"Lives of the newly rich & briefly famous"
The New Criterion
Summer 2000
by James Bowman


The TV “personality” and writer Jon Stewart published a book a couple of years ago in which the best bit imagined how Larry King might interview Hitler if the German dictator were to come back today and were, as they say, “media savvy” —

KING: Why did you do it?
HITLER: Whooo boy. The $64,000 question. I don’t know . . . I wasn’t a happy kid. I mean, I’m not trying to make excuses, but you go through high school with one testicle and the nickname Shitler . . . I’m sorry, they can bleep that, right?
KING: It’s fine.
HITLER: After a while you get sick of it. One day you just snap. It started out as the typical “Someday you guys will be sorry,” and then...I don’t know. It just got away from me.
KING: Did you ever see the despicable nature of your actions? Was there any remorse?
HITLER: Oh sure, but denial is a powerful thing . . . I always thought I could stop any time I wanted. “If I could just get Czechoslovakia, that’ll be the end of it. I’ll be happy then.” And I’d get it and think, well geez, Poland’s just up the road a piece and . . . you know the rest. I think admitting to myself that there was a problem was the toughest part . . .
And so on. The whole interview is a comic gem. But there are a lot of funny guys around these days, and most of them can get blurbs from famous people telling how funny they are. Another week, another comic genius debuts. So what? I haven’t got time to read them all. I can say with complete confidence that I would never have read this very clever pastiche, or been in a position to recommend it to others, if my attention had not been caught by the title of the volume in which it appears: Naked Pictures of Famous People.

Of course, being a highbrow type, I knew that this was a joke. On the cover Stewart put a sepia-toned print of a lanky, Lincolnesque figure of a naked man in a beard and a stovepipe hat who is covering up his manhood with blurry hands. His eyes are blacked out with one of those rectangular strips that they used to put on the photos in Police Gazette and similar publications. It’s another comic masterpiece—an obvious satire on the excesses of celebrity culture and not a promise that there will be any other naked pictures of famous people in the book. At any rate, there are none, and you could only protest about the fact at the risk of identifying yourself as a thick-o who didn’t see the joke.

Stewart, meanwhile, was making a similar point to the one he makes in the Hitler interview about contemporary culture and (presumably) selling a lot more books into the bargain. It’s obviously a win-win situation, as Hitler might have put it. But his little joke, like most jokes at the expense of the contemporary popular and media culture, lacks a little of the uproariousness it might otherwise have occasioned because of the popular and media culture’s seemingly inexhaustible capacity to make satire come to life in sober earnest. Take, for instance, the latest example of a naked picture of a (sort-of) famous person. Darva Conger, the “bride” in the Fox Show “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?” decided to cash in on her brief moment of fame by posing naked for Playboy. Here are some bits from her Larry King interview:

KING: Darva, why did you do it?
DARVA CONGER: It was a financial decision based on the employment straits I was in right then. It was a credible offer. They offered me an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, and I had no problem doing it, and I remember receiving some very good advice from certain people that I should do it.
KING: Darva, doesn’t this look, frankly, like just a blatant chance to take advantage of a situation?
CONGER: Well, that begs the question, why not take advantage of the situation? The situation certainly took advantage of me. The media, entertainment, made so much money off me, and while I’m sitting there in my house with no job, I thought it was a pretty good opportunity for me, quite frankly . . .
KING: What are you going to do now?
CONGER: You know, I’m stewing over a few offers. I do have a few offers in television and media. There are some correspondent-type and hosting position that people are in talks with me over. I’m giving them careful thought, careful consideration, but I am taking things definitely step by step. I have learned in this town that until the deal is signed and sealed, you can’t give it too much credence.
KING: OK. Therefore, this could be the start of someone who said here that she didn’t want to be very public, the start of an extraordinarily public career. Supposing you take one of these television offer. You want to be on the scene for good.
CONGER: It could conceivably evolve into that, however, what I have been constantly defending myself against is comments taken out of context. I wanted my private life back. I wanted away from the publicity all associated with being on that “Multimillionaire” show. I was mortified by that. I was offended by it. I had done such an incredibly stupid thing. Of course I didn’t want any publicity associated with that. Of course I wanted my privacy related to that back, and this . . . in this context, I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t want to be making the rounds of the talk shows every night. I don’t want to be harassed by the media. I don’t want the tabloids chasing me around, and no one wants that. But for me to say that I’m entertaining credible offers, that perhaps showcase a skill that I wasn’t aware that I had, a speaking skill, and combining my nursing background, I have no problem saying I would be interested in doing something like that . . .
As Stewart recognized in his Hitler interview, the celebrity culture and the therapeutic culture are essentially the same: confession is the central ritual to both, and making a public confession—how “stupid” Darva now thinks it that she appeared on that awful show!—is often all that it takes to make a passing notoriety into celebrity.

And the really great thing about being a celebrity, as Darva can testify, is not the money or even the sense of self-importance that goes with it so much as it is a celebrity’s limitless indulgence to do as he pleases under cover, comically enough, of “privacy.” Here, for example, is what Darva told Larry when he asked her how she could reconcile posing in the buff for Playboy with her professions of Christian faith. Wouldn’t her Christian friends all be “aghast”?

CONGER: As good Christians, I’m sure they would be concerned, I’m sure they’ll be praying, I’m [sure] they’ll remember “Judge not lest you be judged.” And the difference between them and I is we all do things that are against our faith and our beliefs, and every sin is the same in the eyes of God. The only difference between them and I is that what I do is dissected in the public eye.
KING: But why then do something against your belief? If it is against the belief to do this, let’s say to show yourself in public, as that’s against the Christian concept, why do it?
CONGER: Why? At this point in time in my life, it’s a decision I’ve made, and I believe it’s in my best interests. It’s a private decision. It’s between me and God . . .  
Well, between her and God and a few million curiosity seekers. I myself perused Darva’s “pictorial” in the August number of Playboy, for purposes of research only, and was struck by how much she looked like the relatively anonymous “playmates” with whom she shares that magazine’s pages. Playboy has obviously gone to considerable trouble with the airbrush, and with makeup and so forth, to make her look as much like them as possible—just as they are made to look as much like each other as possible. The only obvious difference between Darva and her sisters is that she obviously has not had breast implants and they, judging by the nearly right angle at which their breasts almost invariably project, just as obviously have.

It has always been a mystery to me why some people find this pneumatic, identi-kit feminine form erotic, though apparently lots of people do. But even more remarkable is the question of why, having paid good money for a peek at a named woman—just because, that is, it is she and not some other—it should be supposed that people want her to look as much like the anonymous ones as possible. Perhaps they do. Perhaps that, too, has something to do with the celebrity culture. The whole point of looking at naked pictures of famous people, or for that matter of listening to their tawdry confessions, is to reduce them, famous as they are, to the same condition of basic humanity as the rest of us. “Unaccommodated man” (or woman) is, as King Lear long ago pointed out, “no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.” How odd and shameful (if shame were possible anymore) that we take such comfort in the contemplation of what was once so shocking.


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