i hate you, i want to be you:
cintra wilson's celebrity co-dependence

A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Worship Re-examined as a Grotesque Crippline Disease and other Cultural Revelations
Cintra Wilson
(Viking Penguin, xx pages)
a massive swelling cover
buy it
At the beginning of her book, Salon columnist Cintra Wilson admits that a lust for celebrity tormented her for years, and states uncategorically that every American - I’ll assume Canadians are on this lovingly-depicted ship of fools as well - has been rendered bitter, crazed and sleepless longing for fame during at least the youthful portion of their unhappy lives. Her book is a polemic against a crippling psychosis that has rendered society and culture - pop, alternative, high, black, white, Latino, media, political, sports and every other permutation - into a furious freakshow where fame itself, not talent or quality or morality or honesty, is the driving prerogative.

Her timing couldn’t be better, with the - hopefully brief - mania for “real-life” television making short-lived stars out of carefully-chosen gangs of banal neurotics, eager to gnaw on each other’s needy egos at close quarters for scant cash. Half a million dollars isn’t much money in our “boom” economy, so it has to be assumed that the inmates of a spectacle like "Big Brother" are looking for something bigger, something considered to be less common and more desirable than money, and Wilson flings herself at dissecting this seemingly unkillable mass psychosis with a great show of berserker outrage.

She whips her prose into ferocious heights of hyperbolic contumely, imagining Celine Dion’s “insane plucking and starving and discipline-greedy self-abnegation”, and describing either Siegfried or Roy as a “narcissistically crazed Barbara Streisand of a homosexual German beastmaster”. Courtney Love is a “vain sociopath who venally choked enough money out of the world to transform herself into a ‘pretty lady’”, while - my favorite - a racist Las Vegas cabdriver is a “sweat-stained, unshaven orc, baring teeth like ancient mosaic tiles.” Chapter after chapter, she consumes one thesaurus after another hunting down her quarry, enfillading the beast with bursts of whirling adjectives and the kind of spat-out adverbs rarely seen since Hunter S. Thompson’s prime, or since Mark Leyner was funny. Lazy columnists will be mining her book for pithy put-downs years after it’s unavailable on Amazon.

Like most polemics, her book briefly imagines a time, now long-gone, where things were better; where fame was earned and few people woke up consumed with a bleeding, livid rage that they don’t sleep with movie stars or fill the air of any restaurant they enter with an electric charge. It’s an assumption that the hunger for and fascination with celebrity is somehow different - more offensive and evil - than the worship of gods and heroes, the striving for status, and the social desirability of proximity to power that have burned hot at the heart of society since the cave. 

Wilson also writes from a position of curious elitism, looking down on the awkward, obese white women in Vegas casinos, with their “loud ranting patois of the confessional talk-show addict”, as well as bloated, ridiculous uberstars like Michael Jackson and Madonna. Probably the truest anecdote in her book, from my own experience, imagines the self-consuming, neurotic train of thought of a celebrity in the company of “real people”, veering from false humility to contempt to self-loathing to smugness while trying to keep his or her celebrity aura inviolate. The bite in Wilson’s contempt comes from a covert identification with her celebrity quarry, the kind of sour sympathy, shot through with envy, that makes the fame-obsessed culture she derides persist.

The best chapters in her book depict Los Angeles, the Cheyenne Mountain of fame worship, as a place where the lucky “become pampered gargoyles in loyal service to the most hateful machinery of skullfucking artistic compromise.” Wilson moved there in the mid-nineties, and describes the demeaning parade of humiliation she and her friends underwent there with bilious relish. The fact remains, though, that she knew what it would be like before she moved there, to “a city that orchestrates all of the attitudes I hate the most about the American mentality”. 

Perhaps that’s why the half-hearted plea that ends her book - “Stop pathetically believing that you deserve Fame...it’s yucky and it’s only making you miserable, so stop.” - lack resonance. Like most previous attacks on celebrity, from Hollywood Babylon to Julia Phillips’ You’ll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again, Wilson’s book only feeds the profound ambivalence that makes celebrity worship so compelling, that gives our third-hand knowledge of the lives of the rich and famous an undeserved complexity.

©2000, 2002 Rick McGinnis