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Celebrity Times

Barbie Q and Glam Shampagne Wannabe socialites, a gushing media rule this bubbledom. It’s the new opium of the masses.

Celebrity Times
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If everybody’s somebody then no one’s anybody.
- Gilbert and Sullivan

Everybody’s famous. The fashion designer’s clothes may be invisible, priced out of common reach and hidden away from public gaze, but he’s almost a national icon. The lovely model attends every party and always seems to have a lot of fun. She’s incredibly famous too, although nobody’s quite sure why.

The television anchor is barely out of university and might have trouble differentiating between Ram Manohar Lohia and Rammohan Roy but she’s a hot new star. Then there’s the man who tells bad jokes: a colossus of the City Supplement. The socialite with the good breasts: a towering authority on how life should be lived. The man with a farmhouse: the definitive theorist on most things. The media universe teems with technicolour celebrity and fame howls out every morning, blinding and tabloid. "If you’re flashy, good-looking and available to the media, you’re famous. But not necessarily meritorious," says columnist Anil Dharker. Whoever said that stars were born was lying. Stars are not born, they’re ‘created’ for commercial profit, created to boost institutional profiles.

"The Stardust-isation of the media is complete," says Shobha De, author and founding editor of Stardust and Celebrity. "It’s official. It’s okay. Welcome to the era of meeoww-meeoww journalism."

Fame is quick-fix. Fame might have little to do with achievement or a lifetime of hard work. Instead, ‘fame’ is an accessory of media empires. Fame is a result of societies that thirst for conspicuous consumption and need images of ‘the good life’. Fame might even be a little sinister: famous people are ‘manufactured’ by multinationals to sell their products to the Third World. Aishwarya Rai and Diana Hayden are as indispensable to Longines and L’Oreal, as Arundhati Roy is to the international publishing industry.

"In a mass society," says psychologist Ashis Nandy, "there is a thirst for a false sense of distinctiveness. People hate the fact that they are part of a mass culture and seek out those who are projected as not being part of the mass." Thus, a private party reported in full magnified colour becomes, surprisingly enough, a matter of urgent public interest. The metropolitan party is the new symbol of hyper-consumption. It is a shrine where a new aspirational middle class pays homage to the new ideals of ‘success’.

The glitzy newspaper party creates a lie that life is an unending overstimulated good time. In Delhi, a media-savvy party might be intricately crafted. There is the ‘A’ list of invitees who are genuine celebs and the second grade bhookha nanga list called to make up the numbers, the professionally young fun-lovers who are seen only at night, who clearly don’t need to get up in the morning to get to work, are seemingly free from the pressures of kids and kitchen and are thrillingly unaffected by anything beyond the next bash.

"The seriously powerful conclaves where the real shuffling of cards takes place are never reported," says a celeb guest. "A Maureen Wadia private party, for example, would never be reported." The Very Big shun photographs. It’s only the Self-appointed Beautiful People that stampede into every camera frame.

The tabloid party, says media critic Sevanti Ninan, also emphasises the social divide and makes the rich happier that they are not part of the poor. The artificial creation of excitement reinforces beliefs that even a crowded, polluted and poverty-stricken city is a ‘happening’ one. The simple truth that most of our days are taken up with drudgery and ordinariness, coping with a range of household and professional pressures and dealing with shabby realities, is forgotten in the bright patches of light seen in the morning papers. At a recent party held in a scented lawn, with the pool strung with fairy lights and polished palms swishing against bare midriffs, the host and hostess refused to cut their anniversary cake until the reporter from Delhi Times had arrived. Once the photos are in, ‘management’ agencies sometimes hired by the ‘celebrity’ in question get to work to ensure that the pictures are properly displayed in the morning papers.

Fame is artificially constructed. Its white hot beam shines briefly and vanishes overnight. Television talk show hostess Nikki Bedi became a star because she simply stood up and announced that she was and also because she married that other famous Saturday Times celebrity, Kabir Bedi. Nikki blazed bright for a few months and sank without a trace in a mess of controversy. Fashion designer Ritu Beri’s clothes are generally agreed to be an assault on the concept of art, yet she’s a darling of the media. "Ritu Beri is nothing but a complete creation of the media," expostulates a senior editor.

The gorgeous Nafisa Ali is seen at almost every party in Delhi and has been a swimming champion, television anchor, movie actress, aids activist and recently even demonstrated against the Indian cricket team’s performance. She seems to do everything except anything and is famous only for being famous. "Everybody loves role models," says Ali, "and if being famous allows you to be a role model, then fame is important." Never mind that such role models might give some parents a few sleepless nights. But model Lisa Ray says fame’s inevitable. "We’re living in an age of marketing," she says, "when a person or a celebrity has become a marketable product. The media and the celebrities coexist."

With the unveiling of the brave new reformed economy in the ‘90s, the middle-class mood is unapologetic. We are anxious to dispense with the tatty jholawala baggage of the dreary socialist years. "There’s a whole world of good-looking people out there," says Maureen Wadia, editor of Gladrags and fashionable Mumbai socialite, "and it’s not a crime to be good-looking. We have a country that used to be devoid of glamour and the Gladrags boys and girls have become celebrities because there was a void they filled. Models have become fodder for a market which is hungry for good looks."

Psychiatrist Achal Bhagat says there’s an impatience with the humility and modesty of the past, now seen as unnecessary, irksome and prudish. "Today, success is about being featured on page three. The young are impatient to acquire success quickly. The old values of hard work, long years of struggle, the painful nurturing of talent have no place in the new frenzy."

Because fame, let’s face it, is irresistible. Celebrities are crucial. The anxiety for glamour and gossip so necessary to the human condition that every serious thinker worth his or her serious education might complain loudly that the media should not devote space to non-achieving good-lookers but still sneakily turn, apologetically, to the glossy social gazette every morning. No wonder then that fame is a new booming industry and the media is its triumphant herald. "Glamour and celebrity," says Bachi Karkaria, group editorial director, Midday Group, "has become mainstream. The party circuit has become a legitimate professional activity and the lines between the tabloid and the mainstream press have become extremely blurred. "

A new machine has been born. Old-fashioned journalism, says Ninan, has been replaced by another catch-all entity known as ‘The Media’, which generates its own rules of functioning. The media is the playground of individuals and groups that may have nothing to do with the principles of the fourth estate such as dissent or independent reportage. Instead, the media is up for grabs not only by the powerful and the moneyed but by journalists themselves.

"The new celebrity journalists are themselves upwardly mobile," says De. "Most social columnists have no social standing of their own. The easiest way to crawl up the social ladder is to attach themselves to the bored and lonely housewives of rich industrialists. Once they achieve this, they become resident chamchas and function as in-house PR agencies for the Ladies Who Lunch. Everybody loves it. The proprietors (hey, so many ad pages sold!), readers (look at those emeralds!), and, of course, the ladies themselves (aren’t I looking swanky?). The terrible truth is that there’s no space for serious journalism anymore."

This new ‘Media’ is marked by two chief characteristics. First, it can easily be co-opted by the Establishment because politicians and bureaucrats are able to ‘plant’ stories with impunity because journalists depend on them for the most saleable sensationalist scoops. Second, media is increasingly controlled by the advertiser and driven by the profit motive.

Glitzy colour supplements like the HT City and Delhi Times, to quote two examples from the capital, may offend the serious reader by its daily account of social events but they heavily boost circulation and generate advertising revenue. "Launching these supplements," says The Hindustan Times editor Vir Sanghvi, "is simply about catering to reader demands and making a publication more comprehensive." Besides, Sanghvi adds, the main paper with its serious content still exists. The supplements are just bubble gum for the eyes.

HT City editor Sourish Bhattacharyya says supplements are important since a large chunk of retail advertising that cannot be accommodated in the main paper finds its way into the city supplements. "The smaller towns look up to Delhi as a role model," Bhattacharyya says. He believes that in the smaller towns of north India, broadsheets with photographs of Delhi’s ‘hip’ parties are extremely popular, although he hastens to add that he doesn’t cover ‘any and every farmhouse party’.

Media hype" is not just a fashionable term. It’s also a professional objective for selling products in a fiercely competitive market. Fame is thus a new form of advertising. Rina Dasgupta of Times Music says media hype’s the only way to get attention in a cluttered market. "Entertainment has exploded and a new class of entertainers has emerged. It’s essential to create an aura around them to promote them. A celebrity remains one only when his product’s worked but there must be an image to go with it." In order that talent is recognised, Fame must be created. In order that quality is established, the media must blow the right trumpets.

Vinod G. Nair, managing director, Clea Public Relations, argues there’s nothing wrong with celebrity management. "In the final analysis, you can’t sell a bad product. We’ve been called fixers, we’ve been accused of bribing journalists but honestly, cultivating the press is about relationships of trust." Nair says that at the end of the day, celebrity managers must be convinced of the achievements of the famous and aim for the mutual benefit of the press and the star.

PR agencies rely on the press to create awareness of their clients. "You can’t put a value judgement to someone using a PR agency to promote himself," says Dilip Cherian, head of Perfect Relations. "It’s the same as a woman using a beauty parlour to enhance what she already has." In a society in transition, there is a cacophony of newness. Each new star seeks the media to legitimise his or her claim on immortality. Hotels and restaurants stage newsworthy ‘events’ not only to boost fame but also to attract more business. The fame of a person feeds into the profits of the hotel chain. "Third party endorsement," says an employee at a five-star hotel, "works better than simple advertising. If we organise a book launch or a celebrity event, our profile is heightened more effectively than if we simply put an ad in the newspaper. It’s a huge expense but that’s why all hotels have huge marketing budgets."

So everybody benefits from the creation of Supplement Celebrities. Individual fame is built on an industry that includes PR professionals, hotel chains, marketing and event management firms and media houses. Says Sabbas Joseph, director, Wizcraft International Entertainment, "When you’re promoting an event, you’ll use every trick in the book to highlight what’s special about it, which is very often the celebrity." Direct linkages are hard to establish, but, according to figures that they provide, the circulation of The Times Of India is purported to have touched an unprecedented 1.6 million copies nationwide after it launched its new city supplements. Similarly, The Hindustan Times claims that after the launch of HT City last year its print order zoomed to over 500,000 copies in Delhi.

Yet, the fame industry might have a pernicious effect on the mind. When fame is seemingly so easily attainable, those who don’t have it might fall prey to depression. They could become frustrated about their own lives and their own perceived mediocrity. Says Richa Mathur, a Delhi housewife, "Every time I see these people having a good time, I feel sad at how difficult and different my own life is." Bhagat says that low self-esteem, feelings of "I’m-simply-not-good-enough" and perceptions of exclusion and being ‘left out’ can be attributed in some instances to images of celebrity lifestyles seen in big cities.

"Such feelings could be one of the contributing factors to the rising rate of suicides, particularly among young men who are now under great pressure to satisfy the accepted criteria of ‘success’," says Bhagat. "Those not mature enough to differentiate between media-created fantasies and real life might succumb to the pressures of fame. The argument against the fame industry is not a didactic but a moral one," says author Rukmini Bhaya Nair. When quick-fix fame actually hurts others, makes them feel small and unwanted, even does an injustice to those featured in the columns, then it’s the media’s duty to tackle these issues differently. "We need to be aware that fame and amnesia are twins. Fame itself is simply part of the media juggernaut, the person himself is simply the ‘vanishing point’," she says.

Fame is always under pressure from forgetfulness. As Barthes said, the lens zooms in and magnifies the body, "it is not the object which shimmers but the skilful hand which guides my vision."

The famous may be crucified for their glory. TV anchor and producer Suhaib Illyasi’s been damned in the court of public opinion almost as quickly as he was elevated to superstardom. Millions read of Bina Ramani’s parties, then gloated at her fall after the Jessica Lall murder. The media, says Bhaya Nair, drops and picks up people. All of a sudden, they’re applauded, then instantly forgotten.

Pop singer Anaida says there’s cruelty in giving fame to someone overnight. "It takes a lot of strength of character to be made into something and not have the means to live up to it. Your right to a normal life is taken away and you find it difficult to live the way you used to." Shovana Narayan says it’s sad that socialising and meeting people has now been given a negative connotation because of the manner the press has created the Page Three hierarchies. "The press is concentrating on social lives rather than the work people are doing," she complains. Celebrity reporting is a little sneaky.

There are those who believe the fame industry isn’t entirely illegitimate. Diplomat Pawan Verma, himself a regular page three fixture, says though the press is becoming tabloid, those who get noticed do so because they have real achievement to their name. "If you’ve done seven successful books and are working on four more, write columns, have TV interaction and hold an mea job, that’s why you’re noticed," he says. Verma says he takes fame as a consequence of achievement in other fields and for him it’s not an end in itself.

"We should give the general public more credit," says Lisa Ray. "There’ll come a time when they will tire of all this." She believes that if you don’t work hard, your celebrity status will die out quickly. Economist Barun Mitra says far from the fame culture becoming the low road down to media degradation, as people grow more affluent, their consumer choices will become more sophisticated. Just as even in the US, The Wall Street Journal continues to hold its own, so too the current born-again glitz of the media might give way to more substantial products in the future.

Congress politician Subbirami Reddy, who’s worked hard at being in the media, says he throws the best parties and people who don’t socialise lead colourless lives. "Wherever I go, I’m recognised. It feels good that people adore you and admire you. It’s God’s gift. It’s a thrill. In Andhra Pradesh, I’m treated like a film star even though I’m not." The Frequently Photographed may benefit from their fame and hidden talents might be ‘discovered’. They may become television anchors, brand ambassadors, ‘activists’ and even become politically valuable.

Former model Feroze Gujral, who until recently ran a shop in Delhi’s swank Santushti shopping complex, now anchors a political talk show. Shobha De’s books that tell us about the high life on Marine Drive sell as well as they do because she herself is regularly seen at important social ‘events’. Celebrity is an act of identity, says Bhaya Nair. It’s like falling in love. But why should only models and fashion designers be seen as repositories of excitement? The media has the power to change how it reports and interprets glamour.

The challenge, therefore, must be on how to turn the human urge for glamour and glitz to good public use. Ela Bhatt could be as much of a star as Madhu Sapre. Academics and ngos often do as much exciting work and break new ground as models and dress designers.

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