Donald Trump was the real star, and everyone wanted selfies with him.
Last night, in a break with usual stay-at-home custom, I went from my monastic cell out into the glittering evening parade of London’s West End. All the world is there, plus food and entertainment.
Leicester Square Theatre is not, as the name proudly suggests, on Leicester Square, (therefore fake) but on a side alley, in the best tradition of the off-beat lanes and pathways of theatricality, as befits the scruffy comradeship of the precarious acting profession. The bar was full of supposedly famous people, the talk spontaneous and embracing, immediate friends together at first sight. Several people in the small bar looked like someone else. Apparently, with sufficient work, I would resemble someone, but since I did not know the named actor the point was lost on me. The crowd outside was judged too big to be allowed into the crowded room, and were let in as space became available. First night drama.
The show (first night of a three-day run) started late, perhaps because it was still being put together. It began with Alison Jackson impersonators, each of which came out with striking blond hair, glamourous black-clad and booted long legs and lithe bodies to announce that they were Alison Jackson. Point taken. We can have personal identities yet be one of a type. Few of us outstandingly unique. The glamourous have imitators. The beautiful lead fashions. Nobodies want to rise to Somebodies. Who wouldn’t want to be famous? Who is real any more?
The real Alison Jackson, if that is who she eventually was, gave an illustrated and animated lecture about celebrity and fame, the main thesis being that Art had outfaked Life, and it was impossible to know what was fake or real any more. Fake news, fake facts, and fake people.
Her artistic history was based on a simple, fundamental cultural event: the mass mourning of Princess Diana by millions who never knew her, but who recognized her image. That image was the message, and the tears fell. Mine too. Of course, her image was carefully tended, and her clothes even more so. She was the People’s Princess, in a phrase provided by Alistair Campbell for Tony Blair.
Days after her death, interviewed for television about this oceanic public grief for Diana, I explained how those who thought they knew her were not entirely wrong. See someone’s image often enough you get to know them. Face recognition is powerful. TV shows you the living person, their expressions, momentary reactions, movements, mannerisms, tones of voice, and their major public life events. They become friends in a parallel life, a set of milestones against which other women’s lives can be compared: engagement, marriage, children, problems, separations, divorce, and what next?
While the camera crew wrapped up, the woman interviewer said that she still could not understand the grief, and did not feel it. I enquired of her, did she think that all the headlines about their royal romance should have been: Nanny makes good?
Jackman dares to create the pictures which support that sort of headline, merely on the basis that having had that thought, she realizes that others might have thought it, and believes that such an image should be created to challenge the prevailing images. In the jargon, Jackson de-constructed the images of Diana, and got hated for it. It there a reality? I believe there is, despite manipulations, and even in the anything-goes milieu of celebrity.
In face to face in conversation (reported by a person of my esteem) Diana was lovely, smart, kind, and at home with other mothers and children. No fool. Calm and friendly. Of course, she also had her private life with lovers and admirers. The book on her private life came out the next day after her public engagement, but despite her part in it she gave no hint that it was coming.
Diana’s death launched Alison Jackson on a 20 year examination of our fascination with celebrity and the images that fan the flames of adulation. Jackson shows celebrity’s imagined private lives, always as shabby as one would suspect them to be, often grossly so. She is understandably drawn to fame, and the Royal Family (“the firm”) in particular. Royalty is a brand which goes back a long time. Her pictures of the Royals home life are designed to take them down a peg or three.
Do we really want to know that they are like us? Apparently so. Royalty’s crime is to beguile us with their poses, and Jackson’s pics reveal the Royals know exactly what tricks they are up to when they claim to be King and Queen, and many believe them.
Jackson searches for look-alikes, often taking years to find the right one. The three-night theatre show was partly a set of auditions. We helped with our applause to choose the contestants worthy of getting a make-over, and they were filmed backstage in the process of celebrity transformation. Then they came out, looking vaguely right, and Jackson shot multiple photos as they enacted tableaux. On the screen many of the shots were great, just right, and very passable imitations.
On stage they were more clearly look-alikes. Photography, she has said, is ‘a slimy deceitful medium’, which ‘tells only a partial truth’. She publishes one in a thousand of the shots she takes. Interesting to find out whether the original image-makers also pick so few of the many pictures they shoot. Probably so.
Her approach is in the tradition of Hogarth, with added bile. Vulgarity rules, and also degrades the status of the pretentious. Satire is a political weapon and Alison Jackson is the Queen of sedition.
As proof of the refined nature of the audience, impressionist and comedian Rory Bremner was asked up from his seat to comment on celebrity, and he gave us an auditory play within Jackson’s larger visual play. His apparently effortless mimicry made his unseen characters parade before us, the voices mocking one fallible politician after another. He explained that in his youth celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton seemed at a great distance from ordinary mortals. They truly were the gods, never to be met in real life. Now celebrity has become commonplace, and images are cheap and ubiquitous, yet there is still a pecking order, and power still commands a following. His account of being in character in public places (after hours of makeup) as politicians he disliked was that he feared assault even as he concentrated on imitating them correctly. We certainly got our money’s worth last night.
Of course, celebrity is nothing new. The heroes of sagas had their fan clubs. Gilgamesh, Achilles, Hector, and then a very long list, including Napoleon, Frederick the Great, and then a great debate about whether the great make any difference. As to celebrity for lesser acts, a case can be made for Rudolph Valentino being the first modern day celebrity, his fame promulgated by the movie industry, who then made celebrity a marketable commodity.
Perhaps most celebrities have very good reason to be celebrated. They are more noteworthy than most citizens because of their talents as writers, directors, actors, singers, entertainers and even sometimes as scientists. Feynman was a celebrity, though his calling was hardly a mainstream interest. Sure, some will be celebrated simply for being celebrated, but who would turn down a stadium full of admirers simply because one had the skill to be admired for one’s self alone? Being noticed is difficult. Getting admired is no easy task. Try it in class.
The show was good, funny and illuminating. Photos distort and also reveal. They can capture a truth and expedite a lie. Social policy can turn on a sharp image. The photo can be a true event cast in a false light to draw a tear and perpetrate an injustice. Jackson let us see her faking at close quarters. It was not quite enough to make us deny our own identities, but it made us question the basis of our adulation. Celebrities come to us already faked by their publicity teams. Mostly, we are admiring confections. In that sense, celebrity culture is pornographic. Not even the famous have a perfect life, who are depicted in continuous enjoyment as porn stars are in perpetual sex. Deflating illusions about other people’s lives is usually a moral campaign, and warnings usually don’t work. The injunction not to look at gossip magazines is as counter-productive as advising against pornography: the moral warning serves to signal something interesting prohibited. Pictorial satire, on the other hand, has its effect by saying: “look closely, the famous want you to think them famous but they are in fact pretty ordinary, and even crass behind closed doors”. Fake lives, fake sex, and don’t bother to envy either of those imposters.
I walked out of the theatre determined not to take a selfie with any of her characters. Surely I could observe and understand the cult of celebrity without succumbing to it myself? More deeply, to take a selfie is to bask in reflected glory, or to have friends who doubt your word when you say you have met a celebrity. The photo is proof of a mystical connection, like the King’s Touch, supposedly able to ward off scrofula. A Nobody meets a Somebody, and if the photo comes out well, both gain. By the mere process of association, the Nobody inches painfully and minutely upwards in limited popular esteem: the Somebody gains yet another follower to burnish their renown.
Outside in the foyer the buzz was to get a selfie with Trump. No contest. He looked a good match with the original, and the name is well known, to say the least. The selfie would need no explanation. I saw one person ask Rory Bremner to be photographed with them. I simply point out that he is a real person with a real talent.
As far as I could see, few asked to have a selfie with Alison Jackson. Wish I had done that.