Peace Corps Writers

The Importance of Being Famous
Behind the Scenes of the Celebrity-Industial Complex

by Maureen Orth (Colombia 1964–66)
Henry Holt & Company
May, 2004
372 pages

The Importance of Being Famous

Reviewed by Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 1997–98)

THE TITLE of Maureen Orth’s recently released book, The Importance of Being Famous, brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s Victorian comedy ThePrinter friendly version Importance of Being Earnest. Written over a century ago, that play details the efforts of two men to assume false identities and rendezvous with the women they love. In turn, this recalls Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, a novel of indulgence and excess in which a young man seeks pleasure without ever succumbing to the failings of old age. Wilde’s stories deliver a 19th century message that Orth reveals as timeless. Her collection of articles, which profiles several modern-day celebrities, analyzes how the bizarre and misguided fascination for fame and power stems from a desire to requite some unfulfilled quest for happiness. Orth writes how many years ago “stories about famous people focused mostly on their achievements, the content of their work, and the way it got done.” But fame today has become a quest to hold stage before a rapt public audience where drama and eccentricity are required to survive — and not necessarily talent.
     Orth reports for Vanity Fair magazine — she has covered the entertainment industry since her first job as a Newsweek reporter in the 1970s — and her profiles have appeared in the magazine over the past 15 years. Her assignments have steeped her in the worlds of such individuals as Madonna, Michael Jackson, Arianna and Michael Huffington, Marc Rich and Andrew Cunanan (Gianni Versace’s killer). In selecting these essays, she creates a kind of cultural treatise to demonstrate how those who achieve their dreams of fame or wealth can morph into pathetic and even pitiful beings whose lives beyond the realities of most people can turn lonely and self-destructive. Immersed in the spotlight, they appear willing to sacrifice anything to remain there, even happiness. It is striking to read movie producer Dino De Laurentiis saying of Madonna: “She’s a very lonely woman . . . . I don’t know to what extent she enjoys life.”
     The profiles read like fast-paced narratives of facts and events in mystery stories, drawing readers behind veils and mirrors to a sordid underworld where all is not what it seems. Orth charts a path for her readers, shifting from the world of pop stardom to that of political power and wealth, openly proclaiming along the way what she has learned about each segment of celebrity and what horrors most people never see, such as the legions of sycophants who perpetuate rather than diminish the isolation of society’s must revered figures.
     Orth’s most dizzying account is of the life, career and accusations of pedophilia currently leveled against Michael Jackson. While detailing his eccentricities (dangling his son over a balcony in Germany) to grab media attention, and revealing how he dominates employees who must sign confidentiality agreements to work in his Neverland palace in southern California, Orth depicts an individual driven to success by his father at an early age and who no longer believes he can trust anyone because of fears of opportunism. One neighbor sadly describes Jackson before and after his numerous facial surgeries, confessing: “He was a very nice-looking African American man with brown skin. Now he’s become a white woman.” The profile reveals a man whose life has been destroyed, whose transformation into a product is most apparent in his desire to be white, fueled by a belief in superior beauty. Despite the infamy of Jackson’s alleged seduction of young boys, and his complicity in his own continued fame, Jackson’s story is excruciating and left me feeling quite sorry for him.
     As in Oscar Wilde, the farce of fame seekers in The Importance of Being Famous goes beyond the laughs to underscore the heart-wrenching saga of individuals willing to destroy their lives to ride the celebrity train. Orth makes no direct accusations but delineates a culture of fame in which the symbiotic relationship between the celebrated spectacle and the receptive audience has somehow created an indomitable frenzy of media coverage and public hype.
     Tellingly, Orth closes with an account of the brilliant ballerina Margot Fonteyn who left behind glamorous worldwide fame — a life of empty hotel rooms, Fonteyn recalls — to live with her paralyzed husband Tito Arias on a farm in Panama. Introducing this piece, Orth writes: “I wanted to end this book not with shame or sensation but with a reminder that there is such a thing as real talent, achieved through hard work and perseverance — and also that there is life beyond public acclaim and recognition.”
     As a writer (pretty much unknown to the world), I occasionally consider authors whose well-received works have led to self-imposed isolation — J.D. Salinger, Cormac McCarthy, Anne Tyler, Naguib Mahfouz, Thomas Pynchon and, perhaps most significantly, pop demiurge Stephen King whose decision to remain in his home state of Maine has wisely kept him near the root of his talent and his family. Sure you’ll catch him on camera keeping score at Fenway Park, but he’s always been a baseball fan, and he’s just enjoying the ballgame. Orth’s essays serve as a reminder that today’s world of celebrity and the expanding media markets that empower it, sadly invest a search for meaning and success in the limelight with misguided promises. Behind the cameras, beyond the spotlights, away from the public relations magicians and the media moguls, Orth implies, those whose most fantastic dreams do come true seemed to have learned that their path leads them not to heaven but to a perpetual hell.
     Perhaps, at the end of the day, it’s better to be insignificant after all.
Joe Kovacs served as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language in Sri Lanka from 1997 to 1998. He writes for WorldView Magazine, the quarterly membership publication of the National Peace Corps Association, and is currently working on his second novel.
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