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TALES OF LOHR: LANDON Y. JONES' "CELEBRITY NATION"
Plus, "Factory Roll Call" raises the rope for Steve Rubell
Can you think of the first person you knew was famous without being able to figure out why they were famous? The earliest iteration of the “professional celebrity” of whom I was aware would have to be Zsa Zsa Gabor, who, despite a marginally successful early acting career, seemed to make a living primarily through talk-show appearances and wink-wink cameos as herself in comedy films and TV sitcoms. If I was aware of anything else about her, it was her reputation for having a lot of money and a lot more romantic liaisons. I can’t really recollect a time when I didn’t know Zsa Zsa Gabor was a presence in our culture, but I’m damned even today if I can tell you why she achieved the prominence she reached.
Some years have passed since the zenith of Zsa Zsa (she passed away in 2016), but the “famous for being famous” archetype has expanded its scope to such an extent that honest-to-God empires can be constructed out of celebrity that, to an objective eye, is essentially built on a foundation of nothingness. The Kardashians represent the thus-far apotheosis of this renowned-for-nothing trope, but our cultural table is groaning with a surfeit of celebrities whose product seems to be merely themselves, or, at best, the ability to lend their imprimatur to other, even more perishable products. I know that Logan Paul is, but for love or money, I couldn’t tell you who or what he is…a fact that means precisely zilch to his nearly 26 million Instagram followers. Social media, reality television, and the 24-hour news cycle have made the manufacture of pure uncut fame its own going concern, and the impact of this is borne out in a myriad of cultural affects. Reality TV and the internet can be held at least partially responsible for the rise of the MAGA cult. The desire for fame as an end in itself has been used to justify everything from self-engineered sex tape “leaks” to mass shootings. And in numerous recent polls of children as young as eight, YouTuber and influencer are the most hoped-for future professions…when these kids don’t simply say that they want to be famous, and never mind how or why.
Landon Y. Jones can arguably be branded as one of the unwitting architects of this perilous social predicament, a fact which the former editor of People Magazine does not shy away from in his new book Celebrity Nation: How America Evolved into a Culture of Fans and Followers (Beacon Press, $26.95). People has given major media play not just to performers, presidents, and princesses (the late Lady Di being the magazine’s still reigning cover-appearance champion), but to small-town murderers, the idlest of the filthy rich, and other individuals of debatable-at-best merit. By assisting in the construction of the sociocultural scaffolding that has propped up the power of celebrity, Jones perhaps feels that he bears some measure of blame for the ills that this drive for baseless glory has wrought on the country and the world. This book, in that respect, can be viewed simultaneously as an act of contrition and a Frankensteinian attempt to understand the monster.
Jones makes a point of reminding readers that celebrity is not a wholly contemporary or solely American construct. Famous figures have been elevated going back to the days of the great Greek and Roman empires, but such exaltation was commonly reserved for great political and military leaders, scholars, inventors, and artists…and even then, fame was only truly bestowed upon the dead, perhaps in an effort to stave off the demagoguery to which we now frequently fall prey at the hands of the famous. Celebrity Nation explores how the mechanisms of modern fame construction began to cohere in the 19th century, with actress Sarah Bernhardt, Wild West impresario Buffalo Bill Cody, and socialite Lillie Langtry being among the earliest universally known figures. Some of the impetus behind their notoreity was indeed fabricated (Cody, for his part, was never truly the frontier superhero into which he was transformed by his PR), but there was nevertheless a largely understood expectation that the famous reached this plateau through their deeds. Jones likewise makes a critical point of the gulf between mere celebrities and heroes, people elevated to the pantheon through achievements of genuine, irreplicable greatness. Charles Lindbergh is utilized as his archetype of this breed of American stature, though Jones of course acknowledges the chinks in the aviator’s armor, both those well-known (his isolationist flirtation with Nazi sympathies in the late ‘30s) and more covert (his apparent acquisition of a few additional European wives and children). He also naturally connects Lindbergh to another, darker tier of celebrity through his examination of the kidnapping and murder of the flyer’s 20-month-old son, and the hyped-up media circus that attended the 20th century’s first of several “trials of the century.”
In detailing the (d)evolution of American celebrity, Jones notes several key milestones marking this ignominious progress. The 1973 PBS documentary series An American Family, which made magazine-cover stars of the troubled middle-class Loud family, was the precursor to today’s boisterous, insta-celebrity-coining reality television cycle. The Lindbergh kidnapping was naturally followed by the similar abduction and murder of Bobby Greenlease, a six-year-old Kansas City boy who marks one of America’s first major “celebrity victims.” (The K.C.-raised Jones cites his own eerie boyhood connection to the crime, as he spent an afternoon knocking doors for a scout-troupe fundraiser at a hotel where one of Greenlease’s murderers was laying low.) Jones naturally gives all necessary attention to the Kardashians, Justin Bieber, and other internet-bred celebrities, and he provides a fascinating glimpse of the already-underway future of the online celeb with an in-depth look at the “life” of Lil Miquela, a completely fabricated Instagram influencer, designed by California-based scientists, and complete with her own scripted scandals and timely talking points. Miquela is the Extremely Online celebrity mindset carried to what one can hope, likely in vain, is its absolute extreme. (This entirely fake influencer now has an entirely real contract with major show business agency CAA.)
Jones does advance a number of worthwhile perspectives on the subject of contemporary fame. His early position within the modern fame-pushing apparatus allowed him a unique vantage point from which to gauge which celebrities had real substance behind the flash (he cites Elizabeth Taylor, a quick-witted, sincere activist, as “the furthest thing from a vacuous celebrity one can imagine”), and which were largely empty vessels for people to pour their desires, dreams, and sometimes grievances into, the presidency of Ronald Reagan being one of the most high-profile examples of this sort of zero-sum public profile. Jones also scores prescient points about the decline of heroism, a fully accomplishment-derived fame acquisition device, in the wake of celebrity’s ability to bestow low-effort-necessary, no-talent-required status upon an ever-wider array of ever-less-deserving individuals. I was also very intrigued by his delineation of the concept of the “defiant celebrity,” one who rises to their position partly through their willingness to flout the conventions of the very society that alternately embraces and excoriates them. Bernhardt is one of Jones’ early exemplars of this celebrity subclass, and indeed, many of the type’s most notable figures, perhaps inevitably, are women, including everyone from Joan Rivers to Lizzo.
Sometimes, however, Jones’ attempts to compartmentalize celebrities do a disservice to their genuine talents and charisma. In discussing Paris Hilton’s inexplicable moment in the sun, Jones posits as her earlier cultural counterpart not an obvious choice like Gabor, but rather Josephine Baker, a correlation I find deeply unfair to Baker’s authentically transgressive power, not to mention her very real skills as a dancer and stage performer. Likewise, his classification of Cardi B, who first won notice via social media and the VH1 reality series Love & Hip Hop: New York, as a mere “reality-show para-celebrity” is unnecessarily dismissive of her genuinely impressive achievements since then. And, lest this seem to be simply an issue Jones has with Black women who reach high levels of fame, I feel he also drops the ball when he calls Donald Trump the first person ever to win the White House “on the strength of celebrity alone.” The “presale value” of Trump’s name and (sigh) brand had a role to play here, sure. But Jones missteps in discounting a range of other contributing factors: Trump’s uniquely unpopular election opponent; the erosion of the average voter’s critical thinking skills, exacerbated by social media and the hampered educational system; James Comey’s might-as-well-have-been-deliberate-sabotage late-stage investigation announcement; and of course, those trustiest of all Republican political standbys, misogyny and racism.
By and large, however, Celebrity Nation presents the assessment of a thinker who has lived with, and thought about, fame more broadly and deeply than most, and his book, while not the first study on the subject nor likely to be the definitive one, is nevertheless worth a read for anyone who has ever wondered why their kids want to model their lives after people who do nothing but show products to a camera on Instagram all day…who is bothered by the fact that they know a mass shooter’s name, but none of the names of his victims…or who simply wants to better differentiate the flaming-out celebrity stars from the truly life-giving cultural suns of heroism.
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FACTORY ROLL CALL
STEVE RUBELL (1943-1989)
When one hears words like “glamour,” “prestige,” and “exclusive,” the first figure to leap to mind very likely would not look like Steve Rubell. But the New York-born-and-raised Rubell, nobody’s idea of matinee-idol material, would become one of the arbiters of Me Decade stardom, glitz, and fame as the co-owner and doorkeeper of Studio 54, the most celebrated and infamous of all the clubs of the Big Apple’s disco era.
A childhood tennis player, Rubell switched his focus to finance, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the discipline from Syracuse University (the same school that would graduate fellow Warhol intimate Lou Reed). While at Syracuse, Rubell formed what would become a lifelong friendship and professional bond with one of his fraternity brothers, Ian Schrager, and, following brief stints in the National Guard and as a commodities broker, Rubell decided to turn his back on the boring side of big money and enter the enticing, high-stakes world of hospitality and entertainment.
Springboarding from his management of a few steakhouses, Rubell partnered with Schrager to open a pair of discotheques, a Boston outfit and the better-known Queens-based Enchanted Garden. In 1977, on the 54th Street Manhattan site of a CBS-owned recording studio that had once hosted the initial sessions for the Velvet Underground’s debut album, Rubell and Schrager opened the doors to Studio 54. The club offered vibrant acoustics, up-to-the-minute decor crowned by a famous moon brandishing a cocaine spoon, and limited-access back rooms where all manner of VIPs-only drug play and sexual games went on.
The chic, celebrity-packed patronage of Studio 54 was stage-managed by Rubell himself. He became a stalwart presence at the club’s main entrance, sporting his near-trademark Lacoste shirts, and using a proprietary mental calculus to ensure the evening’s clientele boasted the proper balance of high-profile names, cultural up-and-comers, and nobodies who offered nothing but beautiful faces, hot bodies, and superior skills on the dance floor. (Some of the likeliest prospects were offered sought-after positions as servers and bartenders.) Among the celebs who became Studio 54 regulars were Liza Minnelli, Bianca Jagger, Halston, and Andy Warhol, who made the club one of his frequent night-on-the-town pit stops. Warhol famously praised Rubell’s admissions philosophy: “The key of the success of Studio 54 is that it’s a dictatorship at the door and a democracy on the dance floor.”
Studio 54 cleared a $7 million profit in its first year of operation, and for a while, it seemed as if the almost shockingly lavish party would never end. But in 1978, spurred on by Rubell’s casual public pronouncement that only the Mafia made more money than his club, the police raided Studio 54, and found enough evidence of malfeasance to put both Rubell and Schrager on trial for tax evasion, profit-skimming (to the tune of $2.5 million), and obstruction of justice. The services of famously dirty New York lawyer Roy Cohn were not enough to keep Rubell and Schrager from each being convicted and sentenced to three and a half years in prison, plus a $20,000 fine each. They went to prison in early 1980, and in November of that year, Studio 54 was sold.
The partners were released from prison less than a year and a half later, in April 1981, and shortly thereafter purchased a hotel together. Rubell and another partner, Peter Gatien, later opened the Palladium, a popular dance club decorated with art by Warhol, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Kenny Scharf. The Palladium did well, but Rubell never reclaimed the Studio 54 property or managed another enterprise on its site.
In 1985, Rubell, who had lived as a closeted gay man for most of his life, was diagnosed with HIV. His AZT treatment, hampered by his still-consistent drinking and drug use, was unable to prevent his condition from progressing to full-blown AIDS, and he died at the Beth Israel Medical Center on July 25, 1989. His memorial service, held two days later at the Riverside Chapel on New York’s Upper West Side, was attended by Bianca Jagger, Calvin Klein, and a number of other Studio 54 regulars, there to pay tribute to the checkered but memorable career of a New York nightlife original. In 1998, comedian / actor Mike Myers would win critical acclaim for his portrayal of Rubell in the film 54.
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