People who need People are the luckiest people

December 07, 1993|By Russell Baker

WHENEVER I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, then I account it high time to consult People magazine as soon as I can, for I recognize the symptoms all too clearly. Elitism has cast its pall upon me.

The mail confirms it. "Elitist!" growls the displeased reader, proud of being that celebrity-besotted corporate human, The Common Person, which is composed of The Common Man and The Common Woman. People magazine is my cure for this elitist onset.

Off I rush to the nearest doctor's, or dentist's, or optometrist's office, slip past the receptionist without so much as a "Have a nice day!" while filching a People off the coffee table, and flee.

Why, you may ask, don't I read People at the grocery checkout counter? Because that's where I read Time and Newsweek to keep up with the great trends of our age, thereby acquiring my deplorable elitism. There is something about checkout-counter reading that is conducive to profound and high-toned thought, and that something is, I suspect, either Time or Newsweek.

People magazine, however, brings me back into contact with people, which is to say the great American celebrity consumer who knows at a glance who Luke and Minnie are and who grazes happily on year-old fodder about Diana.

"Diana's Lonely Battle" is the cover story in my filched People magazine. Everyone not blinded by elitism will instantly recognize that the Diana doing lonely battle is not Diana the Moon Goddess, nor Lady Diana Duff Cooper who was Evelyn Waugh's pen pal, nor the incomparable Diana Ross, supremest of Supremes.

The only Diana for people who read People is the one now separated from the Prince of Wales. If you have to ask who Luke and Minnie are, you must be as elitist as I am, and ought to be ashamed of yourself, and had better filch a People right away.

It is safe to assume, though, that Luke and Minnie are not really people, because People practically never deals with people unless they have been murdered by killers so celebrated that they have risen above mere people status and become celebrities, which is to say -- People.

My filched People contains snaps of two women who have taken that road to fame, but the big photo is of the man who is suspected of killing perhaps 17 women, including these two in the snapshots.

Some celebrities who fill the pages of People might take offense at the suggestion that they are not really people. Many celebrities go on for years kidding themselves about being real people, though it should be obvious that if they were real people they couldn't possibly turn up in People magazine without getting murdered.

Elmore Leonard, America's most readable writer, makes the point perfectly in his novel "Get Shorty" when he describes a movie actor who wanted to be a regular guy, but had been a movie actor for so long he'd forgotten how.

The whole point of People magazine is to gratify people's desire to read about humans who have escaped the shackles of peopledom and become celebrities, which is to say People with a capital P.

In America it is vital to know who these People are, and people do know. If you don't you are obviously not people and are not only going to be left out of a lot of conversations, but are also going to be out of your depth when watching "Entertainment Tonight."

So I am rifling desperately through People. It is amazing how many new celebrities can spring up overnight. It's nice to see Billy Crystal survives; he was here last time I took the People cure. So were Yves Saint Laurent and Regis Philbin, good old Regis.

But rapper Tupac Shakur? Later I must turn to Page 89 to see if that name is maybe one of those put-on jokes about Joe Sixpak. Now, though, I'm too busy meeting David Marks, Oksana Baiul, Kiki Ebsen, Bruce Campbell, Tom Dorrance, Penelope Ann Miller. And what about ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin!

Somebody, maybe Eric Sevareid, once defined a celebrity as a person who was famous for being famous. It must be worse than that, though. There's something cannibalistic in the public demand for People to feed on. Maybe a celebrity is also a person doomed to be eaten by people.

Russell Baker, a Person in his own right, is a columnist for the New York Times.

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