Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Monday, August 18, 2014

Let Dolly Parton Tell Your Mother You’re Gay: Celebrity and the Ideal World

by Donna George Storey

My inquiry into the allure of celebrity continues this month, but first I want to remind my readers that I do not give a rat’s ass about Justin Bieber’s latest bad-boy escapade or Kim Kardashian’s butt. Nonetheless, I am oddly fascinated by the reason why so many other people do seem to care. And while it may seem that most of us humble erotica writers need never worry about becoming the objects of celebrity worship, our society’s attitude toward fame and success does have an impact on every creative artist who seeks an audience. Like it or not, we create in the shadow of fame.

Because celebrity worship is never really about Justin or Kim. They are interchangeable, infinitely replaceable. Fame, like most erotica, is about an ideal self in an ideal world.

When I’m interested in a topic, the first thing I do is read lots of books about it. There are plenty of books about fame, from breathless biographies and memoirs to get-out-the-dictionary theoretical treatises. Fortunately I found a book that was a little of both called Starstruck: When a Fan Gets Close to Fame by Michael Joseph Gross. Gross grew up in a farming community in the Midwest, a closeted gay youth who reached out to a wider world by writing to 5000 celebrities requesting their autographs. In that more innocent time--when autograph seekers weren’t the aggressive operators they are now, bent on the profits of resale—4000 of these movie stars and world leaders obliged the earnest young boy’s request.

Gross is a journalist now, with press-pass access to celebrities. Predictably his attitude has become more critical and self-aware. The best parts of the book are about his own relationship to fame:

“I know that stars and fans all live in the same three dimensions, but I still imagine there’s a velvet-roped realm of existence that’s more vivid than the everyday place where I live.  I know that a meaningful life grows from well-chosen commitments, well cared for; and yet, I can’t help but wonder if maybe celebrity offers a shortcut.”

Although I’m throwing around outlandish names like Paris Hilton and Dolly Parton, there’s a parallel fantasy world for writers. I know I certainly harbor a few ridiculous fantasies about someday maybe, just maybe, “making it” as an author which would mean... wow, what exactly? A high-powered agent who returns calls immediately, a huge sale and marketing budget for my books, sold-out readings (yes, I’d be the type of author people would buy tickets to hear read, right?), movie deals, Immortality.

Gross interviews a number of celebrities and numerous fans for this book, but a particularly poignant voice comes from Chad Evans, a fan of Debra Messing, who was in one play as a child, but hopes to go to Hollywood, get head shots taken and go out to auditions. Evans believes he deserves stardom because he has interesting things to say and people should hear him. I assume he doesn’t feel he has that in his own life.

Yes, we can laugh at his naivete about what is really involved in “making it,” but after I was finished shaking my head at poor Chad’s foolishness (one play as a child?), I realized that the core of my own fantasy—to have a responsive agent—is not so different. I, too, feel fame as a state where the chosen people are treated with respect and dignity, where they are listened to and loved just for being themselves. Don't we all deserve that?

Fame, or rather our ideal of it, is rather like an extended coddled childhood. Indeed I’ve always felt that the endearing “beauty” required of movie stars is a sort of shortcut for the glow we see when we look at someone we truly love. We also know it is all too easy for a beloved celebrity to fall from grace when they act like spoiled brats, even if we enjoy the voyeurism of a train wreck all the more. Yet celebrity wouldn’t work its magic if most of us didn’t feel on some level that it must be better on the other side of the velvet rope.

One of the more mind-twisting aspects of this wish for us writers is that we then assume that the people on the other side are different and better, that they can do things we cannot.

Now we get to Dolly Parton. When Gross had the opportunity to do an interview with her, he was very excited. This is because Dolly’s song “I Am Ready” about a woman facing death inspired Gross to tell his mother he was gay. His mother had Alzheimer’s and didn’t really understand, but it made Gross feel as if he’d done something important. He very much wanted to share this story with Parton when they met.

But then he got to thinking—was it professional? Would Dolly secretly roll her eyes at the imposition? A friend urged him to do it so he could have more time with her and “get something out of it,” our culture’s best reason for every act. Gross had resolved to do so, but alas, Parton postponed the interview. He was deeply disappointed and angered. Again, why? Another friend provided solace by suggesting he look within. Why was it important to tell Parton her song made such a difference in his life? How did he hope she would respond?

He then understood “fandom’s most essential misconception:  a fan’s intimate relationship with an entertainer’s work is an intimate relationship with the person who made that work.” And it is not. The great significance of “I Am Ready” to his life had nothing to do with Dolly Parton. The courage to tell his mother this important truth was his accomplishment.

“We like to imagine a world where Madonna’s happiness is more complete than ours, where Dolly Parton could someday be our friend... These are falsehoods and evasions, and they articulate a vital need.  We work in an economy where everyone, it seems, is finally a cog.  All too often, daily life makes us feel insignificant.  But our culture is still haunted by the notion that a man was God; we have an ineradicable longing to believe that individuals are unimpeachably significant.  Fandom helps give hope to that longing—and at the same time reveals its sadness and absurdity.”

This is not to say I will never daydream about having an agent who returns my calls, but the appeal of celebrity culture—the idea that someone out there has transcended the humiliations of ordinary life to become a king or queen on earth--certainly makes a lot more sense. And so does the wisdom of listening to our fantasies and yearnings for the deeper insights they give into what we need. As erotica writers, we are particularly close to the healing magic of honoring desire.

Dream on!

Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman and a collection of short stories, Mammoth Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor

7 comments:

  1. "we have an ineradicable longing to believe that individuals are unimpeachably significant."

    I believe that individuals *are* unimpeachably significant, but not because of how many people know their names or follow their news. One point about the celebrity culture - fame ultimately has very little to do with what the star has created. J.K. Rowling is a celebrity because her books sold millions of copies, not because she wrote a great story. Dolly Parton is more famous for her glitter and her boobs than she is for her song-writing ability and her gutsy attitude. It's the surface that counts, when it comes to fame. (Notice how everyone focused on Susan Boyle's frumpiness when she won her talent contest.)

    Meanwhile, individual significance is exactly the opposite. It's not necessarily even visible. Love, courage, generosity, creativity, joy - these are the qualities that gives an individual life meaning. And they're not necessarily "out there" for everyone to gawk at.

    My step mom died last fall after a fight with cancer. She was not a flashy woman (unlike my birth mother). However, she was one of the most caring, supportive, faith-full individuals I've ever known. One of those people (there are some!) who give Christianity a good name. She left three children, three step-children, five grand children and dozens of friends and neighbors richer for having known her.

    That's significance, in my view.

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    1. Lisabet, I agree with absolutely everything you say, and I hope my columns are not coming across as any kind of endorsement of celebrity culture, quite the opposite. Your step-mother sounds like a wonderful and inspiring person.

      I've found it to be a sign of experience and maturity in any given field that the prevailing fantasies around success and importance are quickly questioned. I don't necessarily mean that older people are always better at figuring this out, although they tend to do it more quickly. Many older people who are new to writing, for example, might still want to send their first story to The New Yorker or start looking for an agent before they write anything. For me, celebrity culture is a fantasy surrounding individual importance. Kindness, generosity, trustworthiness, awareness and self-awareness, qualities like these are what make the world a better place for real. I myself am confused as to why this isn't more obvious to more people.

      Then you have situations like Greg Mortenson (the Three Cups of Tea scandal) where these admirable qualities are feigned and preyed upon in others with the help of the celebrity industry. I have found it helpful for my own confusion to examine what's going on, especially in publishing, where frankly, I still can't figure out why poor writing is rewarded so often!

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  2. I love yur insights into fame & celebrity culture, Donna, especially since writers in general tend to yearn for fame in the ways you describe, and erotic writers sometimes write wish-fulfillment into their plots (e.g. devoted fan contacts Famous Person, and instead of ignoring the fan or calling security, the Star invites him/her into the bedroom/play room/inner sanctum).

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    1. Indeed many erotic stories deal with connection with a distant, but highly desirable partner. I'm often more interested in the wish fulfillment involved other than just sex that we find in erotic fantasies (attention, abundance of people finding you interesting, authority figures "weakened" by sex). I think celebrity worship is in fact just erotica by another name!

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  3. I'm enjoying this series since I'm fascinated by our relationship to fame too. this man had wise friends if they could point out to him that it wasn't Dolly Parton or her song that made that moment important to him. We should all have such insightful, and significant, people in our lives.

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    1. Gross clearly had made a lot of progress from his autograph collecting days in terms of what celebrity means, which was why I enjoyed reading his book. His final message really was that we should focus on what's good about our own lives, relationships and friendships and see the magic in that. Wise words.

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