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Assignment America: Clueless Celebrities

By John Bloom
UPI Reporter-at-Large
From the Life & Mind Desk
Published 2/18/2003 9:48 AM
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NEW YORK, Feb. 17 (UPI) -- We had a true Marie Antoinette moment last week. The queen in this case was Catherine Zeta-Jones, who testified before a London court that she felt "devastated" and "violated" when pictures of her 2002 wedding to Michael Douglas turned up in Hello! magazine.

What gave the proceedings an air of unreality was the disclosure that the newlywed Douglases had sold pictures of the wedding for $1.6 million to Hello!'s rival, OK! magazine.

(What's with the exclamation points? Isn't British celebrity journalism one big exclamation point already? The exclamation point should go after the words $1.6 million!)

Under cross examination she insisted she wasn't suing over money, but over her emotional distress, because the money was "not that much" anyway. After the laughter subsided, she said, "It is a lot of money maybe to a lot of people in this room, but it's not that much for us."

Husband Michael backed her up saying that the one-point-six was a "pittance."

At this point the jury presumably thought, "Oh, well, OK, we'll adjust perspective. One point six. Pocket change."

When the attorney for Hello! suggested to Douglas that his claim was trivial, Douglas bristled. "I find your comparison highly offensive," he said. "Trivial in comparison to what?"

Well, uh, trivial in comparison to REAL LIFE.

All of this came within a week of Michael Jackson's now infamous televised interview, in which he, too, appeared to be living in an alternate universe. And it follows an orgy of celebrity coverage of the Jennifer Lopez-Ben Affleck courtship that included a catalogue of their every million-dollar love gift.

All of these people are, of course, case studies for Thorstein Veblen's "Theory of the Leisure Class." In fact, Veblen couldn't have imagined just how prescient he was, as conspicuous consumption has become not just a side effect of capitalist status, but an end in itself. He would be interested to see, I think, that the focus of dispute in the Zeta-Jones case is a wedding, since that's traditionally a sacred, solemn and PUBLIC event that in this case was turned into a gaudy, commercial and private one.

For those of you who missed it, the Douglases transformed New York's Plaza Hotel, which is already larger than life, into their own private domain, ringed by security guards who checked for counterfeit invitations and contraband -- like cameras. The pregnant bride wore a tiara fashioned after Princess Di's, a $250,000 gown, and there was dirt dumped on the floor of the hotel to make it look like an outdoor wedding. The nuptials had product tie-ins, sponsorships, and, of course, a guest list comprised solely of the rich, famous and powerful from every continent. This is the event that Catherine now says was spoiled by a Hello! photographer who took some grainy snapshots.

At every wedding I've ever attended, by the way, at least half the guests are carrying cameras, and I've even seen disposable cameras given away as party favors at weddings. You have to wonder about the family and friends who showed up only to be told, "Sorry, we'll have to take that Nikon."

Of all the points that could be made here -- about the corrupting influence of fame, the waste, the vanity, the increasing callousness of people at the top of the food chain, the rampant inflation in the cash market for gossip and sensation -- I want to focus on just one:

How is it possible, in the century of satellite television, the Internet, supersonic travel, and worldwide access to information in general, to be so isolated that you live entirely in a bubble of self-absorption?

I mean, I know how it happens to guests on "The Jerry Springer Show." The cable gets cut off in the trailer home, and they never got that GED, and the only computer they've ever seen was in a porno movie, and the eight caterwauling children make concentration impossible. They become imprisoned in their little world because they have no options.

And I know how it happened to tyrants in the 16th century. Ivan the Terrible believed in the divine right of kings, so anyone who opposed his will was opposing God himself and deserved to die. Besides, he never left his palace unless he was accompanied by 500 musketeers and a thousand retainers. He had to crane his neck to even get a GLIMPSE of a peasant. His world was circumscribed because it was the only way he could stay alive.

But the Douglases are people who occasionally do go to work, on movie sets, where they're likely to notice some minimum-wage production assistants bringing them coffee. They presumably have a state-of-the-art entertainment center that does receive CNN. I presume they've occasionally been sent a script that has actual working-class people in it. In other words, they must know, at some level, that "some people in this room" who think $1.6 million is more than a pittance represent approximately 99.9 percent of the people in the world.

To put that $1.6 million in perspective: If you placed that money in the lowliest passbook savings account, the kind the Douglases will never have because it's for people who only have $500 to start with, and you get the lowest interest rate paid anywhere in the world -- currently around 1.8 percent -- you earn $28,800 a year, enough for some families to survive on.

The idea that 1.8 percent of what they call a pittance is a living wage somewhere, and that they don't realize it, is a testament to just how divided by class we've become. And the fact that their wedding pictures are WORTH $1.6 million indicates how lottery-crazed we've become. Because the person who buys Hello! or OK! to live vicariously through their wedding is secretly thinking that, but for the chances of fate, he could be there, too. He also deludes himself with the idea that, were he to HAVE however many hundreds of millions the Douglases have squirreled away, he would be benevolent with his money, and charitable, and never forget his origins. He would be the same person.

Of course, he would not be the same person. He would be a person with hundreds of millions of dollars, and that would alter his world as radically as it's apparently altered the world of Michael Jackson, and Jennifer Lopez, and especially Catherine Zeta-Jones.

It's too much money. It's toxic. It makes you crazy. It cuts you off from reality. It's not what you do with it, it's that it EXISTS. It makes you need more of it. Even worse, it makes you think you deserved it in the first place.


(Bloom writes a number of columns for UPI and may be contacted at joebob@upi.com or through his Web site at joebobbriggs.com. Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas, 75221.)

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