x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 December 2017

Book review: Julie Klam’s The Stars in Our Eyes is flimsy – even for a book on celebrities 

Celebrity is a vast, if shallow, topic and it is an undoubted challenge to decide where to concentrate

Dwayne Johnson's presidential ambitions suggest being a celebrity is enough of a qualification to seek public office. Andreas Rentz / Getty Images for Paramount Pictures
Dwayne Johnson's presidential ambitions suggest being a celebrity is enough of a qualification to seek public office. Andreas Rentz / Getty Images for Paramount Pictures

January7, 2005, was a Friday. For author Julie Klam, tongue only partially in cheek, it was her Black Friday. Word leaked that “Hollywood power couple Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt have decided to separate, and Klam was crushed. She visited her therapist, worried about her “imaginary best friends”, and the therapist asked what was troubling her. Admitting that Brad and Jen’s heartbreak was her own, her therapist “had a look of curious relief on her face”: “You have no idea how many of my clients have come in and talked about this.”

The chapter of Klam’s The Stars in Our Eyes in which this anecdote appears is called “My Evolving Relationship with Jennifer Aniston”, although what evolution there is seems to be merely differing facets of the same all-consuming love. Klam has thought carefully about why Aniston means so much to her, about why she, like so many Americans, grabs for any magazine on whose cover she appears. Aniston is beautiful, intelligent, the girl next door.

Aniston and Pitt’s breakup was personal for her: “Even today, when I look at them, I think, ‘What went wrong?’ Of course, the question I should really be asking is ‘what is wrong with me?’” Klam wonders if her concern over Aniston’s romantic life wasn’t a burgeoning worry about the end of her own marriage, still on the horizon. All this is true, she decides, but Aniston appeals nonetheless because she seems so relatable.

“Caring about the emotional happiness of a celebrity is, I think, a sort of safe emotional escape,” Klam writes. “It gives us a chance to watch someone else’s successful, satisfying and even romantic life.” The fantasy appeals, even as the reality can be strikingly different. Klam remembers being taken by what appeared to be Brooke Shields’ admirable motherhood when she first became a mother, even as Shields later revealed her struggles with postpartum depression.

There is an element of fantasy wish fulfillment to celebrity love. Klam, a New York Times bestselling author, notes how she made a habit of liking former Annie star Quinn Cummings’ social media posts because of how her sixth-grade self would have ached to connect with her idol. Our celebrity fixation is deeply personal, and non-transferrable.

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Celebrity is a vast, if shallow, topic and it is an undoubted challenge to decide where to concentrate. Klam is right to treat celebrity as a funhouse mirror, reflecting our images back at ourselves as we imagine ourselves to be or as we fear we might become: “I believe that if we more clearly understand celebrity, if we can get a handle on our relationship to celebrity, we can better understand ourselves.” We worship celebrity, craving its approach and hungering for its touch. Actor Griffin Dunne, scion of Hollywood royalty, tells Klam about leaping into a pool as a five-year-old to get near Sean Connery, perfectly content to risk drowning to be in the presence of James Bond.

But celebrities are also perpetually on the brink of suffering our discontent. Bill Cosby comes in to the discussion here, although one wishes Klam were able to delve a bit deeper into the relationship between celebrity and malfeasance. How does our admiration keep us from knowing – or wanting to know – the damaging behaviour of our idols?

More than that, as Klam takes pains to point out, there is a pointed cruelty to our celebrity fixation, one which frees us to behave in a fashion we might never otherwise. What else would drive Oscar watchers to belittle the looks of 81-year-old Vertigo star Kim Novak, making her first public appearance in years? Celebrities, particularly the 21st century model of celebrity, are there as much to make us feel better about our failings and shortcomings as to highlight them. “No matter how lazy, shallow, or narcissistic I might believe myself to be,” a friend of Klam’s named Diana says, “in comparison to any of the housewives, I am, and most women I know are, like Mother Teresa.”

Klam scatters anecdotes from friends about their celebrity run-ins through the text. Some of the stories are highly amusing (a woman approaches former Beverly Hills 90210 star Luke Perry, convinced they attended high school together; fans insist they had seen actor Timothy Hutton in films he had never starred in), but there are simply too many of these. And Stars often feels too shallow, either assuming our deep knowledge of past celebrity headline stories, or missing the point of its own anecdotes. When Carrie Fisher jabs at Elizabeth Taylor, promising she won’t be purchasing her perfume anytime soon, it is not because Americans have long memories for celebrity scandal; it is because Fisher’s father left her mother for Taylor, and children rarely retain much love for homewreckers, celebrity or otherwise.

Stars feels flimsy, even for a book on so frothy a topic as celebrity, with too little attention to a larger argument about the meaning or value of celebrity culture. The book’s structure does little to assist Klam’s endeavour, with too many interludes and asides to allow it to build up a head of steam.

Moreover, to be an American in 2017 is to acknowledge the damaging and disastrous ways in which our celebrity fixation has spilled beyond the entertainment verticals and into matters of immediate and growing import.

There are brief asides in Stars about the celebrity American voters elected president of the United States, presumably in part because of the confident businessman he played on television. Klam wildly understates the extent of the damage caused by unfettered admiration of celebrity when she says that “being famous, powerful and unfiltered can be a worrying combination for many people”. It is one thing for Kim Kardashian to make herself heard about National Lipstick Day to her 54 million Twitter followers; it is quite another for Donald Trump to use Twitter to get himself elected president of the US.

This past week’s American headlines concern, among other things, a potential US senate bid by musician Kid Rock. The singer has no discernible qualifications for the job, no policy prescriptions beyond a vague muscular patriotism and no beliefs beyond a know-nothing confidence in Trump. Any rational body of voters would reject him, but early polls in Michigan put him ahead of the incumbent Democrat.

Celebrity is now a qualification in itself, enough to elevate an untried and ill-equipped figure to power. This is nothing new, with celebrity politicians from Ronald Reagan to Al Franken as proof, but Trump’s struggles, conjoined with the musings of famous faces like Dwayne Johnson that perhaps they, too, might like to be president, speaks to a calamitous downside of our celebrity fixation that Klam needed to address, and didn’t.