How We Kill Our Trainwreck Celebrities

What funereal documentaries like 'Whitney' and 'McQueen' say about us.

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Aug 9 2018, 7:00pm

Left photo courtesy of the Whitney Houston Estate | Right image via Wikipedia Commons. 

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Two summers ago, the fashionable capitalist-turned-digital philosopher Kanye West released a music video for “Famous,” the lead single from his seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo. It arrived as the emotional dispatch of a fragile poet: The accompanying visuals formed West’s take on Vincent Desiderio’s Sleep, and featured 12 silicone models of celebrities sleeping naked in an enormous bed. The video, West told Vanity Fair, was intended to be “a comment on fame,” as the title suggests: A night vision camera, positioned as an omniscient bystander, panned and leered over the vulnerable, assembled bodies of the most famous people in popular culture. “Our life is walking performance art,” West said.

This video—which, almost comically, illustrates both the predicament of celebrity access to privacy and the crushing weight of its ensuing voyeurism—returned to me recently, as theaters filled with the images of celebrities who, while alive, were pilloried by the press: Celebrities whose public destructions became entertainment industries in and of themselves.

July delivered two fruits from the same tree, each wildly unfamiliar with the branches of hagiography. Two funereal documentaries—one, about Whitney Houston, cleverly titled Whitney, directed by Kevin Macdonald; and the other, about Alexander McQueen, cleverly titled McQueen, directed by Ian Bonhôte—were released only a few weeks apart, as cautionary tales on the perils of fame. The twin films, which tracked the meteoric lives and deaths of two brilliant artists, happened to be released around the same time as the seventh anniversary of Amy Winehouse’s death. (Winehouse has her own posthumous documentary, from 2015, cleverly titled Amy.) The artists all died within three years of each other; this was divine tragedy of the highest grade.

The ways Houston, Winehouse, and McQueen each navigated their celebrity are united in how they died: publicly. Houston’s is the story of a black pop princess whose musical presidency throughout the 90s was capsized by drugs and obliterated by 2000s headlines. McQueen was the hardworking fashion designer who got liposuction and dental work to be more closely aligned with the coercive aesthetics of his environs. Winehouse, a trainwreck from the start, became the victim of a hungry industry’s obsessive cataloging, especially at her darkest moments. In some ways, their implosions correspond with the early archaic bits of new media.

That the specific intrusions these artists faced were gender-based is not a coincidence. Each, at one point, possessed considerable, if not stratospheric, cultural capital—the fact that McQueen is the only one whose destruction was private is perhaps connected to his male identity, all the more so than his trade. McQueen died in 2010, by suicide; Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning, in 2011; in 2012, Houston drowned in her own vices—Xanax, cocaine, a litany of prescription drugs—in a Beverly Hills hotel bathtub. The fashion designer got an entire MET exhibit dedicated to him; the other two received nothing.

This creative trinity—though each member is, in many ways, diametrically opposed—is among a larger cohort of celebrities sharing the same cultural anatomy—an ethnographical makeup West’s “Famous” video blushed, ever so slightly, back in 2016. In the age of TMZ and the Kardashians and online intelligence agencies (by that, I mean Twitter), it is increasingly rare for a celebrity to remain in the comfort of shadows and privacy. In an instant, the average bystander, armed with a cellphone, becomes Perez Hilton. Even in crisis, there will be a spotlight.

Celebrities have been accumulating these premature death narratives for decades is a matter that is less concerned with the natural features of Hollywood than it is with the capricious and violent machinery of celebrity surveillance. It is not uncommon for private celebrity documents—sex tapes, voicemails, legal papers—to be stolen from web servers and disseminated online. On August 21, 2014, someone hacked Apple’s iCloud platform and gathered a portfolio of nearly 500 compromising images of celebrities—mostly women, mostly nude photographs—and published them on the imageboard 4chan. The security breach was wittily named #Celebgate. (The hackers were eventually arrested and sent to prison, but not before the images were circulated hundreds of thousands of times.)

“Anybody who looked at those pictures, you’re perpetuating a sexual offense. You should cower with shame,” Jennifer Lawrence, whose personal photos were leaked, told Vanity Fair. “Just because I’m a public figure, just because I’m an actress, does not mean that I asked for this.”

It is often argued, rather distastefully, that these people “relinquished the right” to their privacy upon achieving some degree of eminence. It was precisely this genre of maxim that justified, in the late 2000s, the relentless pursuit of Anna Nicole Smith, Britney Spears, and of Michael Jackson. Amy Winehouse was forced to file an anti-harassment injunction against paparazzi in 2009 because she couldn’t leave her home without being jostled by photographers looking to catch her drunk or high. “If I could give it all back just to walk down the street with no hassle, I would,” Winehouse revealed in an interview that would later appear in Amy, a few short years before dying.

In the worst scenarios, as in the case of Whitney Houston, public struggle becomes a whir of humor. One sketch from American Dad transmogrified Houston into a stuttering minstrel in withdrawal, singing to be compensated with crack. Recently, Kanye West purchased an image of Whitney Houston’s bathroom—her counters are cluttered with drug paraphernalia—for $85,000, to use for the cover art of Pusha T’s album Daytona.

“It is shocking to see how quickly we dehumanized someone that we held up as an ideal for so long,” feminist writer Sady Doyle, who wrote the book Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... and Why told me.

“But they wouldn’t be [doing] it if we weren’t buying it.”

The fact that celebrities are increasingly becoming tabloid émigrés comes as no surprise—they have seen we carelessly breach their domestic boundaries. A cursory Google search produces gratuitous listicles like “The Most Entertaining Celebrity Trainwrecks of All Time,” or “18 Truly Spectacular Celebrity Meltdowns.” This is perhaps why some celebrities have become so protective of what little personal lives they can cull together. In a digital era of oversharing, to be quiet is to preserve the self. There is a method to Frank Ocean’s hermitage or Beyoncé’s profound silence. Thirteen years after Lauryn Hill withdrew from the public eye, in a flourish of reclusive sensitivity, she said: “When people capitalize on a persona, they forget there is a person there.” Such is the irrevocable burden of celebrity, it seems: To be loved is to be inevitably destroyed.

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