Essay

Celebrating “selfebrity”

WALK INTO ANY newsagent or bookshop. Scan quickly and then let your eyes rest on the racks and racks and racks of celebrity-obsessed magazines. On each cover is a face Photoshopped to within an inch of its two-dimensional life. Where do these people come from? How did they come to be this way? How is it that, despite hours and hours of in-depth interviews and red-carpet vox pops, they stubbornly remain shiny and salubriously slick?

Tom Cruise wasn't always going to be Tom Cruise. He actually used to be a shortish, gawky, orthodontically challenged two-bit nobody slowly going nowhere. Then he had his teeth fixed, and who knows what else, and emerged looking as close as he could dream to a latter-day James Dean in the role of the homogenised white-bread rebel in Top Gun. It wasn't much longer before he became delectably take-home-able as the white-uniformed fledgling lawyer-officer with God on his side and a baseball bat in his hand in A Few Good Men.

Today, when you listen to Tom Cruise talking about his past, you come away with the impression, as you're meant to, that the rise and rise of Tom was planned from the outset. It was a linear thing, an uninterrupted trajectory of planned programming, one long progressive cruise that took him from the Cruise-to-be to the Cruise-who-is. When he talks about his present or his future, the past is so seamlessly edited, interwoven and integrated that the narrative flows naturalistically, with the flair and panache of a life predetermined.

Tom, of course, has had years to refine and polish his "selfebrity" – his public celebrated self, the self he celebrates in public, his relentlessly revisited self, the self-in progress that he consummately recuts and polishes.

He's had time, and no doubt professional help, to get his story right and his narrative even better. Clearly, Tom made all the right moves. In fact, in the movie All the Right Moves (1983), the tag line was: "He has everything at stake, he can't afford to lose. He's got to make all the right moves."[i] And make them Tom did.

Unlike Robert Downey jnr, who, while arguably the better actor, has spent more than 20 years jamming his celebrity aspirations with a chaotic drug-loving lifestyle, apparently oblivious of or unmotivated by the impact that this has on his career as an actor. As he once famously quipped, "It's like I've got a shotgun in my mouth and I like the taste of metal."[ii] While offers for roles miraculously keep presenting between stints in jail and rehab, Downey has failed to construct a selfebrity that would place him in Cruise's league. To do this, he would have had to work harder on his image maintenance, the unspoken but time-honored practices expected by the star industry, its satellite businesses and the public at large.

But wait, maybe it's unfair to compare Cruise and Downey as if the playing field were ever level. It may well be that Downey has in fact made many of the right moves and the reason he's still working at all, given his messy life, is because he does indeed play the selfebrity game – and play it extremely well. Some might say that given the dirty data he's working with, it's a miracle the phone rings at all. Even though sound engineers like to say, "you can't polish a turd", Downey's doing pretty well.

 

THE CONSTRUCTION AND maintenance of selfebrity owes more to the language that surrounds the person than it does to image airbrushing. It is in the language that tabloid celebrities use to talk about themselves that they construct, maintain and massage their public selves. Examined closely, this language is a set of discourse practices that can be identified, itemised, enumerated and deconstructed. We'll come to that in a moment.

Ironically, in order to be a successful tabloid celebrity, it's more important to talk the talk than walk the walk. Paris Hilton is a pristine example, irrefutably famous for being famous, her fame shaped by a particular genre of surface-speak.

Of course, none of this is possible without the active collusion of a celebrity-obsessed culture. Entertainment Tonight, Rove, breakfast TV, as well as thousands of celebrity-focused websites, drive-time radio DJs, publicists, agents, managers, the paparazzi etc are all in on the secret. But don't worry about them, they already know the game, even if the rules aren't written down anywhere.

Now for those discourse practices: four of them are worthy of discussion. They're not discrete or isolated; in fact, they leach and bleed into each other as if the walls between them were semipermeable. They're neither acquired nor deployed in any particular order or according to any particular schedule. In the typical celebrity interview, one or more, or all, may be used depending on the type and length of interview or red-carpet moment. And also, sometimes a particular aspect of the selfebrity is in urgent need of maintenance.

 

IF YOU WANT to be a celebrity, the first thing you have to be able to do is talk about who you are in your present life. Do this in a way that creates its own enviable ambience. Whatever you're working (or not working) on at the moment, you need to be up. Witness Nicole talking about Moulin Rouge: "I'm so proud of this film. Everybody worked really hard on it and the reaction we're getting from people who've seen it is they've never seen anything like it[iii]."

And if you're not up, you need a rose-coloured spin. You never hear that Rose Byrne is sitting at home waiting for a script to come in. You never hear that Winona Ryder or Keanu Reeves is taking a break because there's no work on offer. A star's break is only ever a scheduled jet-in, jet-out period of R&R, a pit stop between contracts. It's always back-to-back work.

Here's Nicole talking about her life: "You get to work with some of the most brilliant people in the world and you help to facilitate extraordinary ideas. I consider myself incredibly fortunate and I get to reach out to a lot of people."[iv] Celebrities with unwanted time on their hands might say they're "having meetings" with their agents, and some "great ideas" have been "floated", and they're "cautiously optimistic", but "very excited" about the "opportunities that are coming up".

The second thing you need to be able to do is talk comfortably about the other people you're working with. Your director is "just brilliant", "wonderful to work with", "everything you expected and more". So, too, is the script. So, too, are your co-stars. Everyone pulled his or her weight and the entire undertaking was "fabulous". If anything is less than perfect, it's not with the prima donna, it's with the weather.

If you enthuse about the team, it signals you're a team player. Even if you're self-centredness incarnate – an unpunctual, ungracious hissy-fit-throwing piece of petulance – you still have to mouth the words that imply co-operation. If your star quality moves you to a different stratosphere, you lose your human quality, which your adoring public, perhaps incongruently, still wants you to have.

Leaning on our shopping trolleys at the supermarket checkouts, we like to flick through the celebrity magazines and see Nicole in that amazing one-off designer gown. But even more, we like knowing that on page 3 Our Nic is on location making sandwiches for the kids in her trailer. It's a relief that she's a working mum, a single mum to boot, just like the girl next door, or hey, even closer to home.

Here's Russell Crowe on SBS TV's The Movie Show speaking about working with Guy Pearce during LA Confidential: "It was a great opportunity for both of us, and also a wonderful opportunity to simply work together on that level ... we would look at each other and we'd do things that were specifically and only between us. This gives you strength and energy."[v] Go Russell, you big collaborator.

Not to be outdone, Nicole has this to say about her Moulin Rouge co-star, Ewan McGregor: "It was great to work with him. Straightaway we had a tacit agreement that we'd support each other throughout, taking risks ... and we've connected wholeheartedly ... that's what made this project so fulfilling."[vi]

 

IN THE SELFEBRITY discourse quartet, the third practice that you absolutely have to have is the ability to talk about the future, your future, in the right way. This part of your narrative is called "talking it up". Here you put the rosiest spin possible on your next step, the exciting next chapter that your public can look forward to. You construct this as a project-in-progress, with "important meetings" scheduled and "exciting things" on the table. Up and up. Aspirational but definitely on the cards. Ambitious but not big-headed. The slant is forward-looking, the tone is "things are getting better and better".

Here's Nicole, post-Cruise, pre-future: "I'm going to be positive ... my Dad said: 'Nic, it is what it is, it's not what it should have been, not what it could have been, it is what it is'."[vii]

Consider Dannii Minogue responding to a Top of the Pops television interviewer who said: "You've done it all! Is there anything left on your wish list?"

"I'm kind of a daredevil and like to do crazy stuff and I'd like to do some stunts. However, I'd have to get into an action film to do that. One of my dreams is to jump off a 12-storey building onto those crash-mat things."[viii] So, Dannii deftly (read lamely) shapes her future aspirations while also recasting her past, enabling the serial indiscretions of her youth to be re-interpreted as Polaroid pin-ups from the portfolio of an established risk-taker.

As your selfebrity moves from the construction to the maintenance stage, the fourth, and perhaps the most important, discourse practice is your ability to talk about the past, your past. You need to make sense of things that have already happened – and cannot be made to unhappen – and massage them seamlessly into a version of you that is both palatable and congruent with your current selfebrity. There has to be no dislocation, no dissonance between the past, present and future of your narrative. Like Tom Cruise, you were always meant to be as you are. This is the hardest of all spin tasks because the materials you're working with are established fact, sometimes embarrassingly in the public domain. At heart, the task is a management one, massaging and repackaging in order to minimise the potential fallout from your past bleeding onto your selfebrity, like a photograph from Abu Ghraib prison confounding George W. Bush's public reasons for going to war with Iraq.

Dannii Minogue can gloss over her past glibly: "When I first started releasing tracks in the UK, I was really young. Fresh from Australia, I didn't really know who I was yet. Now, I've been living here for ages, I'm more comfortable with everything. I'm totally into the groove of the UK now and I don't feel I have to worry so much."[ix] This repackaging of her past into the recognisable stage of "wayward youth" not only quarantines the past; it reshapes the present as the perspective of achieved maturity.

But when the past is too overwhelming, it collides with the goals of your selfebrity, which it threatens to capsize. Michael Jackson is struggling with this conundrum while Arnold Schwarzenegger paradigmatically illustrates how good management can neutralise anything. His agents, spin doctors, image managers and publicists earn their bucks.

 

SELFEBRIFICATION IS THE process by which the individual creates and maintains his or her public celebrity profile. The four discourse practices are the sine qua non. As with the acquisition and refinement of any skill, it doesn't happen overnight. There are levels of selfebrification not so different from learning to drive. You move from unconscious incompetence (when you don't know what there is to know), to conscious incompetence (when you're just finding out how much you have to learn), to conscious competence (when you're very consciously managing to do it, just), to unconscious competence (this is the kind of driving that also includes simultaneous management of the mobile phone, the filofax and the takeaway coffee).

The top level of expertise is pure poetry. The unconsciously competent tabloid celebrity seamlessly integrates the four discourse practices so successfully that separation between them is rarely discernible. Let's have a look at how Nicole uses the crib notes her publicist might've prepared for the interview after her split with Tom:

I refuse to let what happened to me make me bitter [sealing the past off from the present] ... I still completely believe in love [the all-embracing non-specific present, that includes past and future] and I'm open to anything that will happen to me [aspirational reference to her future direction]. I'm a woman, a mother, a daughter, a sister. I'm a real person operating in the world [self in relation to others].[x]

 

THE TOP-LEVEL, SUCCESFUL selfebrities are verbally decterous. Theirs is a flexibility with the language and a manipulation of grammar and vocabulary so accomplished that they can effortlessly deploy linguistic strategies to further the cause of self. The consummate performer can navigate questions deftly, swerving where necessary, slipping into a passive construction to avoid personal implication or a plural noun to generalise and universalise, omitting and skipping over, but manipulating past time usage so confidently that the sequence seems smoothly linear.

Cruise talks about one of his early films, Taps, as his "breakthrough": "Stanley Jaffe producing the picture. And Harold Becker was directing. And I was with Tim Hutton, Sean Penn and George C. Scott ... I guess I was about 18 ... that was a very well-produced picture because we had the opportunity to work on the characters and really learn."[xi] This is Cruise-the-success giving a retrospective view on Cruise-the-starter-actor, skilfully knitting the early experience into his professional growth curve. The interviewer goes on to cite a biography that marks the character Cruise played in Top Gun, an appropriately named Maverick, as a prototype role that Cruise would go on "to play over and over", adding: "And you seem to like that. You seem to play that guy very well. And, even in The Last Samurai, that's the same guy, in a way." If it were a football game, you'd call this comment a flick pass; here it's the set-up for a sweet moment of selfebrification. Without so much as a wink, Cruise one-handedly catches the ball and says: "For me, I just don't evaluate it as a prototype in that way... I'm just interested in something and then I do it." The subtle embellishment is a little spit and polish for the selfebrity, a nifty enhancement for the core je ne sais quoi Cruisiness.

Here's Cruise on his long-distant past. Asked whether he'd always wanted to become an actor, he says: "I remember being about four years old and thinking about it. I used to put on skits for the family. I would do imitations." The interviewer hints at some early dislocation: "You had kind of a difficult childhood in that you kept moving all the time. And you never got to stay in a school and settle down. Do you think that has something to do with your being an actor?" Cruise easily sidesteps with a selective faux-memory fragment: "I just remember that I always loved movies. Even as a little kid, there was something about the adventure of it, the dream of it." Asked to talk about how it was, growing up, Cruise paints a near Norman Rockwell portrait. "Growing up was exciting, actually, in many ways. Challenging. I had the opportunity to – I mean, you move from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. There are different cultures, different people, different rules of the street. I was lucky. I had people who were very supportive of each other."[xii] This could, in fact, mean anything from Brady Bunch to aberrant and dysfunctional. All that matters is that it flows into the larger script of young-man-on-the-way-to-becoming.

When Cruise allows his on-screen identity to bleed into his selfebrity, we can be forgiven for wondering how deliberate it is. Here he is explaining the code of the samurai. Thrill to the way it moves from third-person description to a monogrammed mission statement:

[It's the] honesty and justice. Be acutely honest throughout your dealings with all people. Believe in justice. Not from other people, but from yourself. To the true samurai, there are no shades of grey ... There's only right and wrong ... A life of honour, a life of honesty. These are things, the way I try to live my life. Doing things right and treating people with respect.[xiii]



[i] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0085154/

[ii] http://www.rdjfan.com/articles/id-mag01.asp

[iii] http://www.tiscali.co.uk/entertainment/film/interviews/nicole_kidman.html

[iv] ibid

[v] http://www.geocities.com/jcimelli/PhotoGallery/movieshowOz.html

[vi] http://www.tiscali.co.uk/entertainment/film/interviews/nicole_kidman.html

[vii] ibid

[viii] http://www.bbc.co.uk/totp/artists/m/minogue_dannii/underthegrill2/page1.shtml

[ix] ibid

[x] http://www.tiscali.co.uk/entertainment/film/interviews/nicole_kidman.html

[xi] http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/02/18/48hours/printable601014.shtml

[xii] http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/02/18/48hours/printable601014.shtml

[xiii] ibid

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review