of celebrities. These images were sold in stationer’s shops, tobacco shops, anywhere that books or newspapers were sold. If you lived in a more remote location, you could easily order small-format photographs through the mail. People kept albums of these images and enjoyed perusing them just as today we enjoy looking at pages on Pinterest or Tumblr or fan sites.
Sarah Bernhardt also coincided with the rise of the mass press. In the 1830s, more and more people began to buy and read newspapers, which were getting cheaper and being published more frequently. In order to keep people’s interest, editors had to publish not only news about the economy and what was going on in the legislature, but also entertaining tidbits, which included gossip about celebrities. The daily newspaper also covered live theater in great depth, since from the 1870s through the 1900s, theater was the primary form of entertainment.
During this period, often called theater’s golden age, many stage actors became famous. But Sarah Bernhardt didn’t just become famous as an actor—she also became famous as a personality. She often appealed to the public when contesting bad publicity in the press. Her autobiography reprints many newspaper articles that she feels were unfair to her or misrepresented the facts, and she rebuts them at length. She uses her autobiography to settle scores and set the record straight.
I was amazed that someone who was an actor in the days before film and only appeared in live theater could become an international celebrity. I suppose she did travel and appear in plays—in, say, New York—but then, were the photo cards and the press were also making her image more ubiquitous?
It’s impossible to understand today how important theater was. Twelve million people a year went to the theater in places like London or Paris or New York, and even the smallest towns had at least one theater or opera house. People of all classes attended some form of live performance three or four times a week.
Travel also played a very significant role in Bernhardt’s superstardom, as touring still does for music stars today. Sarah Bernhardt became a superstar because she could take a steamship and get from France to the United States in six weeks—which she did five times over the course of her life. When she came to the US, she would stay for a year. The railway networks in place by the 1860s meant that she could almost everywhere in the US. She didn’t just go to Chicago and New York and Philadelphia. She went to Louisville, Memphis, Leavenworth, and many places I’ve never been or even heard of.
Also, because of another technological innovation in the 1860s, the telegraph cable, news about Bernhardt travelled quickly. People in Leavenworth would read about how her performances were selling out in New York. They didn’t want to feel provincial, so they wanted to see her too.
What this teaches us is that celebrity is an intersection of live presence and virtual representations. No one becomes a celebrity through live presence alone, and, conversely, no one becomes a celebrity solely through virtual representations. If the public doesn’t feel that it could at least in theory see the person, it’s less compelling; the crucial elements of realness and unpredictability are lacking. To this day, movie stars will go live on late night TV so that the public can have a sense of how they seem in ‘real life’ versus onscreen. The interplay between the representation and the presence makes celebrity.
Bernhardt’s autobiography is pretty interesting. She writes about meeting Victor Hugo and being in the Franco-Prussian war. It’s a readable book.
Bernhardt used insights gleaned as a performer to tell a good story. She grabs the reader’s attention by embedding her story in historical events, like the Franco-Prussian war, and by affiliating herself with people who were even more famous than she was and likely to command recognition a hundred years from now.
“Victor Hugo was so moved by her performance that he sent her a gift of a diamond in the shape of the tear he shed watching her act”
She emphasized her relationship with the great writer Victor Hugo, in part because she knew that his written works would be preserved and his name recognized long after his death. She also wanted to point out that Hugo was so moved by her performance in one of his plays that he sent her a gift of a diamond in the shape of the tear he shed watching her act. His admiration elevated her. At the same time, in the 1870s, Bernhardt’s willingness to perform in Hugo’s plays helped a new generation connect to his work. Hugo was already quite old in 1871. Bernhardt was the it-girl of the moment, who helped make the venerable Hugo more contemporary and more current.
In the chapter of your book on sensation, you talk about people’s responses to Bernhardt. They seem to have been bowled over by her performances. Could you explain what’s going on there?
I did a lot of research to reconstruct Bernhardt’s acting techniques. Today, when people see a clip of her on YouTube in the 1912 film of Queen Elizabeth, they say, ‘Nobody would think she was a good actor today!’ Her acting style was designed for the stage and on film it looks very exaggerated and over-the-top.
I thought it was important to try to understand why her contemporaries thought she was a great actor. By unearthing very detailed and thoughtful reviews and comparing them to accounts by ordinary people who went to see her, I was able to establish how she used her body and voice in ways that thrilled theatergoers. I also learned that audiences at the time wanted to be moved. Now we sometimes find that kind of emotional response, especially to live theater, a bit embarrassing. We’re much more willing to be moved by musicians; we turn to popular music to feel big sweeping emotions. How people respond now to Taylor Swift or Beyonce offers a good comparison point to how people felt when they saw Bernhardt perform.
Let’s go on to the next book, which is A Girl Like I by Anita Loos. This was published in 1963, but the book is focused on the early years of Hollywood. Anita Loos is best known for having written the novel Gentlemen PreferBlondes, upon which the movie with Marilyn Monroe was based, but she was also a scriptwriter.
She was a very important scriptwriter who worked with D W Griffith in the early days of silent film. Loos was known for two things as a scriptwriter. She was able able to write scripts that turned actors into stars, as her script for Red-Headed Woman did for Jean Harlow. She was also known for being able to get sexual innuendo past the censors, thanks to her wit and her grasp of how the film industry worked. An example of that is her screenplay for the film The Women.
A Girl Like I helps us to chart the transition from theater to film. Born in 1889, Anita Loos started out in the world of theater. Her father was both a newspaperman and a theater owner. Steeped in the world of entertainment from a young age, Loos understood how it depended on publicity and news coverage, and how that publicity and news coverage can be manipulated and angled. Loos tells a lot of charming stories about the theatrical world that film replaced. She was a child actor who played both male and female roles, Little Lord Fauntleroy one night and the female heroine of the melodrama East Lynne the next.
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We are used to thinking of film as killing theater, but initially, the main way people saw films was in traditional theaters. Films started out very short, just three or four minutes long, and many vaudeville theaters showed a few films in between live acts. Anita Loos learned about film while working in the theater. She describes watching movies from the other side of the screen while changing costumes backstage. That story is probably apocryphal, but it’s such a lovely image.
Loos decided to start writing film scripts at a young age. She paid attention to the different kinds of stories featured by distinct film companies and wrote a script for Biograph suited to their house style. To figure out where to send it, she climbed up to where the film projector was located and found a can of film with the Biograph address on it. She signed her cover letter ‘A. Loos’ and Biograph addressed their letter accepting it ‘Dear Sir.’ After that, she made her way to Hollywood.
Loos’s memoir is very interesting on the early interplay between Hollywood and Broadway. When D W Griffith decided he wanted to make serious films, he knew he had to go back to live theater to get real actors. Los Angeles was flooded with people who wanted to work in the movies, but they were all amateurs with zero experience. Many of them got work and learned on the job and became great film actors, but some of the biggest film stars came from Broadway. Mary Pickford, for example, had a long career as a child star in theater before she became America’s sweetheart in films. The same was true of D W Griffith’s favourite movie actress, Lillian Gish. She worked for years in live theater before becoming a film star.
So would you say Anita Loos was herself a celebrity or it’s more that you’re choosing the book as an insight into how the world of celebrity transitioned between theater and film?
Both. She charts the rise of celebrity in film—how a medium that didn’t start out using stars came to define stardom. Films initially lacked stars and didn’t even name the actors featured in them because directors and producers wanted to save money. They knew that if actors became crucial to attracting audiences to films, they would demand higher salaries.
But at a certain point, the film industry realized that audiences want to identify the people they’re seeing on the screen. If they like them, they might want to see another movie with that same actor. So producers made their peace with having stars who commanded higher pay and exercised some power. Loos writes, “They tried to keep them anonymous as long as they could and then they couldn’t.” To counteract the star’s power, producers often tried to impose very restrictive contracts on them. By the 1930s, movie stars had much less power or autonomy than theater stars had enjoyed in their nineteenth-century heyday.
Another phenomenon that promoted film stardom was the rise of the film magazine. Loos talks at great length about the first major movie magazine, Photoplay, which turned her into a star by publishing photographs and articles about her calling her “the soubrette of satire.” As soon as one of those articles was published, she got hundreds of fan letters; she reprints some of the more hilarious ones in her memoir.
Let’s go on to the third on your list of books about celebrity, which is Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest. This about her mother, Joan Crawford. Tell me about this book and how it fits into the picture.
Anita Loos recounts the very early stages of what became known as the Hollywood studio system. In the 1930s, 40s and 50s, that system produced glamorous film stars whose images were protected and massaged by the studios that made them famous. Then, in the 1960s, the studio system began to collapse, a fitting event for an era known for its young people’s willingness to question authority and established institutions. This led to a growing interest in the seamy underbelly of glamorous celebrity.
Mommy Dearest, published in 1978, appeared at a pivotal moment in the history of celebrity, and also helped to change celebrity culture. Christina Crawford’s book helped create a public as fascinated with celebrities going bad as with celebrities being good—a public obsessed with celebrity scandal and with exposing the flawed person behind the beautiful image.
Joan Crawford was one of the great stars of Hollywood’s golden age. Born in 1904, her heyday was the 1930s, when she became known as someone who had made herself a star from nothing. She was not trained in any way. She just came to Hollywood and clawed her way to the top and then had an extremely glamorous image that she protected. She presented herself as someone who was able to become and stay a star by virtue not only of talent, but also of hard work and discipline.
“Christina Crawford’s book helped create a public as fascinated with celebrities going bad as with celebrities being good”
In the 1940s, however, Joan Crawford was labeled box office poison along with other stars like Mae West and Katharine Hepburn—mostly women, mostly very strong women. Her career started to collapse. At that time she adopted, in fairly quick succession, four children. It was illegal then for single women to adopt, but she managed to get around that.
In this book, her oldest adopted daughter revealed what had been an open secret in Hollywood for many years: Joan Crawford was a physically and emotionally abusive parent. The stories are horrific. I don’t want to dwell on them, but I think it’s important to give examples because the level of abuse was very, very serious. She routinely tied her son to the bed at night when he was as young as four years old and would not allow him to get up to use the bathroom. Once, when she caught him playing with matches in front of dinner guests, she marched him out to the dining room, lit a match, and held his hand over it until his skin burned.
Another time, photographers were at Crawford’s house taking pictures of her because the studio had named her ‘mother of the year.’ Christina and her younger brother were playing and Christina accidentally caught her brother’s hand in a door. He cried out and this disrupted the photo shoot. Joan Crawford’s response was to take Christina’s hand, put it in the door, and close the door deliberately on her hand. These stories in particular are important because people were present and later corroborated them.
Christina Crawford had several goals in writing Mommie Dearest. She wanted to bring the fact of child abuse to national attention and point out that it’s not only poor people or the mentally ill or drug addicts who abuse their children. Even the most privileged people can be perpetrators. By raising awareness of the prevalence of child abuse in all classes and by helping child abuse survivors to come together, Crawford produced real change.
“Crawford also considers the desire to be a celebrity a form of pathology that converges with abuse”
Christina Crawford also set out to expose celebrity as what she calls ‘the big lie.’ She points out that celebrity exists not only because celebrities themselves exist and publicity machines exist, but also because the public buys into stardom as a fantasy of perfection. She sees it as her job to make us question our need to idealize celebrities, and to show that celebrity itself can be an abuse of power. Her mother was able to get away with abusing her children in the full sight of people that she worked with, because as a celebrity no one wanted to expose her. People were afraid that if they confronted her, they’d lose their jobs.
Christina Crawford also considers the desire to be a celebrity a form of pathology that converges with abuse. If you’re the child of a celebrity who abuses you, you’re going to be very sensitive to the ways that those two things interact, but not all celebrities are child abusers and many child abusers are not celebrities. Christina Crawford sees stardom and child abuse both as forms of bullying and gaslighting; Joan Crawford thought she could make up her own rules and force people to believe in her lies: ‘I’m a great mother, I’m Mommie Dearest, I’m wonderful.’
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Christina Crawford tries to empathize with her mother; she sees Joan Crawford as driven by a bottomless need for love that meant she couldn’t really deal with other people as full human beings. This was another way that her celebrity coincided with her pathology. Joan Crawford, as her daughter portrays her, was most comfortable when people were in the position of fan. She actually had several fans who worked for her, for free, cleaning her floors and helping to answer her fan mail. Christina’s analysis of Crawford as a mother is that she wanted her children to be fans as well.
But even as Christina Crawford denounces celebrity as, at best, covering up abuse and, at worst, itself a form of abuse, she is fully aware of how to work the celebrity machine. She talks at many points in the book about how her mother taught her about the press’s fascination with celebrities. She had to know that her status as the daughter of a celebrity would be crucial to the success of her book. There are hundreds of thousands of abusive parents and abused children; few of them are famous. If someone had written a book like Mommie Dearest about an abusive parent who was not in the public eye, it would not have received the same attention. Christina Crawford cannily used her very painful but insightful experience of celebrity culture to turn celebrity into a platform for bringing attention to a huge social problem that people had been reluctant to confront.
We haven’t fully learned the lesson of that. Here in the UK with Jimmy Savile, in the US with Michael Jackson, there have been so many cases where people not wanting to think badly of celebrities allowed them to do really bad things.
Many people do really bad things and get away with them. Unfortunately, privileged, wealthy, connected people, in whom a lot of industries have a vested interest, are even more able to get away with crimes than others. Anita Loos talks about a famous case in the 1920s in which a comic actor raped a woman, who died as a result. Loos reports how the actor, though acquitted in the courts, saw his career destroyed as a result of the scandal. She drily remarks, “Hollywood incorrectly inferred from this that notoriety and scandal would hurt their stars and that stars were not above the law.”
In fact, she says, stars often were treated as above the law, not least because the public likes notoriety and scandal. Her example is Elizabeth Taylor, whose involvement with married men made the public more interested in her. But while stealing other women’s husbands is not a moral thing to do, it’s not a crime. It doesn’t violate someone else’s entire sense of physical and psychological selfhood. What Michael Jackson did, what Joan Crawford did—those are actual crimes for which people can and should be sentenced to prison time.
So, on the one hand, people let celebrities get away with things that they shouldn’t. On the other hand, when the celebrities are brought to account—often, unfortunately, after their deaths and after the damage is done—it does raise awareness in a way that ordinary cases don’t.
Was Christina Crawford’s account called into question when it came out?
She was trolled, to use a more contemporary term, by people who she called ‘angry disbelievers.’ A later edition of the book includes testimony from people who knew her at the time who were willing to go on record about what they had witnessed. It was not a secret that Joan Crawford abused her children: she did it in front of other people and people knew about it. Even in an era where corporal punishment and very strict treatment of children were quite common, people referred to Joan Crawford as a cruel and bizarre parent.
Is Mommie Dearest a readable book, despite the subject matter?
It’s not a very well-written book, and there are some shocking spelling mistakes. But it is readable, because Crawford is a very emotionally present narrator. The book is also very balanced, considering what she went through. She makes an effort to understand what her mother was going through and what her mother’s psychology was, while at the same time being very open about her rage at the abuse she suffered.
It’s quite common for children who are never allowed to express a full range of emotions as children to have a lot of rage bottled up inside them. Christina Crawford writes often about how angry she was, and still is at the time of writing. She doesn’t try to sugarcoat herself. The book doesn’t read like an exercise in self-justification, or even as an act of pure vengeance. She also doesn’t try to hide that there’s an element to this book that’s about settling the scores. She’s setting the record straight. Her mother spent decades telling one story, a false story, and she’s going to tell a story that she believes—I think accurately—is more true. That makes for a compelling read.
Next on your celebrity reading list we’ve got an academic book. This is Stars by Richard Dyer, first published in 1979. Dyer was the founder of celebrity studies as a discipline, is that right?
Yes and no. This is the book that most people would say is the foundational work in celebrity studies, but Dyer begins by rounding up all the preceding work that’s been done on the topic.
Dyer acknowledges in passing that stars began in the theater, but since his departure point as a scholar is film, that’s what he focuses on. One comes away with the impression that the only celebrities are film performers, even though that’s not what Dyer actually argues.
The most interesting contribution of Dyer’s book is his commitment to taking pleasure seriously. He focuses on how stars give us beauty, pleasure and delight. He ends the book with this beautiful passage where he says we can analyze stars backwards and forwards, and that’s what I’ve done in The Drama of Celebrity. But at the end of the day, what’s also important is how they overtake us. He writes, “When I see Marilyn Monroe, I catch my breath; when I see Montgomery Clift I sigh over how beautiful he is; when I see Barbara Stanwyck I know that women are strong.” That’s what he’s trying to understand, as much as anything else.
He’s very embedded in a Marxist analysis of culture, but he also questions it. He runs through the answers that certain Marxist cultural critics—like Theodor Adorno—have given for why people like celebrities and says they don’t satisfy him. He’s unwilling to argue that people enjoy stars because we’re all mindless cogs in a capitalist machine. The film industry does try to manipulate the public into liking stars, but not all manipulation works.
“Media industries attempt to manipulate the public—it would be silly to deny that—but audience response can never be fully controlled”
That’s a really important point. Everybody would concede that media industries attempt to manipulate the public—it would be silly to deny that—but audience response can never be fully controlled, not least because audiences are extremely diverse and heterogeneous, and most of us are not simple-minded. Dyer points out that systems are leaky. Even if you create what you hope will be an airtight system for getting the word out about an industry’s products, people are going to react in ways that you can’t predict.
A lot of people have said that the point of stars has been to reinforce the status quo. Let’s say it’s the 1950s in the US, and people believe that young women should be perky and focused on pleasing men, which yields a star like Sandra Dee in the Gidget movies, with her giggling and her blonde ponytail. Dyer’s point is that the status quo itself is complicated. Yes, Gidget movies were promoting very banal 1950s stereotypes about femininity, but they also show Sandra Dee doing something that only boys in her films do: she learns to surf. Her character is doing something quite feminist while being stereotypically feminine in the sense of weak and silly.
Dyer also contends that stars rarely have only one meaning or represent just one thing. Rather, stars embody contradictions and debates. The very notion of the Hollywood star is contradictory: stars are special, but they’re also just like us. Dyer coins a term to refer to this multitude of celebrity meanings: ‘structured polysemy.’ Every star generates multiple meanings, but only a finite number of them. So how you understand one star’s meaning relative to another requires analzying the different, often contradictory, but limited set of meanings that attach to a particular star.
In The Drama of Celebrity, are you disagreeing with Dyer, or building on his work? How does your book fit in with the theories he puts forward about celebrity?
I do build on his work, but at the end of the day, because of when and where Dyer was writing, he remains more invested in the idea that stars represent ideology than I do. I see him as a transition point from the Frankfurt School and its dismissal of stardom as propaganda for capitalism. Dyer’s primary framework is still capitalism, but he has a more complicated view of how capitalism operates (and misfires).
One key difference between Dyer’s work and mine: he is more interested in what stars mean rather than how they mean, and he derives star meanings from the films in which they appeared. Had I been doing a Dyer-type study of Sarah Bernhardt as a celebrity, I would have taken the plays that she starred in as crucial for understanding her celebrity image. But that was not my method. At the end of Stars, Dyer says that there are two major future directions for scholars of celebrity: the publicity materials generated about stars and audience responses to celebrities. I would say I accepted those invitations.
Your final book is Becoming by Michelle Obama, which has been a huge bestseller.
We are very hungry right now for positive role models and for examples of people who can be in the public eye without losing their dignity or attacking the dignity of others. At the 2016 Democratic convention, Michelle Obama famously said, ‘when they go low, we go high.’ Becoming embodies her desire to go high.
Becoming also adheres to what we expect from the genre of celebrity biography. People want to know about the private lives of public people; Michelle Obama obliges us by providing an insider view of life in the White House. We learn about her first kiss, about the fact that she failed the bar exam the first time she took it, about her going to couples counseling with her husband. This is not a biography that withholds the tidbits one craves when reading about a famous person.
But I would say Becoming is also part of a distinctive subgenre: autobiographies by reluctant celebrities. She describes herself as an ordinary person on an extraordinary journey. Over and over again, she reminds us that she never wanted fame. As a child, she was friends with the daughter of Jesse Jackson and she discusses throughout Becoming what that taught her about the toll that celebrity—political celebrity in particular—takes on a family.
She describes herself as someone who hates chaos, who likes her life to be controlled and how she lost all of that. She emphasizes the constraints of being constantly in the public eye. Her complexity as a person is attacked because she is constantly viewed through racist stereotypes that the public and the media impose on her—for example, seeing her as ‘an angry black woman’ when in reality she’s not an angry person. Then there are the constraints of everyday life: how when you live in the White House, as she did for eight years, you can’t open any windows because it’s a security breach.
She talks a lot about her struggle to maintain privacy for her family. And because she’s a reluctant celebrity, we can sympathize with that. Often when we read celebrities complaining about loss of privacy, it can be difficult to be sympathetic because you think, ‘You seek this out.’ But I think Michelle Obama is being honest when she says that if it had been up to her, she would have chosen not to be a celebrity. This is that rare case of someone for whom celebrity is a sacrifice. It’s not a reward or a goal or privilege, but a viscerally painful experience.
Not least because she didn’t see much of her husband during that critical period when her children were very small.
Yes, and she describes how their family life actually got better when he became president, because he could control his schedule more and be with them for dinner every night. The worst years were when he was a state senator and their children were very young. His schedule was completely unpredictable. She talks about how he would say he would be home soon and so she’d keep the kids up and the dinner warm and then it turned out soon meant ‘after I have this 45 minute conversation with my colleague.’
She’s always been quite irreverent about her husband, which most people find refreshing. She talks about how she came up with a solution that worked for them. She and her daughters would eat at the same time every day, and she would put them to bed at the same time every day. That way her husband would know that if he wanted to see them, he had to get home by that time and if he didn’t, he wouldn’t. It’s her willingness to share stories like that that makes Becoming feel like an authentic tale—though at the same time, one does always have the sense that she’s being quite careful about what she discloses.
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Something else that I really noticed about Becoming that I think has to do with Michelle Obama’s sense that celebrity is as much of an imposition as an opportunity: she sees herself as having an obligation to use her celebrity to help others. Plenty of people who initially have selfish reasons for pursuing celebrity eventually use their influence to help others as they mature. But for Michelle Obama, because celebrity isn’t that fulfilling in and of itself, to make something of it requires that she do something for other people.
So while she doesn’t like being in the limelight, she finds she can use her position as First Lady to foreground issues that she cares about—like veteran’s health or children’s nutrition. She charts how she learns how to do this over time. Her desire to help others squares with values acquired from her family and her community—that those who have more power and privilege have an obligation to help others, because they could not have achieved what they did on their own. Michelle Obama is attentive throughout the book to all the people who have helped her at every stage in her life. Part of her attraction to Barack Obama is his belief in making the world a better place—and how he uses his own personal charisma to that end.
Do you think she had a choice about being a celebrity? Could she have been a non-celebrity First Lady?
I think she could have. It comes across as an option at one point. She’s been giving speeches without notes and she’s not experienced at dealing with the media and at one event she says something along the lines of ‘for the first time I’m really proud of my country.’ People took that out of context and denounced her as anti-patriotic. After that, she went to her husband’s team and said, ‘Maybe I’m a deficit for you. Maybe I should just drop out.’ They tell her she can do what she wants, but that they think she’s an asset, not a problem.
There have been First Ladies who have been very, very behind the scenes. I think Melania Trump is very, very behind the scenes. Trump doesn’t adhere to the same rules as other presidents, so it’s not a great comparison, but I certainly think Michelle Obama could have been less in the public eye than she was.
There are so many news reports of celebrities having substance abuse issues or drinking problems or even committing suicide. Obviously, lots of non-celebrities have these problems too, but do you think celebrities are, on average, more unhappy? Do you think even people who really aspire to be a celebrity find that when they get there, it’s not that much fun?
There are a lot of disadvantages to being a celebrity. In her autobiography, Sarah Bernhardt says that publicity and celebrity are “a monstrous octopus” and that most people don’t know how to handle it until they’re in their 40s.
Our society promotes fantasies about becoming a celebrity. Some quite young people, when they become famous, think they’re realizing those glorious fantasies, but—as is the case with almost every fantasy—the reality is usually more complicated and alloyed. I also think that, objectively speaking, it has become more difficult to be a celebrity. There is less and less privacy now that everybody has a phone with a camera and a recorder.
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Suicide and harmful drug use are rampant problems not unique to celebrities. When someone who already has problems becomes a celebrity, then the pressures of stardom can exacerbate those problems. If newly fledged celebrities don’t have the right support around them and if they already have a lot of psychological issues, the stress of having no privacy, the stress of acquiring so much money so fast, the stress of having so many people offering all kinds of things to you because you’re famous and they want to get close to you—those are strains that many can’t handle.
But you can also make the same point about poverty. I’d be more concerned about having a discussion about how being poor adds to the stress of having addictions or psychological problems.
To flip your question around: I find it remarkable how many celebrities, some very young, seem quite well-equipped to handle the challenges of celebrity. Taylor Swift seems like somebody who’s handling her celebrity really well. Elizabeth Taylor started out as a child star, and though she had her a rocky moments, she wasn’t destroyed by her celebrity—far from it. We could say the same thing about Kim Kardashian.
Usually, if you dig a little bit and ask what’s going on, the stars who thrive tend to have supportive families, rather than predatory or absent family members. In the Amy Winehouse documentary that came out a few years ago, her mother seemed very passive and absent, and her father was a grifter trying to use her. She had no one around her truly committed to taking care of her.
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