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Just can't get enough of those divas in distress

We may shake our heads in disapproval, but we still delight in every delectable detail.

January 12, 2007|Teresa Wiltz | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Pity the Train Wreck Girls, poor pretty people plagued with problems that are played across the pages of Us Weekly and for our pleasure.

Feel for them, the ones with the exceedingly thorough bikini waxes and the really expensive eating disorders, the ones who drink and text-message, the ones who pop a Vicodin or two right before zooming down the wrong side of the freeway. We love them, even as we cluck our disapproval.

Bless them, the Holy Trinity of Train Wreck Girls -- Lindsay, Britney and Nicole -- for they have provided us with a week of tabloid bounty: Lindsay Lohan, squeezing in AA meetings between marathon club sessions, graced us with the news of her emergency appendectomy, a surprisingly early entry in the '07 Drama Queen Roll Call, perhaps trying to best her '06 record of four hospital stays. Then there's the painfully thin Nicole Richie, who after her December DUI arrest was spotted on New Year's Eve making out with yet another new beau. (Fairly tame stuff, yes, but c'mon, the year's still young.)

And then there's the week's winner: Dear, troubled Britney Spears, post-Fed-ex, post-scheduled C-sections, worked overtime to feed us our fix, serving us a New Year's Eve collapse from "exhaustion." Followed by rumors that her label, Jive Records, is about to drop her even as she makes her first CD in three-plus years. Last Friday, perhaps sensing that even for TWGs, there is such a thing as too much, Britney begged our forgiveness on her website, declaring that she would come back "bigger and better" in '07, before adding: "But trust me, I get it. I know I've been far from perfect and the media has had a lot of fun exaggerating my every move."

Then late last Friday came the announcement that Britney and Kevin Federline, whom she slapped with a divorce petition last November, mutually agreed to a child custody agreement for their two baby boys.

For the month of January.

Will it never end?

Not as long as we're a nation fixated on the tragic narrative, especially when it features a distressed damsel who's threatening to go off the rails in a really spectacular way. Call it a case of schadenfreude, a delight in the misery of others; call it sadism; call it the end of civilization. Blame it on the excesses of the celebrity machine and technology that allows us to transmit the telephoto evidence of temptation and skulduggery as fast as you can hit send on a Razr phone. Or blame it on your own impulse to look and keep looking, clicking on the link to the uncensored shots of Britney exiting her limo sans her Victoria's Secrets.

"As a lifelong feminist, I am concerned about this alarming persistence of the motif of the damsel in distress," says cultural critic Camille Paglia, professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and author of "Vamps & Tramps," among other books.

"It's the little girl lost, it's kind of reactionary endurance of fairy-tale archetypes of Snow White and Cinderella. The idea of the girl as fragile, delicate, set upon by big bad wolves in the dark wood of life."

Not just anyone, of course, can be a TWG.

Youth is essential, as is beauty and fame, even if that fame is inherited from a pop singer father. Whiteness helps maintain the mystique, though the relatively fair-skinned Richie, of mixed racial ancestry, is an exception, granted honorary white girl status. Also essential is the sense that the distressed damsel is in danger of tossing away a glittering talent -- though, like Richie, you can just be famous for being famous.

There's a fine line between being a TWG and a has-been with a distressing personal life, and that line is usually the one between 29 and 30. To be a TWG, you've got to be an ingenue. The troubles of Whitney Houston and Courtney Love and Mariah Carey just make us want to look away. Or worse, laugh.

So why do we care?

"Because they are our friends. They are our neighbors," says Perez Hilton, the pseudonymous celebrity blogger, with just a trace of irony. "These girls are more known for who they are than what they do. Their careers are secondary to their lives in the spotlight. We've grown to like or dislike, or else be fascinated by, their craziness."

Some enjoy brief stints as a TWG -- Mary-Kate Olsen, Tara Reid, Lara Flynn Boyle, Winona Ryder -- and then repent. Or appear to repent. Or gain weight. Whatever. It can't last; they're not compelling enough to sustain our interest.

Perennial party girl Paris Hilton, notwithstanding the amateur porn and the liberal use of racial epithets, is not a TWG. Too much of the control freak for that one to qualify for Train Wreck status. She is, however, a Train Wreck Enabler. Is it a coincidence that she's been, at one time or another, either a BFF -- Best Friend Forever -- or frenemy with each member of the Holy Trinity?

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