For a decade of my young life, I made my living writing about the ups and downs of Hollywood celebrities. The 1980s were the golden age of The National Enquirer, when the low-hanging fruit of Celebritydom grew from only a handful of trees: The Movies (Burt Reynolds), Network Television (Anyone from Dallas), and that weird, vaporous world of the Famous-Because-They’re Famous (remember the Gabor Sisters?).
I’m really glad I got out of that gig when I did, because in the ensuing two decades, the definition of celebrity has exploded. For one thing, politicians seem to be clamoring to elbow their way onto the gossip pages (thank you, Bill Clinton). For another, that hard-to-define category of the inexplicably famous—now known as “reality show stars”—has grown to the point of overwhelming the ranks of those who are famous because they’ve actually done something.
Oh, dear children, Grampa Bill could regale you with stories of Enquirer reporters creating an intricate network of TinselTown informers, a trusted stable of insiders who were kept on retainer just for the purpose of relaying some occasional juicy detail from the storied lives of Liz Taylor and Rock Hudson and Johnny Carson (and I could also tell you about the fevered late-night phone calls from celebrities themselves, worried that they hadn’t been mentioned in our pages recently, planting some first-person dirt of their own).
Nowadays, the celebrity net is so broad that all an enterprising gossip writer need do is sit back, click on the police scanner, and wait for someone, almost anyone, to do something stupid. The public appetite for gossip has become so voracious, and the bar for what qualifies as gossip has been set so low, that a minor actor climbing out of his car, glancing at a TMZ camera and saying, “I’m here for my dry cleaning” qualifies as a scoop.
It seems impossible that gossip, always the most trivial of news categories, could be itself trivialized, but that has indeed happened. And so when a truly tragic human drama unfolds for a star—be it Charlie Sheen or Mel Gibson or Britney Spears—the instinct of the media and its audience is to simply lump that sad story in with the drinking binges, car wrecks, and romantic bust-ups that remain the bread-and-butter of celebrity gossip.
Does it bother you to see Charlie Sheen being encouraged to unravel before the nation’s eyes? I think it should. Here is a man clearly in pain, a man with a family who loves him and, I would hope, friends who are worried about him. We’re being asked to laugh at Sheen’s decline; and indeed if your brother were to come cycloning into your living room talking a mile a minute like Charlie, you might laugh for a minute, assuming it was all a joke. Ten minutes later, you’d be calling 911.
At the risk of heading down the Hypocrite’s Highway, as a one-time war horse in the gossip battles, each time I accidentally click by those smug, giggling adolescents who pass for reporters on TMZ, I want to smack their smirky faces. The sad thing is, I imagine there was a time when Liz Smith or Rex Reed would have felt the same way about me.