Celebrity Illness

[Before we start, I’m jubilant that the Equal Marriage Bill has been passed by the Commons. Obviously, I hope that the Lords don’t now mess this up, and that (Mostly)-Straight-People’s-Views-On-Gay-Marriage Day is followed by an equally successful (Mostly)-Straight-People-Views-On-Gay-Marriage Day, Now With Coronets. Anyway, enough. I opened the gin to watch the result, and I don’t like Bercow’s face.]

Mrs. Patrick Campbell, actress, full-length po...

A couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to attend the first study day of Oxford’s new interdisciplinary discussion network, ‘Spotlight on Celebrity’. The study day, hosted in Oxford’s new Humanities Building, brought together researchers of all levels, from a wide range of disciplines including English, Theology, Music, Modern Languages, History, Classics and Medieval Studies. Some of my favourite papers dealt with such diverse topics as the Soviet media’s presentation of sports stars in the USSR (this was brilliant, and made me want to research sport), and the local celebrity of (frequently grotesque) ballad singers throughout nineteenth-century British cities. A large number of the participants worked on performance in one form or another, which was a joy for me. I was the first speaker of the day and talked about the relationship between performance and celebrity in my own work, and the various research methodologies which I’ve found particularly helpful. Discussion ranged everywhere imaginable, and it was actually a brief tangent about Club 27, Pete Doherty and The Indelicates which came into my mind today.

I’m currently rewriting the central chapter of my thesis. When I’ve cracked it, Thesis 2.0 will seem a far less Sisyphean task (forgive the hyperbole; I am mid-gin, we’re getting marriage equality, and my French tutor says my R sounds are now less rubbish). It is not a cheery chapter. It is about Mrs Patrick Campbell and her various Shakespearean exploits, and while Mrs P.C. herself is all that is lovely (just ask Shaw), much of the chapter seems to be about such ghastly topics as the sexualisation of children, the Victorian rape culture and, of course, death.

It is basically illegal to post on celebrity death without including this picture, you're lucky it's not Diana in a headscarf.

Chatterton (1856). Henry Wallis. Tate, London.

Celebrity death is a tabloid staple, since not merely the good but also the bad, and, crucially, the notorious regularly die young or just messily. I’ve mentioned Club 27 and stopped off at the shrine of Chatterton. What I’m really interested in is the idea of celebrity illness: the idea of a celebrity (above all an artist, writer or performer) whose health is sacrificed for their work, or whose creative output involves the self-destruction of their health. This seems to have been resonant for (some of) the women I write about (particularly Campbell and Bernhardt) and their publics, and I’d like to explore why. I’ve jotted down some thoughts on possible factors below, but this post really is a case of me thinking out loud and contributions (on any period, including contemporary celebrity culture) are hugely welcome!

Why have the illnesses and addictions of celebrities (particularly artists) fascinated the public, and resonated through culture?

Ideas:

  • Celebrity/artist illness can make their art seem more “authentic” when their illness indicates clear emotional and physical investment. In acting, the nervous breakdown or exhaustion of a performer seems to indicate that their performance involves “real” emotional and carries a “real” emotional cost. They can’t rely on “cold” technique.
  • Celebrity/artist illness seems to indicate an individual’s greater commitment to their work, since they are prepared to “suffer for their art”.
  • A visibly ill or suffering artist (or one presented as such by PR/the media) can play into narratives of the artist as a marginalised/persecuted figure (e.g. the “starving artist”). A comfortable or economically viable artist is perceived to have “sold out”.
  • Communities/cultures which believe in the Romantic figure of the  “tortured genius” or “tortured artist” privilege those over the alternative.
  • Celebrity/artist illness identifies the ill artist with respected or admired professional forbears who suffered similar illnesses or a celebrity death – this is particularly true of Campbell, who constantly self-fashions to be like Bernhardt. Bernhardt’s memoirs are FULL of descriptions of her mental health issues, physical illness, fragility etc. Links to tragedy brings a spurious glamour in some cultural settings.
  • Celebrity/artist illness can attract sympathy from fans, and boost press coverage. Narratives of illness or addiction can “humanise” the celebrity subject, making them seem less intimidating or career-driven, and creating admirable narratives of overcoming obstacles.
  • Conservatives opposed to certain kinds of artists can draw on evidence of celebrity illness to present certain public professions, activities, or lifestyles as innately dangerous, with the illness as evidence.
  • Some illnesses and their manifestations are of interest for different reasons; so the tabloid press might be more interested in the risky or embarrassing public behaviour of a celebrity addicted to alcohol or drugs, while images of a very thin female celebrity (e.g. one known or suspected to have an eating disorder) proliferate in women’s magazines and “thinspiration” blogs. The aestheticising and fetishising of illness happens in all sorts of ways.

Finally, if you’re interested in being part of the Spotlight on Celebrity network, which is run by Jess Goodman (Modern Languages) and David Kennerley (History), please do get involved – there will be further study days, seminars and hopefully a conference or symposium at some point! You can email spotlightoncelebrity [at] gmail [dot] com for more details, or just comment below.

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8 thoughts on “Celebrity Illness

  1. Celebrity/artist illness can attract sympathy from fans, and boost press coverage. Narratives of illness or addiction can “humanise” the celebrity subject, making them seem less intimidating or career-driven, and creating admirable narratives of overcoming obstacles.
    You also see the other side of this (which is perhaps similar to the ‘romantic’ idealisation of illness/hyperemotion you mention): the (PR representation of the) artist’s illness does attract sympathy, but also serves to make them seem more intimidating and career-driven, because they have Achieved Against The Odds, or Risen Above Their Misery. Ambition is permitted and even sanctified (perhaps particularly for women where ambition isn’t a highly-valued quality) because it can be portrayed as Overcoming Obstacles rather than (eg) Wanting To Be Really Famous, The Bitch.

    They are The Artist as a definite Other, above the common humdrum reality. And thus their art is more valuable.

    Have you found interesting differences between how celebrities/artists themselves construct and portray their experience of illness and the way their PR team (or Victorian equivalent) want to use it? Jade Goody might be an interesting example here – there was a lot of very complicated stuff swirling round her suddenly becoming a suffering and brave cancer champion, while she tried to make/save enough money to keep her little boys secure when/if she died.

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  2. Have you found interesting differences between how celebrities/artists themselves construct and portray their experience of illness and the way their PR team (or Victorian equivalent) want to use it? Jade Goody might be an interesting example here – there was a lot of very complicated stuff swirling round her suddenly becoming a suffering and brave cancer champion, while she tried to make/save enough money to keep her little boys secure when/if she died.

    I’m not completely sure, to be honest, because ‘PR team’ doesn’t seem to have a clear Victorian equivalent. Bram Stoker and Henry Irving shared responsibility at the Lyceum for getting paragraphs into the newspapers about Terry, but I’m not AS clear who’d feed the stuff to the press for Mrs. Patrick Campbell. I’m particularly dealing with the nervous breakdown she had in May 1897, which she uses in her autobiography.

    Oh god, poor Jade Goody. At the time, I got the impression that she was complying with the cancer champion stuff in order to make herself more money to support those boys (at least while she was well enough to have some autonomy). And there’s also the “raising awareness” part. But I really like the distinction between what a celebrity wants and what their PR team want. Some of my actresses were their own PR teams (Mrs Kendal was simultaneously wildly successful and UNBELIEVABLY appalling at it). I suppose the obvious celebrity vs PR/manager conflicts would be between child celebrities (whether performers or sportspeople) and their managers (who are/were so often their parents)…

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    • Bram Stoker and Henry Irving shared responsibility at the Lyceum for getting paragraphs into the newspapers about Terry
      I’m not sure that’s a team I’d want on my side.

      I could also see celebrity vs PR/manager conflicts coming about when the celebrity is aware that being the mad or unstable woman on display is what’s required to sell books/tickets (and thus for her to be able to continue working), but doesn’t herself think she is that mad, and/or doesn’t want to capitalise on it.

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      • Bram Stoker really is one of my absolute favourites. Obviously, strong academic interests and sober historical context, etc., but his vast biography of Henry Irving makes the rest of hagiography look like it’s not trying. He’s a gift to the DPhil student because he’s so quotable.

        I completely see what you mean. I don’t think that’s AS overtly at play in the Victorian period (the mad ones seem to have quite enjoyed publicising it/living up to that profile, but on the other hand the reality may have been infinitely worse than the surviving evidence suggests), and not in Terry’s case. Madge Kendal more or less accused Terry of feeding details of ill-health to the press, and Henry Irving refused to speak to her for the next twenty-one years because of it.

        I think it also depends on the extent to which the celebrity’s work is absolutely contingent on reasonable health (because they demonstrably couldn’t sing or dance or whatever if they were prostrate). Which makes me wonder if it’s more common now where statements can come via PR, or when twitter etc can maintain a celebrity profile without them needing to do anything/anything publicly.

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    • My network would love you. It is SO GOOD, genuinely. Not just the topics (which seem to overlap in really interesting ways) but also the standard of research etc seems hugely promising. Tell me about dandyology, please.

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      • Basically, I’m dealing with the figure of the dandy as the paradigmatic example of self-creation, which I’m arguing is the necessary development of a particular post-Kantian, post-Fichtean, vision of artistic creation as the self imprinting itself upon the world (think of the world as cookie dough, the self as a giant gingerbread man cookie shaper). In terms of my thesis specifically, I’m looking at how the two concepts are intertwined, exemplified, and subverted in the great fin de siecle “dandies” (since my argument is that my particular French figures use dandyism to simultaneously explore the appeal of *and* critique on theological grounds this kind of self-projection), but more widely I’m using Barbey D’Aurevilly, Baudelaire, and Joseph Peladan’s tracts on the cult of personality to create a definition of the artist/self audience/other dichotomy that in turn can be used to explore the (gendered!) power dynamics in artistic creation.

        So I could contribute in a sort of “oooh French dandies are fun” background historical way, or in a more specific “Barbey D’Aurevilly uses dandyism as a literary advice to critique the power dynamics inherent in storytelling” sort of way.

        I can send you my transfer paper/DPhil outline/etc if you like; I just put in for my transfer of status this week…

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        • That sounds absolutely fascinating – I had no idea it was your area, but it really suits you. I’d love to read your outline, actually, if you’ve got a moment to send it! I’m sure you’ll be fine with transfer, but it’s good to get it over. We’ve got a few people working on C18/C19 French literature, so I have a feeling you’d fit in wonderfully! Drop Jess and David an email, seriously.

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