The way the old joke goes, eventually everyone gets 15 minutes of fame. For Anna Nicole Smith, she got a bit more than 15 minutes, though some of it has followed her to the grave.
In her case it is necessary to define “fame.” Smith was basically famous just for being famous. She was Playboy magazine’s Playmate of the Year in 1993. From there she went on to a lackluster film career, and a few television appearances.
Mainly she was famous for marrying oil billionaire J. Howard Marshall, who at the time of the nuptials was 89 years old. Marshall died a few months after the wedding, at which time Smith became famous for pursuing part of Marshall’s estate all the way to United States Supreme Court.
And so, because she was famous, her death in a Florida hotel a week ago has sparked non-stop news coverage. Admittedly, this coverage has been fueled by the almost farcical paternity contest taking place. No less than four different men have stepped forward claiming to be the father of Smith’s five-month-old daughter, Dannielynn.
We need to ask ourselves why this story is receiving so much coverage. It’s not like there is nothing else in the world to think about. Though her death was tragic, and worthy of coverage for one day, the ongoing coverage is ridiculous. The non-stop airing of every sordid and sad detail of Anna Nicole Smith’s life and death is evidence of an obsession we have in our culture with celebrity.
This preoccupation with celebrity is a kind of voyeurism. People watching other people live. Becoming obsessed with every tiny detail, what they eat, what they wear, and so on. People watch the lives of celebrities rather than having a life of their own.
Unfortunately, this celebrity obsessed voyeurism serves as a terrible distraction from what is really real going on around us. We are distracted from a terrible war, and endangered environment. We are distracted from an economy that constantly generates new levels of poverty, all while the rich get richer.
It’s tempting to blame the media for this cult of celebrity. After all there are um-teen news channels out there running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. With that much air time, you have to take a picture of something, so why not a celebrity doing something bizarre.
Or we could blame the celebrities themselves. In an effort to cash in on the lucrative celebrity business, people seem to be willing to do most anything. And remember–there’s always a camera on somewhere ready to take your picture.
But when we get right down to it, our obsession with celebrities is just that–our obsession. The media and all those celebrity wannabes out there are only trying to give us what we want.
With that in mind we return to the Anna Nicole Smith story with a different understanding. Smith created herself in the image of her audience. And in doing so demonstrates where a life of conspicuous consumption and obsession with celebrity eventually leads–is leading us.
Perhaps it’s time to turn the television off and begin the process of building a real life. Maybe visit a sick friend, or do a kindness for a neighbor. Strengthen a relationship, or go out and make a new one. Do something other than wallowing in the misery of make-believe people. Go out and get a life that really means something. The celebs will be just fine without us watching.
James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.