College-admission scandal lesson: Just because celebrities have great images doesn’t mean they’re actually great people
We keep getting reminded these days. Turns out Jussie Smollett, celebrated for being an out gay black performer, could be a liar with major issues — issues of ambition, self-pity, or, you know, stupidity.
Felicity Huffman, so earthily appealing on “Sports Night” and so watchable on “Desperate Housewives” and “American Crime,” appears to have morality problems, parenting flaws, and too much money. Same goes for her complicit husband, William H. Macy, an actor whose performance on “Shameless” is among the best on TV right now, as well as for the other illustrious faces linked to the college admissions scam.
Do I even need to mention Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, Bill Cosby, Bryan Singer, Les Moonves, Matt Lauer, and Charlie Rose, all of them swept up in scandal?
It’s time to remember what we already know: Fame does not equal heroism or goodness in any way. We don’t know these people who make movies and music, we simply know of them.
We are on the receiving end of their very carefully curated releases — movies, TV shows, photo ops, publicity appearances. We don’t see their private struggles, their interpersonal faults, their deep, dark motivations. It’s all a front for us. I don’t care how “in-depth” and intimate a magazine or TV interview with a star may be, we just don’t know them. All we really know is that we like what they produce for the public.
These figures are images created by a glossy entertainment machine that’s powerful and persuasive enough to take relatively untalented people — the Kardashians, Paris Hilton — and turn them into stars. That star-maker machinery is built out of elements that just keep getting sharper — demographic science, visual signaling, relentless ad campaigns, and storytelling that sweeps us up as it unfolds. It is a massive machine, and not the gateway to reality.
The equivalent is following people on social media and believing that they’re exactly who they present on their feeds. If that were the case, then we’d be living in a world overwhelmingly dominated by triumph, happiness, splendor, beautifully plated food, and adorable cats and dogs.
We are hooked on fame, some of us more than others, and so we tend to unduly admire and idolize those who’ve achieved it. Some believe we even elected a president because he has tons of it. The famous are living our aspirational lives, even when they’re criticized for their weight or style; after all, everyone is watching and listening to them, even buying the makeup they use and the clothes they wear. These days, there may be nothing worse to a giant swath of Americans than being a nobody. Reality TV and social media have only further stoked our obsession, as they make fame much more available to ordinary people.
But fame doesn’t solve your problems; the people who are getting arrested and accused were not suddenly transformed into good people when they got their big breaks. It’s so obvious, and yet we do so often overlook it as we eagerly hand our esteem to strangers. “Fame is a powerful aphrodisiac,” Graham Greene said in 1964, and that was long before Twitter, TMZ, and Facebook started drilling their way into our consciousness.
A number of people have told me they were shocked about Huffman and Macy, who’ve been such a positive presence in pop culture. I was shocked, too. Macy, in particular, plays a guy on “Shameless” who lives at the bottom of the socio-economic scale and has zero advantages, who created a family desperately fighting to break out of poverty; shouldn’t the actor be more responsible about his own advantages?
But why are any of us surprised? So Macy and Huffman weren’t trotting their sense of entitlement and their alleged willingness to cheat out in public, in the way Jackson trotted out underage boys, holding their hands and admitting to sleeping in the same beds with them. We didn’t and don’t know them, no matter how closely we follow their careers.
So give them Oscars, give them Grammys, give them Emmys. Give them your attention and give them your money, too, if you like their talent. But don’t give them the trust and esteem that are precious and exceptional in life. Save that for the people you know.