Rummaging through a cupboard looking for reading matter while cat- and house-sitting recently, I came across a book by Dawn French called “Dear Fatty”. It was in the form of a series of letters to friends and family, and was ideal for dipping into while I was working, trying to work, or sometimes only “working” (there is a difference).
In one piece French describes how her being famous spoilt a children’s athletics event she was attending. Her daughter was competing, and French was there as a mother, but when she was spotted, the loud-speaker system burst into life and blared with the tinny, excited voice of someone announcing that the celebrity DAWN FRENCH! was present, “sitting over there on the grass … with all the normal mums and dads.” She was furious for herself, and distressed for her daughter whose achievements on the field were lost in the resulting glare.
French accepted that she has benefitted from the fame she has acquired through her professional activities and didn’t apologise for that. But, she asked (and I paraphrase here) how have we found ourselves in a world in which footballers and singers and comedians are celebrated when teachers and doctors and carers languish in the shadows? Why should someone who fronts a television game show attract more attention than those who slog away day after day, unnoticed and unsung? How, she asked, have we come to the point where we mistake lustre for importance?
On reflection, I don’t think that we do. We cheer the fellow who can kick a ball because he does it well, and preferably for the team we support. We admire the actors who bring stories to life on stage and screen. We enjoy the comedians and dancers and musicians because what they do is done in public, to entertain us. We acknowledge these achievements by cheering and clapping in return. They need it to survive, and we are willing to provide it. I think that we also admire and appreciate those who teach our children, tend our wounds, build our cities and fight our fires.
What is naff is to gawp at people when they aren’t on show. What is despicable is to prey on people in their private lives. What is demeaning to all concerned is to inflate the significance of people whose only claim to fame is having a public face by, for example, being on television, and treat them as important. We have pushed the idea that “any publicity is good publicity” to absurd lengths. It has taken celebrity appreciation to the point where both the gawped at and the gawpee look tacky.