what happened to our icons?

Once, the people we looked up to had to be stainless, perfect; contemporarily, we want our role models to have flaws. After all, what use is a role model if we can’t relate to them?

by Sam Wolfson
04 November 2013, 11:25am

© Gabriele Cardu

Throughout history, the public have sought figures on whom they could pin their aspirations. Through a mixture of talent, youth, rebellion and good looks, celebrities became the first idols chosen by the people.

Even today, their names have a totemic ring. Elvis Presley, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon, John Wayne, Greta Garbo, David Bowie, Audrey Hepburn. They were not canonised by any official order, but by the bedroom walls of teenagers, the pages of magazines, the collective consciousness of a people.

What made them irresistible was how little we knew of them. A few devastatingly delivered lines in films, perfect three minute pop songs, stage-managed interviews and a couple of perfected photographs reprinted and refracted in every continent in endless media. They were a blank canvas of beauty on which a world projected its aspirations.

As the French philosopher Roland Barthes once said of Garbo, her face was "at once perfect and ephemeral", plunging audiences "into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image. Garbo offered to one's gaze a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature."

These early celebrities were sacrosanct in their own time. Defecating, fornicating, flesh and bone being worshipped as if they were deities. But it couldn't last. It soon transpired that these celebrities were human and engaged in behaviour that defiles their consecrated image. Morrison and Monroe both died of drugs overdoses. Audrey Hepburn twice tried to commit suicide. Elvis died a fat, incapacitated Liberace, addicted to barbiturates and completely out of touch with reality. From interviews with Bebe Buell and other legendary "band aids" we know many of our rock heroes were fixated on sex with a string of very young, interchangeable women.

"Icons became anti-heroes, those with a perfect exterior and a cracked soul. We started to worship stars not only because of who they were but what they'd been through."

Yet instead of the realisation dawning that our idols were as flawed and mortal as any of us, we began to work the flaws into our very definition of what it meant to be iconic. Icons became anti-heroes, those with a perfect exterior and a cracked soul. We started to worship stars not only because of who they were but what they'd been through. These were not idols in the vein of saints or leaders, but modern-day Hamlets - and we watched with infatuation and glee as they were vanquished.

We lost interest in icons who were merely talented. While Paul McCartney is now the butt of our jokes about one-legged wives and shoddy Olympic Opening Ceremony performances, John Lennon's words are held with the reverie of scripture.

From the 70s onwards, this became the mould for all our icons. Brilliance born from depravity or excess. Sid Vicious, Joan Jett, Jack Nicholson, Ian Curtis, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Diana. Unlike the previous generation of icons, we knew that these were flawed individuals almost as soon as we met them. We wanted to see on-screen rebellion and backstage breakdown intertwined and out of control.

The postars on the bedroom wall were no longer shrines, they were masks. Everyone knew there was something going on behind those eyes. And in the 90s two idols became iconic because of the way they veiled their darkness.

The first was Kate Moss. A face that told a million stories masking a girl that never spoke. "Heroin chic" and its implication of beauty in pallidness were the two sides of an icon boiled down to a single look. Moss held the eyes of the world by looking beautiful and broken at the same time. The second was the man heroin chic was trying so desperately to imitate. Kurt Cobain was in many ways the perfect icon. A sweet, tender talent that, briefly, overcame depression and drug abuse before burning out in spectacular fashion. Songs that could be read either as catchy hits or misery-induced pleas for help. His face, undeniably beautiful but plainly disturbed. On the day Kurt Cobain died, American music critic Greg Kot appeared on national television to explain to America why its youth were in mourning. Hours after his death, Kot was already affirming Cobain's icon status. "If there was a John Lennon type figure for the so called generation X listener, young people in their teens and 20s, it would be Cobain. His music had a sweetness to it but it also had an incredible anger... I think that's going to be his legacy."

"Then when they couldn't find an imperfection or a flaw, they would simply create new ones. Fat. Thin. Out of control. Love rat. Parties too hard. Can't get a boyfriend. The opportunities were endless."

It almost didn't matter that Moss, in truth, was a relatively well-adjusted young mother while Cobain was suffering from severe mental illness. People already knew their stories, or at least thought they did. Our appetite for destruction was never satiated until we saw our icons troubled. So an industry sprang up to keep us informed of what was going on behind closed doors. Celebrity news, once a contradiction in terms, became the driving force of all media, from CNN to Heat. "Showbiz" went from a column in the newspaper to an entire industry of daily, weekly and monthly publications, entire TV channels, dedicated to showing us the mortality of our heroes. New television formats emerged in which the sob-story-unlikely-talent formula was neatly threaded into four-minute montages. This is, after all, what we wanted. Broken, battered, bruised idols. Then when they couldn't find an imperfection or a flaw, they would simply create new ones. Fat. Thin. Out of control. Love rat. Parties too hard. Can't get a boyfriend. The opportunities were endless.

But instead of producing an ever-greater number of idols, the celebrity press began to stifle our conception of them. Just as religion, reason and the armies of the west prevented new idols being born in the second millennium, so Grazia destroyed our idols in the third. By giving us what we thought we wanted, scandal, they made celebrities too gruesome for us to ever admire. The second we took a shine to some new star we were bombarded with images of their failure.

It transpires that all we ever wanted from our idols was flesh we could project onto. Whether it be the glorious, silent face in the poster or the broken suicidal star so dead in the ground we can begin to rewrite their history. Perhaps we are at a tipping point of celebrity culture, where we are desperate to know less, not more about our favourite stars. The few potential icons created in the 21st century either reached iconic status by falling so spectacularly from grace that the media reverted to type and glorified their downfall - Heath Ledger, Amy Winehouse - or else managed to keep some control over their own personas - Beyoncé, Agyness Deyn and David Beckham - so they are remembered for what they do rather than who they've done it with. Yet none of those names sit comfortably alongside Monroe or Hepburn, Presley or Lennon. Perhaps celebrities will never recapture the mysticism of their golden era. As James Dean himself once said, "The only greatness for man is immortality." And nothing is more mortal than having your cankles appear in the circle of shame.


Text Sam Wolfson
Photography © Gabriele Cardu

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