Mal Fletcher
The Sadness of Soap Opera Lives

The sad lives of two young women in the news this week should serve as a cautionary tale for all who aspire to celebrity -- and for those who feed off its soap opera narratives.

The mysterious death of Anna Nicole Smith and the appearance of a new look Britney Spears, minus her golden locks, offer a reminder (if we needed one) of the vacuous and destructive nature of modern celebrity.

Ms Smith was best known for her appearances in Playboy magazine, followed by her marriage to an oil magnate 63 years her senior. When her husband died, arguments within his family about his estate captured headlines around the world.

Ms. Smith remained in the public eye through a reality TV series based around her frenetic lifestyle. The attention grew with the death of her 20-year-old son from apparent drug-related causes.

Even then, Anna Nicole was paying a high price for a celebrity.

The birth of a daughter in 2006 brought further press coverage, with speculation and legal arguments as to the identity of the father.

This speculation continues today, a week after her own death in mysterious circumstances. Though authorities have ruled out foul play, it’s hard not to see parallels with the untimely end of another blond sex-symbol, Marilyn Monroe.

Meanwhile, pop icon Britney Spears seems determined to continue her downward spiral of desperate behaviour, which has recently seen her indulging in a lifestyle of binges, drug parties and all-round self-destruction.

Shaving her head -- and gaining the nickname Britney Shears -- is just the latest in a long line of actions which must surely represent a deep cry for help.

As a society, we should think long and hard about where the culture of celebrity is leading us – and our children.

Celebrity is built on novelty. When celebrities see their star beginning to wane, they often turn to shock value to rescue them from obscurity.

But when something loses its shock value, something even more alarming has to take its place – and the downward spiral begins. What may start out as a ploy to gain publicity can all too quickly become a life threatening bondage.

In a sense, celebrity is the ultimate expression of branding – instead of prominent people endorsing a product, modern celebrities become the product.

Like all products, they are then at the whim of the consuming public. When they cease to meet a perceived need, or merely scratch an itch, they’re discarded like yesterday’s newspapers.

Celebrity is largely about image, and image can be a dangerous thing. Julian Lennon, son of John, reportedly said: 'The only thing I ever learned from my dad was how not to be a father.' Image can ruin families. It also warps our sense of who we are. Marilyn Monroe once said, 'I seem to be a whole superstructure without a foundation.'

Celebrity also turns a person’s work into their entire meaning for existence – creating a dangerous bias away from inherent self-worth, toward performance-based value.

Unless they’re acting up a la Ms Spears, all we people know about celebrities is what we see of them when they’re functioning in the area of their greatest gift.

We all have special gifts, activities in which we excel. Imagine other people only ever saw you when you were doing that one special thing. They would only see you at your very best.

That may sound attractive, but before long you would begin to feel guilty about the other areas of your life, where you’re not so strong. In the areas where we are weak we need the support and understanding of others.

In the end, if people only see the best side of us they place upon us expectations that we can't possibly fulfil. When that happens, a well-balanced self-image becomes impossible, and relationships become very difficult to sustain, for relationship is built on vulnerability as well as strength.

Among its consumers, celebrity tends to distort a sense of virtue and value. Mark Twain once remarked that many a small thing has been made large by the power of advertising.

Celebrity makes the important seem trivial; which ought to concern us, especially where it affects our young people. They are the most impressionable members of society, as well as the biggest consumers of celebrity tattle.

In the end, celebrity is a poor substitute for what we as human beings really crave, which is not image as much as influence.

Some of the most impacting individuals in human history were not particularly interested in fame - or at least fame for its own sake. Their prime concern was to bring about positive change, often at huge personal cost.

Do the meek ever inherit the earth? Perhaps they do, at least when ordinary people are encouraged to extraordinary things, even if they're far removed from the harsh lights of Tabloid Culture.

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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