Monday, June 23, 2008

Train-wreck celebrities and me

This Wednesday the University of East Anglia stages a symposium on train-wreck female celebrities. Academics from all over the world will consider such learned papers as “Britney’s tears: the abject female celebrity in post-emotional society”; “From queen of the jungle to tabloid folk devil: Kerry Katona as white trash mother”; and “Lindsay Lohan and the culture of celebrity notoriety”.

Britain is fascinated by self-destructive female celebrities. But then we do seem to have more than our fair share of them. Naomi Campbell’s sentence of 200 hours of community service is probably less than she deserves. I just hope none of those hours are spent in my community. The woman is, quite clearly, a nightmare. But why is it that women seem to be more prone to spontaneous self-combustion than men?

For years I produced Russell Harty’s chat shows on the BBC. As a result I came across quite a few celebrities – eight a week to be precise. We met out of mutual need: I wanted the biggest names for my shows, and they wanted to plug their books and movies. We used each other without shame.

Over hundreds of episodes, two women stood out. One was Shirley MacLaine. She was the ultimate Hollywood star, surrounded by lackeys and publicists. She was also one of the most unpleasant women I have ever met. She was demanding, unreasonable, and reduced our young researchers to tears. When she stormed off in a rage into the London night because her driver had turned up at the front of the studio rather than the stage door, we were glad to see the back of her.

Then there was Diana Dors. Her life was chaotic, her career in a tailspin, yet the audience adored her, and so did we. She would have won “I’m a Celebrity” hands down. One day she rang me at home: “Tom darling, it’s Diana. You’ve got to come and see my new addition”. I duly went round to her house in Sunningdale, and there she revealed an indoor swimming pool with chandeliers, Grecian pillars and black marble panthers guarding the shallow end; it was the most outrageous lido I’d ever seen. Three weeks later we brought eight million viewers live into her home with Adam Ant, Duncan Goodhew and, absurdly, the entire British Olympic synchronised swimming team, who bobbed round in tiny circles in the deep end. Now I can’t imagine Naomi Campbell letting us do that.

Diana laid her heart on the outside of her not inconsiderable bosoms, and the public loved her honesty. But she was also grounded. She knew where she was from, and never forgot her real name, Diana Fluck, which the studios made her change in case she ever had it up in lights and one of the bulbs went. She was so unlike the humourless celebrities of today’s OK-obsessed world. She’d have charmed the BA captain into finding her lost bag.

But why is it women who get all the bad press nowadays? Surely there are just as many train-wrecked celebrity men? Look at Pete Doherty and Owen Wilson. It’s true that tabloid newspapers and magazines write far more about women. But this isn’t sexism, for the readers of OK are mostly female. The fact is, women only enjoy reading about men through the eyes of another woman: through marriage, a baby, or, best of all, a nice juicy breakup. So Coleen is the star of this week’s OK, not Wayne.

Of course, male stars can be just as unpleasant as female ones. The worst guest we ever had on Harty was Oliver Reed. He arrived at the studio drunk then, five minutes before transmission, declared he wouldn’t go on. When I pleaded with him he said, “Get down on your knees and beg me”. I meekly complied – in front of the entire audience. Now he was a real gent.

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