x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Even a fake celebrity is more attractive than real people

People love the world of celebrity and will rush to be associated with anyone they suspect generates a sense of significance – as one recent viral video makes clear.

First it was just one of those videos you find as you're wandering around YouTube amid countless nondescript pet tricks, funny ads and latest fads. But then it "went viral", as they say, and has had 4.5 million views.

I'm talking about the video of Brett Cohen, the "celebrity". If you're saying you don't know his name, you are more honest than a lot of the people he pranked, in a harmless way, last July in New York City.

But Mr Cohen's brush with fame, and the slender bit of real fame it has brought him, speak eloquently about the nature of celebrity in our day - and about human nature as well.

When this all started, Mr Cohen was an average-looking, 21-year-old student at a satellite campus of the State University of New York, in a town called New Paltz, an hour's drive north of Manhattan. He was, in short, perhaps the most normal young man in the US.

But he had an idea: he got himself a stylish haircut, a mildly snappy shirt, some sunglasses and an entourage: two dour burly bodyguard types, a pretty girl with a sheaf of papers and a small camera crew. Towards twilight, they marched out of the lobby of the art deco GE Building in midtown Manhattan, home of NBC TV network.

Outside that door there are always some tourists or others hoping to glimpse a star. Mr Cohen strutted, his entourage hovered respectfully - and a star was born.

Responding to the cues, some of the gawkers decided he might be somebody. Quickly, young people started gathering around him. Someone guessed he had been in the latest Spider-Man movie; someone else said he has enjoyed the star's new single on the radio. Both ideas sped mysteriously, virally, along the Manhattan pavement as Mr Cohen and his crew marched purposefully along.

Young men and woman waited for their turn to take a picture of their new idol, or to have a friend take a picture of them with Mr Cohen.

Some just walked by - New Yorkers are famously cynical - but many were plainly star-struck. The speed with which people gathered around him was unbelievable.

When I saw the video, I pitied the numerous fans who will have posted their pictures next to Mr Cohen on Facebook or other social media sites, or emailed the pictures to friends, before finding out that this had all been a set-up.

As the prank continued into the night, Mr Cohen was repeatedly surrounded by real crowds; not big enough to make, say, Lionel Messi or Justin Bieber envious, but significant enough.

It was all very funny, once you know the joke, and it is easy to understand why the video spread so far and so fast.

But you can't help but wonder: how is it possible that so many people were ready to express admiration for someone they had never heard of before? This was not mass hysteria, exactly; the crowds were not intensely excited. But they were giggling and pleased - star-struck, in a word.

I believe this incident shows how people love the world of celebrity and will rush to be associated with anyone they suspect generates a sense of significance.

That, I think, is how many people perceive each other's worth.

After I watched the video one man's words kept repeating in my mind. He said: "I took a picture with him and I feel special."

How interesting that people can feed from another person's identity, work or achievements to give a sense of value to their own lives. But when we do, we can lose sight of the fact that each of us is unique. We are all unrepeatable phenomena.

I was saddened to realise that many people feel they are part of a huge popularity contest and that fame will bring contentment through love, recognition and money. What a horrible belief system to live by.

At the end of the video, Mr Cohen is shown walking down a New York street alone, unnoticed as he entered the subway, just like anyone else. He had a thoughtful expression, and so did I as I watched.


Fatma Al Ardhi is an art gallery owner based in Muscat