Some years ago, I was approached by a major magazine and asked to write a profile of an aging television celebrity. The editors originally wanted me to be the first journalist to reveal his promiscuous but well-hidden homosexuality. They settled reluctantly for a profile, sans dirt. But they grumbled, and balked at my description of the celebrity as "handsome in black cashmere."
The line editor crossed out the "handsome."
"Why?" I said. "He was."
"We're the looks police," that editor said. "He can't be handsome. He's too old. We can knock him off."
I tell this story in this Diana-filled media moment because it seems emblematic of what the media does to celebrities. We turn them into sub-gods, and manufacture adoration for them, in order to sell the products advertised next to them ("If only I buy that Armani, that Nike, that...I'll be - well, sort of - like Demi Moore, Michael Jordan, and...").
"Sort of" is a long way away.
"To know one's Image becomes a distracting exhausting pursuit (one never arrives there), "the late French critic Roland Barthes once said.
Enter resentment, Schadenfreude. Enter the place for the assassin-journalist.
Who's fair game? Well, the old, as my editor informed me. Also the sick.
"Take Magic Johnson," Stephen King told me a few years ago. "He was everything that's good, a mythic figure who had a disease, who went public, and now everybody says, 'Now, wait a minute, though, he got AIDS, he was promiscuous, the guy's a rat.' "
Who else do we "knock off?" The brute who can't play by the rules (Mike Tyson and the missing piece of ear), the arriviste who threatens the powerful (Heidi Fleiss, with that Filofax of hers), the man of power who stumbles over sex (Dick Morris, Bill Clinton), the star who stumbles over anything. The celebrity media - they're paparazzi, all of them waiting for a falling star to hitch their murderous wagon to.
And now comes Diana.
I remember sitting in front of my television, watching the construction of a gauzy myth, a "People's Princess."
"Here is the stuff of which fairy tales are made," intoned the Archbishop of Canterbury on July 29, 1981 at St. Paul's, joining the modern Cinderella, Diana Spencer, to her Prince of Wales. The event's organizers dutifully displayed her former roommates in the church's front pews where the cameras could easily underline their commoner presence.
The Cinderella metaphor was evidently much on the minds of everyone that day. Television narrators intoned that the bride's was a "fairy tale" dress, that the state carriage in which she rode was a "glass carriage," and, like gossips - indeed, like Cinderella's own stepsisters in awe of the new man in their midst - they turned the woman who was an aristocrat, after all, into a "mere" kindergarten teacher in order to raise her all the higher into the ether of celebrity.
The mythologizing was absurd and heavy-handed.
"I can't wait for the divorce," the magazine editor next to me said. I submit, neither could you. I, for one, would like to believe that mass Diana-frenzy didn't truly kick in till "Cinderella the Sequel," in which the royal couple obliged my divorce-craving friend.
In between lay 15 years of "Our Loveless Marriage," the royal soap opera of confession by television, downmarket infidelity, and the throwing of the self down the stairs.
Today, in our "Sea of Grief," as the New York Post headlined it, we remember that we loved Diana exactly because she would talk about her private life in public. None of the mourners seems to be making the connection that Diana's exteriorizing of interiority is what a media culture is about. Those swimmers in that grief-sea love her because her "sharing" of intimacy was the kind of destruction of intimacy that a media culture enacts. She invaded her own privacy. She was her own paparazzo.
Already, as the royals prepare to (semi) beatify her in tomorrow's non-state funeral, the media are able to dish the dirt, instant-replay style, no delay as 15 years ago when Cinderella and swain took their sweet time delivering the soap opera we so desired.
If anything's changed since Diana got married, it's that the world's gotten faster. So now the press is telling a tale of two Di's at once.
One, told by the fawning press, about the victim princess whose image and memory the whole world loves for deconstructing a dpass monarchy. The other, told by the critical media, a dark tale of the mother of all blondes running away in a big, slick car with an outcast billionaire's son showing off for the lady.
Stay tuned. Buy the tabloids (including The New York Times). We'll give you dish on dish. All the media are paparazzi, "only doing my job," says Paparazzo in Fellini's film La Dolce Vita. Since at least 1960, Paparazzo's been doing it all for you - puncturing exteriors to give you a bit of the horror movie close-up.
The paparazzo is the culture's designated picador - at war with the superficiality of the times, just as superficially giving you what passes for the guts of the story.
* Marshall Blonsky is Wolfson Fellow at The New School and a professor of communications at New York University. He has just completed a book on the fall of Apple Computer.