the illusion of intimacy
Celebrity is a strange business. There's such a false sense that you know a person, when really all you know is photographs or trivia or some story they chose to share with Letterman. I always enjoy the Inside the Actors Studio interviews, because it's often obvious that James Lipton's research has rooted out some things the actor didn't expect, but even then we're hearing the response they choose to give.
The first time I felt this false sense of closeness to a celebrity was when I was fourteen years old and thought I knew everything about David Bowie. I found it amusing that he and his (first) wife had met because they were dating the same guy. I was fascinated that he only slept four hours a night, and I read his lyrics like I was reading his diary and felt like I understood him (which if you've read his early lyrics is a testimony to the depth of the teenage imagination - I'd be surprised if even Bowie knew what they all meant: "I got eyes in my backside. That see electric tomatoes. On credit card rye bread.")
From then to now there have probably been less than half a dozen celebrities I thought I understood or knew this way. This is probably because I'm rarely sufficiently interested in a person's work to launch into the intensive waste of time that is researching the details of a celebrity's life. Most recently I feel this false closeness to Neil Gaiman, as evidenced I'm sure many times in this blog. But Neil makes it easy. At readings he is generous with anecdotes and almost every day on his blog he shares details of how his work in progressing, significant events in his personal life and great stories of other artists and others he has been lucky enough to work with or meet. The fact that I've watched many, many interviews with him on Youtube also helps. He's an entertaining person who's had an interesting life ~ not a boring E! special life with riches and burnouts: a real life full of creative work and family he loves.
But recently I had an experience that made me realise just how false this sense of friendly intimacy is. A few weeks ago Neil's father died. Neil is really kind when he meets you ~ as generous with his attention to the 500th person in a line at a book signing as he was to the first ~ and it engenders a reciprocal care. Reading that his father had died immediately made me wish that I could do something, anything, to make this less painful for him. I felt that helpless feeling you feel when you want to reach out to a friend and comfort them, but (for whatever reason...distance, etc) can't.
But I'm NOT Neil's friend. It was sobering to realise that even if I had had the resources to jump on a plane to wherever he was, or to actually wangle the time with him to express my condolences or support, me doing that would have been more of an intrusion than a comfort. (NB: he was comforted by the presence of his fans on the day he found out, but I think it might have been a very different experience if they had known what was happening.) He chose to share the news with us, but then also announced that he would take a break from the blog to be with his family. As he should. There are just some things we, as fans, have no right to share. Even if we want to.
This is something I wish the people of the paparazzi industry could grasp. Because we are hungry for information doesn't mean we should always get it. It's not our right to know things these people would not have chosen to share, and the whole theory that a public figure has no right to privacy is terrible. Of course they have a right to privacy; as do their children. The public makes them famous by being interested in them, and there is an understanding that this comes at the price of needing to give something back 'to the fans'. But this gets blown out of all proportion when we treat them like a bug under our microscope and feel like it's okay to dissect and observe even the most minute details of their lives. In truth the relationship between a celebrity and their fans should be more like when a butterfly lands on your shoulder. It's a beautiful and touching experience to get close to something you usually only see from afar, but it should still be free to fly away, too. Even butterflies have a life to live. Celebs, too.