x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The many degrees of celebrity

The rule in life, surely, is that you can be clever or beautiful, not both still pervades jolly old England.

The British actress and model Lily Cole has received a first in her first year at King's College at the University of Cambridge.
The British actress and model Lily Cole has received a first in her first year at King's College at the University of Cambridge.

Lily Cole, the flame-haired beauty and supermodel, has been awarded a first after her first year studying the history of art at King's College, Cambridge. Is it unreasonable to be slightly peeved by this? The rule in life, surely, is that you can be clever or beautiful, not both. You can't like reading and feel equally at ease mingling on the red carpet at Cannes, as Lily was seen doing last month before taking her exams. (She moonlights as an actress in her spare time, too.)

We can, perhaps, allow ourselves a dig at the choice of subject, which effectively means peering at slides of Michelangelo's David all day. Originally, Cole had been offered a place at Cambridge to study social and political sciences but swapped to the history of art once arriving there. Discussions over bearded philosophers perhaps got the better of her, but at least she's found time to nurture a passion for painting and sculpture. How many strings can you fit on one bow? Lily's is looking rather crowded.

But then perhaps it's unfair to presume that, just because most celebrities spend more than 90 per cent of their time on grooming, they cannot spend their remaining time leafing through a book. Let's be more generous in spirit. Enter our first exhibit: Cindy Crawford. After graduating, the supermodel managed to bag herself a chemical engineering scholarship at Chicago's Northwestern University. She dropped out after one term, but for a short period of time Crawford was the world's loveliest science geek.

Brian May of Queen fame also spent time in the laboratory. He not only clocked up a degree in physics and mathematics from Imperial College London, but was so taken with his subject that he embarked on a PhD programme looking at the velocity of dust in the solar system. He dropped out before finishing, no doubt to concentrate on alternative career plans in rock 'n' roll, but two years ago finally completed his 48,000-word dissertation. He called his break "the longest gap-year ever". Take that, Stephen Hawking.

So, too, is the tale of Kate Beckinsale rather surprising. As a precocious teenager, she wrote poems and short stories that landed her two WH Smith prizes for young writers. Not satisfied with this early burst of literary fervour, she pushed on to Oxford. There she studied French and Russian literature, in part because she believed that the course would boost the range of roles she could tackle in a future career as an actress. It's unclear whether her ability to recite chunks of Flaubert or Dostoevsky influenced her decision to take on parts in films such as Pearl Harbor or as a vampire in Underworld, but we commend her intellectual credentials all the same.

In the realms of celebrity degrees, stranger still is the story of Richard Gere. As a young smoothie (as opposed to an old one), he wangled a gymnastics scholarship to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to study philosophy. Gymnastics! Philosophy! Richard Gere! "You know, I could have guessed that," remarked a colleague solemnly on hearing this nugget of information. Really? I'm not convinced that the leap from pommel horse to Pretty Woman is so obvious, but then life is full of surprises.

In Gere's defence, while it may not have been classics, at least he embarked on a real degree in the first place, unlike the slackers who accept honorary ones. These often seem to be handed out on a kind of celebrity lotto system - fake degrees for those who never made it to university in the first place. Alan Sugar, for example, has two for his unstinting service to business. Billy Connolly hit the proverbial nail on the head in 2006 having been handed one from his birthplace, Glasgow. "It's an enormous honour to get," he said. "Especially from academia because my behaviour over the years hasn't exactly been academic."

Nonsense. Don't be so hard on yourself, Billy. Just look at the illustrious company you're in. Among others who have cloaked themselves in gowns and mortarboards for the day are Bob Dylan, for music from the University of St Andrews; Arnold Schwarzenegger for his "inspirational realisation of the American dream" from the University of South Carolina; the punk rockers Slade from the University of Wolverhampton and Michael Douglas for services to film, again from the ever-generous St Andrews. Magna cum laude, one assumes.

* Sophia Money Coutts