Dwindle, Dwindle, Little Stars: The Rapidly Dimming Limelight

I used to think Britney Spears was a secret genius.

An auspicious debut, her famous “virginity,” the Timberlake chronicles, a well-timed smooch with Madonna — it was all so masterfully plotted, so expertly timed to keep her in the limelight. She had to be pretty crafty to map this meteoric rise to the top of the teen pop pantheon (and the world!), right? Yes — and I admired her for it.

Then I saw Chaotic — the awful, mercifully short-lived reality show that had even Spears’s most die-hard fans wincing as they saw the real Britney — and our cherished bubblegum princess tumbled down, broke her crown, with Kevin Federline tumbling after. How could I possibly have believed Britney herself was responsible for that once-brilliant trajectory? After seeing Chaotic, it’s hard to believe she can make Pop Tarts, let alone pop music. But up until then, Team Britney — the publicists, managers, and the like in charge of the Entity Spears — effortlessly crafted the ultimate icon: a sex goddess superstar with an aura of “but who is she really?” mystery about her. Then she had to go comparing her knees to boobies on UPN and ruin everything.

She’s not the only one.

There was an era, not long ago, when you had to reach for the stars, because they seemed unobtainable. We went to multiplexes and massive concert venues to clock face time with our favorite celebrities and their larger-than-life personas. Now, we flip through US Weekly. Watch them on E!. Google them. Granted, as long as there have been stars, there have been those who gaze at them obsessively, devouring every minute detail of their lives. That’s what makes them stars! But are we getting too close?Take Tom Cruise — no, seriously, take him. Prior to War Of The Worlds, he had a string of $100 million-plus successes — the guy was in no need of a makeover and certainly not hurting for publicity. Yet, suddenly, he was everywhere — canoodling Katie, playing ape on Oprah, bashing Brooke Shields. This all had naught to do with his blockbusters, and everything to do with some comparatively minor stuntwork involving a couch. What happened? The guy used to be a charismatic Casanova of the silver screen, suave and charming and justifiably cocky. The public had little reason to believe he was any different than that in his private life. And then, hello, Oprah’s sofa! Goodbye, celebrity allure!

We felt duped. All those times we let him save the world, was he always a nutcase? We were no longer so sure he’s the guy we want flying helicopters through tunnels next time bad spies come to town. He couldn’t even trump Brooke Shields! Tom Cruise is still a movie star, but his bankability has taken a major hit — we now see his films despite him, not because of him. (Or not at all, in some cases.) It’s all because he made the mistake of letting us see who he really is, deep down — a human being. Fallible, imperfect. Also: very rich and incredibly wacky.

More respectable thespians, too, have seen the dark side of publicity. Russell Crowe’s real-life assault on a hotel employee may have cheapened the thrill of seeing him hit people in films like Cinderella Man, which also underperformed. Christian Bale’s on-set tirades may not have taken a bite out of The Dark Knight‘s box office, but it sure did make Batman’s growly raspiness seem a lot less menacing than Christian Bale’s actual anger. Dude’s scarier than Two-Face and the Joker combined.

Less-than-stellar publicity has dimmed the spotlight for the Junior Miss league, too. Remember when our favorites celebrities were the ones we liked, rather than loathed? (Yeah… me either.) Let’s mark the summer of 2005 as the turning point, when Paris Hilton was the main draw to horror flick House Of Wax. Promotional T-shirts read “See Paris die,” and that singular pleasure probably accounted for 98% of its unimpressive earnings. Similarly, nonstop Lindsay Lohype didn’t make a champ out of Herbie: Fully Loaded or any subsequent film to feature the troubled starlet, effectively killing off her career (particularly family fare, which doesn’t work so well as headlined by an actress primarily known for her shoplifting and coke benders).

These tabloid goddesses are so overexposed, there’s no reason to pay upwards of $10 when all you need to do is click on over to TMZ at no cost. That’s why the Kardashians of this world thrive on TV — watching is passive and inexpensive. Hate is cheap, but nobody’s going out of their way to keep up with the Kardashians, Lohans, or Hiltons of this world. Why pay to see cash cows on the big screen when the media milks them for free elsewhere? The dawn of the internet and reality shows and Twitter is the mortal enemy of movie stardom. Cinematic legends like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean are iconic because of the aura of mystique surrounding them; compare that to the nip-slips and crotch-shots that have become so commonplace as to be humdrum. (Oh, that same ol’ labia again?) Gossip has been a part of the game since the very first cave-celebrity was caught canoodling with some other Neanderthal’s wife in the cave drawing Cro-Magnon Weekly, but it was just that: gossip. Rarely was it proven. Now, there’s YouTube, in which that proof can be replayed over and over and over again.

Clearly, neither pulling outrageous stunts nor gracing Perez Hilton on a daily basis guarantees box office bling. Seemingly, the more famous you are in trashy tabloids, the less people want to see of you anywhere else. There’s a lesson to be learned from the ex-Mrs. Federline, who faced the music when, thanks to Chaotic, fans who’d been up close and personal with Britney’s nostrils no longer bought into her sex appeal. (The bald thing didn’t help either.) Today’s most talked-about celebs don’t give us much to celebrate; their super-size personalities are shrinking with each “insight” we get into their shameless psyches. Thanks to Twitter, we can be privy to every banal thought that pops into their heads — and grammar and spelling errors, too. Now we know for sure — the stars really are just like us: boring and stupid.There may come a day when celebrities become so accessible, so overhyped, so ordinary that we won’t flock to Madison Square Garden or the nearest IMAX to catch what they’re serving. Already, such venues seem too great for such rapidly dimming stars. Perhaps the 21st century’s celebrities are better suited for iPhones, laptops, and, at best, an HDTV. Stars of the future won’t need to write memoirs — they’ll just publish a collection of their poorly-punctuated tweets.

So is there a conclusion to draw from this? Not really. The hype can help… the hype can hurt… or sometimes, it doesn’t make a difference. However, if I may offer a word of warning to the stars who have yet to fall as Britney Spears, Tom Cruise, and Lindsay Lohan did: don’t lose your luster. Don’t show us your home movies, don’t show us your vagina, don’t become so ubiquitous we wish you bedridden with leprosy. Just don’t. Hype safely!

Or, to put it in terms even Britney Spears could understand:

Twinkle, twinkle, little stars, let us wonder what you are…

…Because if we find out, we probably won’t like you anymore.

(Originally published in INsite Boston in 2005. Hence some of the dated references.)

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