Lady Gaga gets real?

31 05 2011

I was pretty obsessed with Lady Gaga’s first album, The Fame, when it was released in the summer of 2009. The combination of dance beats and commentary on the nature of stardom provided me a perfect escape that somehow still counted as work during my dissertation writing. (“I’m not dancing! I’m working!”) What drew me to Gaga, in terms of her image, was that in a celebrity culture dominated by the revelation of the ‘private’ and ‘real’ self behind the public persona, epitomized by celebrity reality shows and the nonstop paparazzi surveillance the crash and burn stardom of people like Britney and Lindsay, Gaga was nothing but image. I honestly did not even want to know anything about her private life, as that would somehow ruin the fun.

We only see what Gaga wants us to see

The private self wasn’t completely absent, but it was consciously constructed and a part of the overall “Gaganess” of her image. Though we learned there was a ‘real’ person named Stefani Germonatta, she was never anything other than Gaga (even her mom calls her Gaga, after all). Unlike other stars always tied to the idea that they are ‘themselves,’ I’m thinking here of reality stars like Kim Kardashian, Gaga’s image was rooted in her pop star self. Kim is always tied to her private self, but Gaga is always her public and constructed self. She consciously satirizes fame by both embodying and refusing the contradictions between the private and authentic self and the public and constructed persona that are at the root of stardom. By always being Gaga, it was never clear when the façade ended and the real person began. Or, more accurately, it never did.

This is partly because she never wanted to reveal that real person, and always wanted to be a star. In her memorable 60 Minutes interview, she said:

“As part of my mastering of the art of fame, part of it is getting people to pay attention to what you want them to, and not pay attention to the things you don’t want them to pay attention to.

My philosophy is that if I am open with [my fans] about everything and yet I art direct every moment of my life, I can maintain a sort of privacy in a way,” she continues. “I maintain a certain soulfulness that I have yet to give.”

Take a look at the video for “Paparazzi.: The song and the video play with the notion that being famous means that one’s self is always up for public scrutiny, always being watched, always being built up and then knocked down by the celebrity media. But the ‘real’ self revealed in the video, the ‘behind the scenes’ Gaga is just as constructed as the stage persona. She never takes off the makeup and fashion because that’s who she really is and, more crucially, that self (like all selves) is always already self-consciously constructed. At this moment, I think, we were meant to think of it as a private self, but not necessarily the ‘real’ self. It was still a part of the act.

So in the early days of Gaga’s stardom, she wasn’t really on the blogs or in the magazines (except to mock/adore her fashion, another key part of her persona). You didn’t hear about who she dated, see pictures of her grabbing a latte at Starbucks, or walking her dog in the park. Her image simply could not fit into those established public/private splits the magazines cling to for other stars. They tried though. There was the ‘media scandal’ when she caused a ruckus at a New York Mets game by she showing up in her black bra and studded leather jacket, had to be moved to Jerry Seinfeld’s private box to avoid “distracting” the fans, and flipped the bird to photographers. My reaction was first to just plug my ears and say “lalalala I don’t want to know anything about her ‘real’ self lalalala” and then to laugh at the fact that she was still ‘doing’ Gaga even in this more unguarded moment.

In the lead up to the release of her new album Born This Way, her image has taken an interesting turn in its inflection of private/public . She’s definitely public, as she’s been everywhere lately. And I do mean everywhere. Guest mentor on American Idol. Google Chrome commercial (see it below). The crazy egg thing at the Grammys. Appearances on daytime talk shows from Today to Ellen to Oprah. For the love of overexposure…she was the guest editor of the free newspaper they give you on the subway, The Metro.. What?

I have to admit that even I was getting a little tired of seeing her every time I turned around. Plus, I’ll also admit that I was not immediately sold on her new singles. Since listening to the entire album, I’ve come around and am remembering why I loved her in the first place. Though I still don’t really like the single “Born This Way.” I like the impulse behind it, just don’t really like the song itself. But it does fit in with this new turn where what we once thought was constructed and part of the act of ‘being’ Gaga is actually who she really is. Or at least we are now meant to see it as less constructed (though certainly still conscious) and more ‘real.’

I am in no way surprised that she would shake up her image, as she’s been doing some sort of shape shifting throughout her brief time in the public eye. But what does surprise me is the way her new image hails a ‘real’ self at its core. She’s still the ‘real’ self that is always constructed in her appearance (the fashion, the makeup, the horns), but is now being pulled back to a more ‘authentic’ private self. But it is still one she is actively controlling, rather than a self constructed by the tabloids or other media.

Gaga’s new(ish) Mother Monster self is completely rooted in the idea that she is being herself, even though that self is glamorous, constructed, extreme, over-the-top and all the things that we already associate with her image. Her new songs and the press she’s done surrounding the album foreground the idea that you should, like Gaga, be yourself no matter what. She has become the icon of outsiders by claiming her outlandish identity as not being artifice. What you see is constructed in the sense that it is thought out, but it is not “fake” or an “inauthentic” facade she puts on just to be famous (which is different, I think, from the Gaga of The Fame and The Fame Monster).

Now not only do we see her ‘real’ self, her image also explicitly invites audiences to connect with her and feel she is ‘just like us.” Anyone who has ever been on the outside can look to Gaga as someone who has been through the same ridicule and doubt that all outsiders experience. We see this in her recent Google Chrome ad:

The MTV documentary, Lady Gaga: Inside the Outside that premiered last week, is all about this view of the ‘real’ Gaga who is completely coherent with her public pop star image. Instead of the artifice of fame, her image is all about a highly stylized yet nevertheless authentic self as her claim to fame. Her talent and drive makes her special, but, at the same time, her message is that ultimately anyone who is true to themselves is already as special as she is. It’s a small shift, as she is still controlling what we see of her private self and is explicitly revealing things in her album and in the press surrounding it (in the MTV doc, for example, she discusses her early days as a performer, experiences being bullied in school etc) that showcase this more coherent image.


ICorrect and Celebrity Rumor Patrol

8 04 2011

What I love most about celebrity culture is the constant battle for dominance amongst its various players. My own work focuses on these tensions, drawing out how gossip media outlets, for example, are based on the idea of breaking down the celebrity facade so carefully constructed by publicists, managers and even the celebrity him/herself.

Tabloids are built on the premise that audiences want to know more about the stars than the stars will give up. Audiences love to play the game of determining what is “real” about the star and what is “fake” or controlled by other forces. Are Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson really dating, or is it just for publicity? It’s the ability of tabloids (and, of course, blogs) to intervene into the more controlled system that makes them so appealing.

Is she really going out with him?

At times, this intervention into the star’s image has radical implications. Britney’s shift from good girl pop star to party girl to Hollywood cautionary tale is largely related to the tabloid construction of her image. She and her manager/publicist/other official team members work(ed) hard to counter these constructions and regain control of her image, its circulation and its meaning in popular culture. I’ve written about a component of this particular struggle before, and am currently working on an article about how bloggers offer a new sort of intervention into celebrity culture that draws on both their roles as audience members and as producers or official commentators on celebrity culture. I’ll be presenting a part of that project at ICA this May.

Anyway, such interventions are a necessary part of the celebrity system, in part because they keep us the celebrity in the public eye. Celebrities (and their handlers) know this, and certainly turn to media outlets (including tabloids) to attempt to counter stories that tarnish their image. They typically turn to more “legitimate” celebrity media sources, notably places like People magazine, because they’ll be treated with kid gloves and get the chance to at least attempt to regain control over a tarnished pubic image in a way that gives the appearance of authenticity and truth.

In the midst of a potential divorce scandal, Britney turned to People to set the record straight

This is nothing new, stars have been doing this since the earliest days of the studio system. For example, in exchange for “exclusive” information, Louella Parsons would allow stars to put out their side of the story during scandals (often ones she herself broke and perpetuated). In addition to using these media outlets, celebrities now can harness the tools of new media (indeed, the same tools that are used to expose them via blogs etc) to attempt to control their own images. Celebrities have official websites, some cultivate relationships with fan sites, and many have turned to Twitter as a place to get the news “direct” from the source–the celebrity herself.

Within this tension filled system comes a new, and frankly puzzling, mode for the celebrity to “correct” rumors and media reports: ICorrect. The site’s founder, David Tang, was the guest on Wednesday’s episode of The Colbert Report. You can watch the interview here. Basically, for an annual fee, Tang’s site offers a place for celebrities to write their own corrections/rebuttals to any and all rumors they feel need to be addressed. My cursory look at the site reveals such shocking revelations as Tommy Hilfiger countering the (age old) rumor that he doesn’t want black people to wear his clothes and Cherie Blair denying she will take part in Strictly Come Dancing (the British Dancing with the Stars. Riviting.

I have to say, I don’t get it. Why does this site exist? Who is reading it? And what’s in it for the celebrity, who could find many other outlets to do this sort of image correction/management? The stars have historically turned to places like People because they already have an audience, and I just don’t see a large audience being drawn to this site (in part because the layout is terrible, imo). It seems the cache is that the celebrity (or, let’s face it, a manager or publicist) can quickly correct and control a rumor. Not every star or rumor can get on the cover of People, yet every little rumor can play an important role in the star’s overall image. So ICorrect offers a way for stars to deal with any intervention into their public image.

But how does that make ICorrect different from Twitter or a celebrity’s official website? I’m not seeing how the fact the correction is on ICorrect makes the audience feel it is more “real” or “true.” ICorrect positions itself as “the first website to correct permanently any lies, misinformation and misrepresentations that permeate in cyberspace.” Um, how is a correction on this site any more “permanent” than any other?

In his interview with Colbert, Tang says ICorrect addresses the fact that sites like Twitter don’t verify that the person tweeting/writing is actually the celebrity. But Twitter does verify “well known account users” and gives them a “verified account” checkmark to indicate they have passed the “real” test. It’s all here. So, again, how is ICorrect offering a new sort of intervention into the gossip game that allows celebrities greater control? Yes, Twitter can be more fleeting, but, really, so are most rumors in terms of impact on a celebrity’s image. Remember when Ashlee Simpson got busted for being drunk at McDonald’s? Yeah, I thought so. Are audiences going to look up the “truth” about older rumors? Is such permanence really necessary, particularly in the age of new media where celebrity rumors are constantly changing?

Furthermore, how ICorrect is supposed to reach a larger audience than any other source? This is the most important part of rumor control. If no one reads it, who cares? Now, when celebrities use their websites or Twitter to counter a rumor, you often see those posts/tweets pop up on blogs or in other celebrity media as part of the story. This is crucial for the recuperation of control over a particular story. I know my gossip blog reading isn’t what it used to be, but I haven’t seen ICorrect popping up anywhere. The first time I heard about it was on Colbert. It needs way more access to the media side of the production system in order to become truly effective.

ICorrect also claim it “enables the Corrector [celebrity] to post precise corrections, without the danger of third parties quoting them out of context.” How are they going to prevent third party persons, like a blogger who reposts the “correction,” from quoting them out of context? If they need outside media exposure to bring attention to the correction, how can such a thing be controlled?

So while I love a good intervention into the celebrity system of production, this is, well, lame. It strikes me as an attempt to catch up to new media’s impact on celebrity culture, but one which is way behind. As my friend Zach would say, “Welcome to 2005!”

Stars–They Tweet Like Us!: Some Thoughts on Celebrity and Twitter

23 10 2010

This post is really overdue, as I’ve actually had it written for some time. I attended the *amazing* Flow 2010 Conference at UT-Austin just over three weeks ago, and this post is taken from the position paper I submitted and presented at that conference. I really cannot say enough positive things about this conference. It’s non-traditional set-up consists of panels where presenters have 5 minutes (no, really!) to discuss their position papers around a common topic and the rest of the time is used for discussion between panelists and audience. This allows for a really productive dialogue to emerge and everyone (from grad student to senior scholar) has the opportunity to participate. It meets every other year, and you can bet I will be submitting for 2012. I highly encourage any media scholars to check it out. Plus, Austin = awesome.

Since completing my dissertation on gossip blogs, I’ve been widening my view to think about intersections of celebrity culture with other forms of new media. Twitter and celebrity is basically a match made in heaven. I know Twitter can serve lots of different functions (and I highly recommend checking out the other position papers from the Flow Twittertube panel) , but its use by and for celebrities is really fascinating to me because it so perfectly encapsulates the private/public blurring that is inherent to the celebrity image. It’s also very distracting, as I can’t seem to go through a day without checking for Kanye’s latest tweets. Where is his antique fish tank anyway?

So here is my position paper, which explores how celebrities use Twitter to manage the private self and manage scandal. I will also mention that I have a post on celebrities using Twitter for more straightforward self-promotion that will appear on next week’s In Media Res. I’ll post the full link when it is published on Thursday, October 28.

Celebrity Twitter Feeds and the Illusion of Intimacy
The media product known as the celebrity emerges from a “circuit of celebrity production” in which various cultural intermediaries—the celebrity, her industry producers, the “legitimate” and the gossip-oriented celebrity media—feed off of each other in a constant struggle to control how that individual is represented to audiences.

In modern celebrity culture, the extratextual media coverage of stars has played an increasingly important role in promoting the “illusion of intimacy” between a star and her fans/audiences by elevating the private side of the image as the privileged site of meaning. Tabloids and other entertainment-oriented media forms encourage the audience to pursue the “real” person behind the star persona with the hope that, beneath the controlled surface, the star “really” is who she seems to be.

Tabloids, in particular, seek to disrupt the carefully constructed public image forwarded by the celebrity-industry producers (studios, publicists, managers, etc) through the revelation of the “unguarded” private self as the “real” or “authentic” star, often challenging the dominant meaning of the celebrity’s image. But the contradictory and ambivalent nature of celebrity means the circuit of production is a highly unstable process and no one player ever fully controls the meaning of the celebrity image for audiences. In other words, the meaning of the celebrity is constantly contested terrain.

Tabloids attempt to define the meaning of Angelina's image. This certainly is not sanctioned by her or her management. But nevertheless becomes an important part of how we read her image.

Social networking platforms, particularly Twitter, offer new insight into this fraught process of production by highlighting the ways in which the illusion of intimacy can be manipulated by various players in the circuit. On Twitter, unlike traditional celebrity media outlets, audiences are offered immediate and interactive engagements with the celebrity that (purportedly) originate outside of industry control and even specifically challenge other representations of the “real” celebrity. Though celebrity media outlets have also taken to Twitter, I suggest that Twitter offers the celebrity-industry intermediaries a way to recuperate control over the image using the same appeals to the unguarded and private self central to gossip media constructions of celebrity. That is, celebrity Twitter feeds recuperate celebrity-industry control over the image by explicitly engaging the same media discourses and platforms that typically disrupt that control.

The most successful celebrity Twitter users offer a glimpse of the everyday and even mundane details of their private lives, thus stressing the ordinary self behind the extraordinary public image.

Twitter’s appeal is based in its interactive nature, offering audiences a more direct sense of engagement with the celebrity than, say, reading a publicist-sanctioned interview in Vanity Fair. Though there is typically no way for a fan to know whether a Twitter feed is actually written by the celebrity (or to what degree other intermediaries influence the tweets), the very nature of Twitter as a social network gives at least the illusion of the celebrity herself as the sole author of her tweets. [NB: Annie Petersen has an excellent blog post about the believability of celebrity tweets]

This is not to suggest that celebrity tweets are not “real,” and indeed many are genuinely authored by the celebrity. Yet as a site of image production, celebrity Twitter feeds offer glimpses of the star’s private life that appear uncontrolled and authentic, even as these glimpses are limited and, often, deliberately staged. In this way, Twitter provides the celebrity and her intermediaries greater control over her image by engaging the same appeal to the unmediated and authentic self more typical of the tabloids.

The illusion of intimacy promoted by Twitter’s interactive access is also a site of struggle in which the star can challenge the tabloids’ construction of her as the “truth.” For example, in the days leading up to Lindsay Lohan’s court appearance and jail time, she used her Twitter account to challenge the negative way she was represented in the gossip media. Such a move uses the illusion of intimacy promoted by Twitter as a means to control the representation of her image to her most important audience, existing fans. In fact, she explicitly encouraged fans to “get the news straight from me” via her Twitter feed rather than turn to other media outlets, thus rejecting their representations of her as false and untrustworthy.

Of course, using Twitter cannot guarantee her version of her image will be the dominant one, and many of Lohan’s tweets have been used by the gossip media as further evidence of her instability. Nevertheless the ability to speak directly to her fans about the “truth” of her situation exploits the illusion of intimacy and offers Lohan and her producers a controlled platform from which to “fight back” against tabloid gossip in the midst of scandal. In these tweets, Lindsay attempts to control the scandal after she tested positive for drugs and alcohol just days after being released from jail:

Such image control is crucial if she wants to rebuild her public career post-incarceration. Within the contested terrain of celebrity culture, Twitter enables the celebrity to (at least appear to) bypass other players in the circuit of celebrity production, recuperate (if temporarily) control over her image and, most crucially, increase the illusion of intimacy with her audience/followers.

The 62nd Annual Emmy Awards: Show Time!

29 08 2010

New post for the show itself!

8:03 I’m loving the star power in the opening. And the Springsteen!

8:11 Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy…my toughest category to pick! Oh, and Eric Stonestreet wins! He’s my favorite on that show, but I didn’t see this coming.

8:13 Love that John Hodgman is doing the intros again!

8:14 The acceptance speech, in general, is interesting because it does reveal the other forces behind the star as playing a role in creating the star. Thanking writers, producers, other creative professionals or even the star’s publicity team is a quick glimpse behind the controlled facade that says stars are natural phenomena. But that hardly ever gets play from the media after the speech. It’s just who won.

8:25 As if anyone but Jane Lynch could wind this one!

8:26 Thanks Jane Lynch. Now I see that actors and academics have a lot in common…we do this because we have no other marketable skills. 😉

8:28 Oh man…the last season of Oprah is upon us. This ad is already getting me choked up with its emotional manipulation. This farewell season will be bonkers.

8:38 Rewarding a new face! Nice. Haven’t really seen this show, but Jim Parsons’ clip earlier made me laugh.

8:40 I think the acceptance speech plays an important role in the emphasis on the private celeb in the moment of rewarding their public performances. Seeing a genuinely flustered actor/actress win is pretty endearing.

8:45 I haven’t seen Nurse Jackie at all. Worth watching? But I do love Edie Falco…reward for successful cross over from drama to comedy?

8:47 I’ve only gotten one category right so far (Jane Lynch)! And I didn’t do any reality picks!

8:49 Promo moment! Will Arnet and Keri Russell are in a new show on Fox this fall. But since this in on NBC, they didn’t mention that in the intro. I’m sure we’ll hear when new NBC stars are on!

8:52 Damn it Oprah! You are killing me. How much did they spend to get these spots on? It doesn’t even run on NBC (at least my Oprah doesn’t, its CBS).

8:57 Drama! Okay, time to redeem myself and get some picks right this time!

9:02 Mad Men wins writing…but I’m sticking with Lost for best series even though I personally enjoy MM more.

9:04 I’m wrong again! But happy to be wrong to see more awards for Breaking Bad. Congrats to Aaron Paul who plays Jesse on BB.

9:11 I am wrong again…but An Admirer’s dreams of a hotness qualification for an Emmy comes true! Archie Punjabi wins for The Good Wife

9:13 My head was right, Bryan Cranston wins for Outstanding Actor for playing Walter White Breaking Bad. Love him, love the show, but would not have kicked a John Hamm acceptance speech out of bed.

9:18 I’ve only gotten 2 picks out of 6 correct so far. Not a good record!

9:19 Another promo moment…Undercovers ad followed immediately by the (unknown) stars presenting an award.

9:32 Outstanding Actress in a Drama. Kyra Sedgwick with the upset. I don’t watch The Closer either.

9:53 Thought it would be Conan’s big moment. The Daily Show has been pretty hilarious lately, especially the Glenn Beck stuff.

10:04 George Clooney, the biggest star in the room, just made the distinction between star vs. celebrity. Should have used him as a source in my dissertation.

10:26 Maura Tierney looks great with the pixie haircut. Glad she is well and coming back to TV. Note that the NBC shows got mentioned in their intro. Industry promotional moment.

10:31 Definitely hitting the wall and ready for the big awards of the night, comedy and drama series. I’m also amused by the irony that I am not watching the new episode of Mad Men in order to see if Mad Men wins outstanding drama series.

10:51 Finally! Outstanding Drama Series!

10:51 Yay for Mad Men even though it means another category I lose! Last season was really spectacular.

10:54 With one award to go, will this telecast actually end on time? Miracles are possible!

10:56 Outstanding Comedy….my chance to get 3 out of 10 for my picks! C’mon Modern Family

10:57 Woo! I get 3 out of 10! My reward is I get to go to bed!

11:00 Thanks for reading along with my live blog experiment! Good night!

The 62nd Emmy Awards: Red Carpet Live Blog

29 08 2010

Welcome to my experiment in live blogging! I’m gonna start with some red carpet coverage to kind of get the feel of the live blog before the main event. NBC’s red carpet starts at 7pm, so I’ll be watching E! until then. Show starts at 8pm EST.

By way of context, I’ll just say that the red carpet is a major moment for the construction of the celebrity image. Given the context of the event (which I discussed here), the emphasis is on the extraordinary and glamorous side of stardom. As much as contemporary audiences love seeing stars stripped down and caught off-guard in paparazzi shots, the awards show is where we want to see them LOOK like stars. The fact that celebrity media devotes so much attention to the fashion/glamor of the awards shows demonstrates, I think, the importance of the extraordinary star endures in contemporary celebrity culture.

The celebrity media obviously have a big stake in this, as best/worst dressed issues are generally big sellers. It’s also a big deal for the stars (and their cultural producers). Ending up on a best dressed list is a big plus for (especially female) stars because it gets them positive press coverage…even in the tabloids! That said, even ending up on the worst dressed list still gets you some coverage, so it can be a momentary image buster, but at least still gets name out there. I think some folks deliberately go crazy just for that sort of thing.

Either way, it’s a really important space for celebs to get their names/faces out there. Which also makes it a space that kind of gets away from the talent focus of the event (we’ll save that for the actual awards show). This also allows the industry to sneak in new faces (like Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who will star in the new NBC show from J.J. Abrams Undercovers premiering this fall. She’s there as a presenter, but it’s obviously a move by NBC to promote the show since she’s an unknown) and people whose talent is not their claim to fame or, really, the reason they are at the show (I’m looking at you, Kim Kardashian). So the overall event is not all talent-based fame, but it still holds on to the stars-as-extraordinary focus no matter who is on the carpet.

I’m turning on E! now, so let’s get this red carpet live blog started!

6:02pm Love that Ryan is keeping up the facade that this is a totally uncontrolled and unscripted glimpse of the stars. “You never know what will happen!” Also, Jane Lynch looks amazing in that plum dress.

6:14 I’m renaming the Glam Cam 360 to Scary Cam 360. This is almost as weird as the reporter hologram from the presidential election coverage.

6:17 Ty Burrell, my pick for outstanding comedy actor, wins points for not going for standard black tuxedo.

6:32 I love Kathy Griffin at these events because the celebrities are afraid of her.

6:35 Kim Kardashian may be on television, but, let’s face it, she’s there because she’s gorgeous and makes good red carpet fodder. Sort of a celebrity seat filler…can be in pictures and help the celeb media sell some magazines.

6:43 Except for that moment of awkwardness when Ryan asked Mark Salling about the rumor that his Glee castmate and rumored girlfriend, Naya Rivera, keyed his car, Ryan is keeping all the chatter at the level of star-as-worker (talking about show) or positive personal info (like the fascinating insight into the home life of Eva Longria Parker and Tony Parker). Keep the drama out of it, Ryan, this is the Emmys! Industry gossip only!

6:47 Sofia Vegaras is just crazy gorgeous. I love her!

6:48 John Hamm! Swoon! Love his gf, Jennifer Westfeldt, but also love to pretend that he sits at home pining away for me.

6:53 Kate Gosslin! No! That’s just wrong.

7:00 January Jones is wise to go very modern with her red carpet looks since she does the vintage in her character. Way to separate your “self” from your character!

7:02 Christina Hendricks. Like the purple color. Do not like the feathers or the sleeves. But she’s sure working the girls.

7:05 Switched to NBC just in time for Betty White! But now a repeat of Claire Danes. But I think I’ll stick here for Nate Berkus’ handsome scruff.

7:09 Now Nate Berkus is ruining the illusion by talking about the supportive undergarments that go into making these dresses possible.

7:38 Matthew Morrison has the innate inner talent necessary for fame! Thanks, mentor guy.

7:42 One benefit for changing to NBC…get to see John Hamm again.

7:57 I’m gonna start a new post for the show itself, so I’m calling this red carpet finished. Big winners: ladies: Lea Michele, Sofia Vegara men: Ty Burell and (duh) John Hamm.

Too Good To Be True, But I’ll Believe It Anyway

21 07 2010

While I have about a ba-jillion other things I should be doing today with my move looming over my head and my apartment still a mess of chaos, I had to say something about this little gossip gem because of the way it perfectly encapsulates the role of rumor in celebrity media and celebrity images.

First, some background. Are we all familiar with Alexis Niers, star of E! reality show Pretty Wild and member of the Hollywood Bling Ring? No? I highly recommend this excellent Vanity Fair article about the celebrity-wannabe and her involvement in both the reality show and the Bling Ring. Niers hates this article and feels it paints her in an unflattering light. But I dare you to watch one episode of Pretty Wild, especially the one where she freaks out about the article, and not see the same fame-hungry ridiculousness on display.

As a side note, I can only imagine how much the E! executives were peeing their pants with excitement when this whole scandal broke out, as they had already signed the family and begun shooting the reality show before the Bling Ring members were arrested and tried in court. I don’t think the particularly successful, in part because they are really all so obnoxious and vapid without a pre-existing reason for us to care about them as celebrities, but this scandal certainly helped draw an audience. It has yet to be picked up for a second season, but when one of your stars is in jail, it’s probably hard to put together a production schedule. ZING!

In a nutshell, while Niers and her family were filming their reality show, the 19-year-old was arrested for being a part of a robbery ring targeting celebrities. Essentially, these spoiled Hollywood teenagers would troll celebrity gossip sites (like Perez and TMZ) in order to case the fashion and jewelry of Hollywood stars. Then, knowing the star was out of town working or whatever (thanks again, gossip media!), they would break into the celeb’s home and steal clothes, jewelry and cash. Their celebrity victims included Orlando Bloom, Paris Hilton, Megan Fox and Lindsay Lohan. Neirs denies that she was actively involved, claiming she didn’t really know what they were doing or whose homes they were in. She is, however, serving a six month jail sentence for her involvement in the heists.

Why is this important now? Unless you’ve been living under rock or simply try to ignore all celebrity-related news (though why are you reading this blog if that’s true?), Lindsay Lohan was sentenced to 90 days in jail for breaking the terms of her probation. Though there are so many things to be said about this whole celebrity drama, this headline from tabloid-mainstay The New York Daily News’ online outlet struck me as hilarious and perfectly scandal-oriented:

Lindsay Lohan in jail cell next to Alexis Neirs, E! reality star charged with robbing celeb homes

Here we have a headline that adds another level to scandal-du-jour Lohan by putting her in a jail cell NEXT to Alexis Neirs, who allegedly stole a Chanel necklace from Lohan (police found the missing necklace in Neirs’ house during a search related to the Bling Ring case). This allows the audience to speculate about a jail time showdown between the two that calls up both women’s “bad girl” personas. Even a casual glance at celebrity gossip media will illustrate that the tabloids love nothing more than a catfight (real or imagined). Just look at any story involving Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston potentially being in physical proximity of each other.

Celebrity Prison Rumble?: Lohan and Neirs

What’s hilarious and awesome about this is that it isn’t even true, and that the article accompanying this headline tells us its not even true. It states that “it remains unknown whether the women will share the same module,” meaning that not only are they not NEXT to each other, they may not even be in the same part of the jail. But, gossip doesn’t always have to be completely true to be delicious and pleasurable. It just has to speak to some sort of existing knowledge and expectation about a star in order to work. It allows the gossip media to call up other existing scandals (Lohan’s known volatile behavior and the big story of her incarceration, Neirs’ involvement in the Bling Ring and her fame mongering, the overall love of celebrity catfights) to keep the story going. In other words, it’s close enough to true to work as gossip. It doesn’t have to be completely true, but I (and I think gossip audiences more broadly) kind of want it to be…or at least find it entertaining to speculate about what would happen if it WERE true. And that’s key to the pleasures of gossip.

Neirs should probably be grateful that Lohan was sentenced to jail time and is serving in the same facility because it’s getting her name back in the press. For Lohan’s image, this is probably just a minor blip within a larger scandal that won’t really have any lasting effect. For me, the gossip media watcher, its an intriguing mix of fantasy and reality that makes reading celebrity gossip so much fun.

Films on Stars: The Rose 1979

18 07 2010

Some say love, it is a river…. You’re probably familiar with Bette Midler’s hit song, The Rose. It’s a fabulous tear jerker of a song, but it actually has very little to do with the film that shares its name. (As a side note: the abundance of videos of Midler doing this song live as well as countless other people (both famous and not) doing covers of it has made it extremely hard for me to find clips of the movie on the old internets. People LOVE this song). It plays over the end credits and does, sort of, reflect some of the themes of love and loneliness from the film. But I think the song’s lyrics end on the hopeful note that love, though at times difficult, can save someone from sadness and loneliness, which is the complete opposite of the ending of this film. Ultimately, The Rose is about my favorite theme of stardom narratives, fame damage.

It’s Bette Midler’s film debut, and she knocks it out of the park as the hard living rock star “The Rose” (Mary Rose Foster) who is obviously a thinly veiled reference to Janis Joplin. Like other films I’m considering for this series, The Rose is not a bio pic of Joplin, nor of Midler, though it certainly draws heavily on existing knowledge about the public and private selves of these two female stars. This is a great film about stardom because it combines the public performances (in a series of raucous and satisfying concert performances by Midler as “The Rose”) with the behind-the-scenes look at the machinery of fame, and the damage it does to Rose herself. Fame is appealing, but it is ultimately a hollow drug that has some serious consequences. Here’s the trailer for the original theatrical release:

This narrative of stardom presented in this film is quite different than the one I discussed in the original A Star is Born in which drive and authentic desire to be a star was more important than talent. In The Rose, Rose’s fame is firmly rooted in an amazing, and almost uncontrollable, talent. The scenes of Rose as her on-stage persona “The Rose,” are intense and full of passion. She has this innate talent inside that will not be denied and that must be shared with the world. But, as we know, stars are not confined to their public performances. It is not simply that she is a great singer that she has achieved fame. Instead, that talent offers a strong base for the development of the rockstar persona that catapults her from “just” a singer to a star.

Throughout the film, Rose is acutely aware that it is her rockstar image combined with her talent that really makes her a star. Furthermore, that image must be constantly maintained in order to be read as authentic. She is a constructed commodity who must continue to play the part of “The Rose” in her off-stage life. It is not that Rose and “The Rose” are completely different personae. It is pretty clear throughout the film that her on-stage persona is an amped up version of her real self. This is sense of authenticity (that she is who she seems to be) is crucial to her fame in the world of the film. But the problem is that this constructed and hyperbolic version of herself is threatening to take over and push out any “real” Rose that remains.

"The Rose" on stage: Intensity of talent and awesome fashion sense

In one telling scene early in the film, Rose tells her manager that she needs a break because she “can’t dredge up the sincerity anymore.” She’s falling apart because a) the sheer intensity of her talent is exhausting and b) the incredible effort of putting on the public self both onstage and off is breaking her down. But the machinery of fame is already in motion and cannot be stopped. Her manager tells her they have $3 million in concert dates lined up that simply cannot be canceled because “this is a business, like Chevrolet or Sarah Lee.” Her “real” self and needs have become irrelevant to her stardom and are pushed to the margins for the sake of profit. Though her hard-drinking dood time party girl lifestyle fits perfectly with her public persona, it is also a reflection of her increasing loss of control and loss of her sense of self. Essentially, fame is a trap in which she must constantly perform “The Rose” persona in order to keep the machinery rolling. Though she still has her talent, she had to sacrifice her authentic self in order to be famous.

She is near her breaking point when she meets limo driver Huston Dyer and the two begin a relationship. He becomes her only tie to her real self, as he loves her for who she “really” is, not for the star persona the rest of the world adores. He’s not a part of the machinery of Hollywood and, unlike everyone else in her life, has no personal investment in her image. The narrative depiction of their relationship and its demise is a bit clunky…he leaves her when he discovers that she previously had an intimate relationship with another woman. This really makes very little sense because he was certainly aware of her promiscuous past (a story of her having sex with the entire football team in high school barely phases him) and aware that it was always a part of her larger image as “The Rose.” Dyer leaving Rose over a lesbian relationship seemed a bit forced and really just a chance for the filmmaker to titillate the audience and then punish a woman for stepping outside heterosexual boundaries. But back to the topic at hand…

Why they break up isn’t really important, it’s more that with his departure goes her last connection to her “real” self and to someone who cares about her, not just her image. More crucially, it turns out that the former lesbian lover has resurfaced because Rose’s manager, Rudge, sought her out and brought her back. In other words, Rudge was trying to break up Rose and Dyer because she wanted to take time off from performing to be with Dyer. Rudge knows you can’t stop the fame machine, so he instead removes the thing that was gumming up the works: namely, Rose’s relationship with Dyer. Fame has given her a lot, but also ultimately robs her of what really matters: love. (Look, I never said it wasn’t schmaltzy).

Cut off from her real self by Dyer’s departure and still unable to cope with the constant need to perform her star image, Rose quickly descends back into alcohol and, eventually, hard drugs. She is alone again, no one cares about her beyond getting her on the stage to make more money. She returns to her hometown for a big show, but going home just underscores how alone she actually is. She shoots heroin and does manage to put on the persona for one song, illustrating that despite all the damage, there is still some underlying talent that remains. But then she launches into a speech in which she all but begs the audience to love her, but realizes the cheers of the crowd are a poor substitute for what she has lost. She starts to falter and says “where is everybody going?” (because everyone always leaves her!) and collapses and dies. She had a core of real talent that launched her towards stardom, but the constant need to perform the facade of “The Rose” left her unable to know her real self and unable to form any real relationships. That’s the ultimate fame damage.