Celebrity group ponders nature of fame

May 26, 1993|By New York Times News Service

In addition to nuclear weapons and a slimmed-down ozone layer, the 20th century has brought the world a new kind of fame. It's faster, it's broader and it's shallower. It's the kind that's responsible for Elvis sightings, the "Geraldo" show and the idea that "superstar" is a valid career goal.

As the year 2000 approaches, fame itself is becoming famous. Who better to discuss the dynamics of fame in the 20th century than seven famous people, who gathered Monday night at the Joseph Papp Public Theater for what the panel's moderator, Clive James, promised would be "a sharply contested yet shapely symposium"? The panel members were Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue; Liz Smith, the gossip columnist for New York Newsday; Fran Lebowitz, the essayist; Harold M. Evans, the president and publisher of Random House Books; Norman Mailer, the novelist; and Ivana Trump, famous person.

Mr. James, well known to British television viewers as the host of "Saturday Night Clive," a satirical review of the week's news with celebrity interviews thrown in, has more than a passing interest in the subject. He is the host of an eight-part series, "Fame in the 20th Century," whose first episode will be broadcast on PBS on June 7, and the author of a companion volume, published, as it happens, by Random House.

In his opening remarks, reviewing the changing climate of celebrity over the years, Mr. James declared that the decisive factor in 20th-century history had been American cultural influence, and that much of it had been exercised by famous people. "They didn't have to be American to be world-famous," he said, "but they couldn't be world-famous unless they were famous in America." Mr. James made it clear he wouldn't mind a bit more of that himself.

For most of the evening, the subject of fame was illuminated in brief flashes and witty asides. Mr. Evans, introduced by Mr. James as "a man so powerful he is rumored to have access to Tina Brown without going through her secretary," recalled an occasion when he left a Manhattan restaurant and stepped into a white stretch limousine, exciting the curiosity of a group of teen-agers. They stepped up to the car, peered in the window and shouted in dismay: "You're a nobody! You're a nobody!"

Ms. Wintour took her assignment seriously. In her opening statement, she traced the rise of fashion designers and models from serfdom to celebrity over the past 40 years. The turning point, she said, was the mass-marketing of the English fashion designer Mary Quant in the '60s. Twiggy followed, ushering in the era of the supermodel. Once models got a foot in fame's door, hairdressers and photographers followed. Then restaurant owners and chefs. The trend lines converged at Studio 54, which, Ms. Wintour said, "legitimized the idea of being famous for being famous, and linked fame with fun."

Mr. Mailer, surprisingly, claimed amateur status in the discussion. "I don't know a great deal about the subject," he said. "I've lived with it, but I don't have the answers, which is good, because if you have all the answers, then you get mad if you can't speak all night."

Fame was "a dull business," he said, "a cocktail party at which there are no drinks." But its allure is undeniable. In a world that is growing uglier, blander and more austere, fame offers hope. "It gives the illusion that somewhere, life is exciting and glamorous," he said.

Not all celebrities are having fun. Most of them are complaining. Ms. Smith said she was sick and tired of the whining. "It starts as soon as they get famous," she said. "They say they feel separated from the common herd, which is what they wanted in the first place." In general, Ms. Smith approved of fame. "There's nothing ennobling about obscurity," she said, and then turned to her right. "You believe that, right, Ivana?"

"Fame is a two-edge sword," Ms. Trump said solemnly. "Many of you in this room know more about me than I would care to reveal." The upside, she said, is that she could sell a lot of books and clothes. "In my first appearance on the Home Shopping Network, we sold out in record time and in record profits." Ms. Trump brightened visibly. "I like that!" she said. The audience applauded loudly and warmly.

The best suggestion of the night was Mr. James' plan for dealing with people who plan to commit a crime in the hope of getting on television and thereby achieving fame. He proposed setting up a channel so that they could skip the serial murders and go straight to the studio.

Then again, the worst fame is television fame, said Ms. Lebowitz. Once an actor enters the nation's living rooms, he becomes part of the family and assumes all the duties that come with it.

"The best fame is a writer's fame," she said. "It's enough to get a table at a good restaurant, but not enough that you get interrupted when you eat."

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