With the passing of Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson, we have a moment to reflect on celebrity, its power, and its cost. Dave Chappelle related a story in explaining his sudden departure from the international media stage where he quoted his father regarding the process of celebrity. “Know your price, and when the cost gets too high, leave.” In McMahon, Fawcett, and Jackson’s respective cases, Chappelle’s wisdom holds true. McMahon and Fawcett shaped and re-shaped the entertainment landscape through the lenses of comedy and beauty. McMahon leveraged a late-night talk career into a life as one of the most influential brokers of talent, fame, and wealth over the last two decades of the twentieth century. His face became a marker of aspiration through his sweepstakes mailings. Fawcett’s looks remained the hallmark of her celebrity for thirty years. Yet it was her awareness of the trappings of beauty that drove her to confront her audience with issues of domestic violence, rape, and women’s autonomy. Fawcett turned the stereotyping of actresses and models into a signifier that forced her audiences to question and, ultimately, to reject the two-dimensional image of white women as fragile prizes or long suffering caregivers. Farrah Fawcett and Ed McMahon mastered and manipulated their celebrity in numerous projects to redefine American public culture over the last fifty years.
Michael Jackson pioneered the global entertainment landscape in an era that struggled to reconcile racial differences. He was the face of American economic globalization between 1979 and 1995. His death resonates around the world because Jackson represented a singular presence that overwhelmed language, religion, nation, and race. Jackson used his talent to expand the power of Muhammad Ali’s social challenge to recognize the inherent value of all human beings. He blazed the trail that created the process of developing the public personas of Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Barack Obama. His musical and dance talents were windows that shaped the flow of inspiration and investment to more than 3 billion people. The scope of his achievement will require decades to assess. However, the cost of his work surpassed his victories. Jackson gave the world his soul. His closest friends all confirmed the ways he asked for personal guidance in the maintenance of his private life. Celebrity destroyed his ability to connect to other people in the basic, unspoken ways all people require to experience a sense of belonging. Jackson chose public adulation over private comfort. He lost track of cost he paid to achieve unprecedented entertainment success.
Imagine that you woke up tomorrow, and the headline was “Ronald McDonald, dead, at age 60. All McDonald’s restaurants closed permanently.” Michael Jackson was a global institution in similar ways to a massive conglomerate. His face and name were brands that generated billions of dollars from the intersection of radio, broadcast television, and cable television. Spike Lee’s film, “Bamboozled,” represents the formula of celebrity and its cost that consumed Jackson, Fawcett, and McMahon’s lives. If humanity can take any lesson from the shock of losing these three stars this week, it might be that we need to be more thoughtful about our entertainment as performers, communicators, and audiences. Entertainers like Jimmy Fallon, Vanessa Hudgens, and Lupe Fiasco should carefully weigh the choices they make about how they enter and engage global recognition. Bloggers, paparazzi, and news sites should track and manage their own coverage to allow more private time for talented musicians, dancers, and actors. Audiences should remember to turn off the media feed regularly and give more time and attention to their families and friends. Let’s open a public discussion about the cost of celebrity in the twenty-first century. More widespread conversation about the function and limitations of fame will honor the best gifts Jackson, Fawcett, and McMahon gave us.