The Star as Icon: Celebrity in the Age of Mass Consumption

December 11, 2008

Daniel Herwitz asks some fascinating questions. What makes a star an icon? Why does the public create and consume iconic figures? Caught between transcendence and trauma, they lead a double existence and cannot match the aura of their own persona. They exert tremendous power over others, but are unable to control their own lives and often destroy themselves. He discusses Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Jackie Kennedy and Diana, Princess of Wales; Elizabeth Taylor, who appears on the dust jacket, is not mentioned in the book.

Herwitz leans heavily on Leo Braudy's The Frenzy of Renown and Tina Brown's The Diana Chronicles, but he lacks their perceptive analysis and precise details. He watches the films of Monroe (who, despite Herwitz's claim, never visited the White House) "in amazement", but he doesn't distinguish between unwatchable trash and masterpieces such as Some Like It Hot and The Misfits. He doesn't explain how Jackie Kennedy's marriage to the vulgar and repulsive Aristotle Onassis (did she really need gold bath taps?) affected her image.

The opening chapter on Diana's character and funeral is tediously familiar. He states that the princesses Grace and Diana lived "away from the media yet wholly of it", without noting that the former was always protected while Diana, after her divorce, was ruthlessly exploited and exposed. Although both died in a car crash, the details of Grace's accident were instantly suppressed while Diana's was exhaustively investigated. Grace's car didn't "spin out of control"; her daughter, while driving it, did. Diana did not create her image with "the aura of distance", as Herwitz claims, but through physical intimacy with lepers and people with Aids. Diana's life was not "a story without an ending", but one that ended dramatically with her violent death.

This book is a fair notion, fatally spoiled. The style is an uneasy mixture of academic prose and popular cliches. Unfocused and self-indulgent, it lacks a clear structure and argument. Many passages - on Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Musil and Jean-Luc Godard - are not related to the ostensible theme. Although the book is very short, there are 20 verbatim repetitions, and the author repeats "as I said before" four times. There are a dozen spelling mistakes, especially of foreign words, and eight real howlers. The rulers of the "ersatz kingdom" of Monaco go back to 1297; he confuses King Edward VII with Edward VIII; America had no "war against Spain in 1989"; and so on. A number of his statements are obvious, pretentious or absurd: "the only true royals are the Marx Brothers".

Herwitz might have said that these icons suffer from a loss of identity. The dream factory stole Monroe's real self and replaced it with an artificial goddess, with a breathless voice and platinum hair, voluptuous body and alluring walk. No wonder she found it strange and disorienting. The more glamorous her public persona became, the more she searched for her inner being. Recognising the fissure in her character, she would look in the mirror and encourage her alter ego to match her ideal by pleading: "Come on, face, give me a break." She never got used to her new self and wondered: if she couldn't be herself, who else could she be? The transformation forced her to adopt a new identity and allowed the shy exhibitionist to play many different roles. But she also claimed to be aware of the dangers: "I can be anything they want. Of course, you gotta watch out not to get confused." Monroe and Diana both became weary of their demanding and oppressive public persona. As the Princess exclaimed: "Let's face it, even I have had enough of Diana now - and I am Diana."

The Star as Icon: Celebrity in the Age of Mass Consumption

By Daniel Herwitz. Columbia University Press. 176pp, £14.50. ISBN 9780231145404. Published 1 October 2008

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