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They Really Like Us -- in Our Dreams

June 21, 2005|Martin Kaplan | Martin Kaplan is associate dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and director of the Norman Lear Center, which studies the effect of entertainment on society.

It was a comment by Juror No. 8 that nailed the weirdest aspect of it. "Even though he's a superstar, he's human," said Melissa Herard of Michael Jackson after his acquittal. "To me, he's just a normal person, and you could say to him, 'Hey, what's up?' It made him real in my mind."

Whoa. The notion that Michael Jackson is "just a normal person" is by itself breathtaking -- but the fantasy of a casual friendship with him is stranger yet and cuts to the core of our cult of celebrity.

These jurors are not fools. They knew about the dangled baby, the bizarre plastic surgery, the sleeping with boys, the toxic entourage and all the other danger signs of narcissism. Nevertheless, they -- like the sign-waving fans outside the Santa Maria courthouse, and like the rest of us watching on TV at home -- were apparently willing to give Jackson a chance to demonstrate that he has a normal, even healthy, relationship with his own celebrity.

These days, we all think we know what's behind the image curtain. Despite the dreams of marketers and press agents, we are not merely marks for their cons, pigeons for their mesmerism, sitting ducks for their InStyle shoots, uncritical consumers of their confected narratives.

We know the payroll stars have to carry -- not only agent, manager, lawyer and accountant, but also stylist, publicist, personal assistant, personal trainer, plus the high school friends, in-laws, scammers and suck-ups endemic to any decent-sized entourage. We know the machinery it takes to airbrush photos, approve interview bylines, plant column items, muzzle nannies, appear humble and blame mug shots on tragic addictions. We know about the faux-romances, and why stars submit to them, and the faux social causes, and why they embrace them. We know all about the big falls, courageous rehabs, rediscovered spiritualities and staged plucky comebacks.

Yet knowing all this, we also know that stars are different from us. It is not their talent that creates that distinction, but their celebrity itself. Their famousness gives them an aura, confers a magic on them. They are not only magnets for our attention, they are magnets for our fantasies. And of all the yearnings we project on them, the most potent is this: If they knew us, they would like us.

If we can believe that of our celebs, then we are capable of forgiving them just about anything. If we can maintain the fan's delusion that our stars would like to have a latte with us, that the only thing that's preventing us from being friends with them is access, then there is no crime we won't consider acquitting them of; that, after all, is what friends are for.

In that sense, we will all be jurors for the Phil Spector trial, just as we were all jurors for Michael Jackson, Robert Blake, Martha Stewart, Kobe Bryant, Mike Tyson, O.J. Simpson and all the other celebs brought to the bar of justice. From now to the end-times, cable news and the rest of the degraded infotainment industry formerly known as journalism will force-feed us famous-defendant trial news like foie gras geese, and we will feel as though we are spending as much time hearing testimony as the impaneled dozen in the courtroom. Although we may believe we are assessing the evidence, deep down -- or maybe, shallow down -- we will also be deciding whether the defendant is "just a normal person," whether we could say, "Hey, what's up?" to the accused and not get treated like an insect or a stalker.

Audiences are juries. Our entertainment-saturated society puts us in a juridical relationship with all famous people, all the time. Trials only heighten that drama. We may pride ourselves on our antennae for authenticity, believing it's possible to spot the difference between keepin' it real and a star who's merely good at faking intimacy with us. But as Oscar Wilde said, "To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up."

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