Australian soccer is salivating over the more than 80,000 people who turned up to Sydney’s Telstra Stadium on Wednesday night and watched David Beckham do at least one of the things he is famous for – take a free kick.
But unfortunately for soccer, it wasn’t sport that brought such high numbers through the gates. Most people who attended were only interested in checking out the man who goes home to Posh Spice. One host of a corporate box reported that he had to explain to his guests that the person running around the field wearing yellow was the umpire.
The question of why we have such a fascination with celebrities is a well-rehearsed one. Fame, after all, has no inherent properties. Being famous doesn’t immediately make someone more virtuous or remarkable.
Similarly, it does not, as Bono seems to believe, impart to you any great insight into development economics or the most appropriate structure for giving economic loans to African nations. If your favourite political cause has a celebrity attached, it’s probably wrong. A busy media schedule leaves little room for even the best-intentioned celebrity to study the most humane way of keeping insects off the backsides of sheep.
But those who attended the Sydney exhibition match weren’t just there because they were fascinated by David Beckham (pictured below). After all, any thirst to discover as much as possible about the soccer star would surely be quelled by his series of autobiographies, David Beckham: My World, David Beckham: My Side and David Beckham: Both Feet on the Ground. It is a testament to the cynical ingenuity of English publishing houses that one person could successfully market three auto-biographies, two of which were released a year apart.
Instead, the spectators were driven by a very human, but also a very peculiar, desire to see the celebrity in the flesh. For many of the spectators at the Sydney match, part of the attraction in attending the game was simply to share Beckham’s space in the world.
Certainly, on a practical level, there are some things that you can only discover by seeing somebody in real life, rather than on television. Those who have met John Howard are able to speak authoritatively about his height – the just-departed prime minister is hardly the munchkin depicted in hostile editorial cartoons.
But our desire to see and meet celebrities is more than a desire to assess their physical attributes up close. We have an almost primordial need to confirm that celebrities are, actually, real. Genuine human communication – even if it is one-sided and yelled from stadium seating – is our attempt at breaking down the barrier between celebrity and reality.
Even better when the celebrity is alerted to those attempts at communication – nothing amuses a heckler more than attention from their target.
Watching how someone carries themself, without the distorting effect of television, somehow gives far more insight into that celebrity’s personality. Everybody thinks they are pretty good at judging character.
Celebrities, many of whom are intelligent, are acutely aware of this curiously asymmetrical relationship. And eager to convert intangible fame into tangible cash, they exploit it. Successful celebrities “up-sell” their time to wealthier fans. For sports stars, a sponsorship deal is not just a colourful logo on a shirt, it is a commitment to meet the sponsoring firm’s clients when needed.
The same is true in many fields. Many firms sponsor ballet productions so their guests can mingle with performers. Ballet companies recognise that audiences like to break down the barrier between stage and stalls.
Nevertheless, at least dancers and soccer players have a day job. Paris Hilton is the archetypal celebrity thought to be famous for having done nothing. She might not be talented, but she sure is entertaining. Her life is a train wreck; a complex human drama conveniently serialised in newspaper headlines.
And Hilton’s business model is the same as Beckham’s – when the socialite was shipped down to Australia for the Melbourne Cup a few years ago, part of her job was to entertain cup sponsors. Celebrities who are famous just for being famous are also the most cunning manipulators of this disconnection between fame and reality.
The market for celebrities seems to work fairly well – there aren’t many opportunities for profit that the famous do not exploit. Our psychological need to humanise celebrities is a demand that is efficiently supplied.