Glittering image of celebrity-hero thrown for a loss

June 17, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- There is a moment, in the lives of some whom society holds up as idols, when private character collides with a public persona. It is at this juncture that Americans often make a jarring, unwanted discovery: Their gods have feet of clay.

John F. Kennedy, we learn after his death, cheated on his wife. A bloated Elvis Presley, his body brimming with drugs, takes his last breath on a bathroom floor. Magic Johnson cuts short his brilliant basketball career, disclosing that his promiscuity is responsible for his infection with the virus that causes AIDS.

Now there is O.J. -- so likable, so friendly, so familiar that the initials need not be followed by a last name.

Orenthal James Simpson is not charged with any crime, but he has wandered into a maelstrom that already is tarnishing his reputation, possibly beyond recovery. In the minds of his public lurk unspeakable, unthinkable images that do not comport with their perception of a man who has befriended them through their TV and movie screens.

News vans and paparazzi now surround Mr. Simpson's Brentwood home while he cloisters himself inside. Defense lawyers speak for a man who once spoke eloquently for himself. Ugly details of spousal abuse are being aired anew. Unnamed police sources whisper about shreds of evidence -- a bloody glove, a late-night trip to Chicago -- that may or may not implicate the man many call the greatest running back of all time in the murder of his pretty former wife and her handsome waiter friend, 10 years younger.

Another hero, it seems, is falling from grace. People are shocked, disappointed. "He seemed like such a civilized guy," one crushed fan laments as he pores over a newspaper story containing sordid allegations that Mr. Simpson had beaten his wife in the past.

Should another tumbling icon come as any big surprise? Not really, according to psychologists, sociologists and observers of popular culture. Scandals like the one enveloping Mr. Simpson come about, these experts say, because of the unique tendency of Americans -- through television, the movies, the print media and advertising -- to embellish heroes by assigning qualities of perfection to those who are not perfect.

"The nature of the medium of celebrity is to make [stars] seem familiar to us," says David Harris, a San Francisco writer and author of a book on the National Football League. "We think we know them. They are people that are in some way included, in the psychological sense, as extended family. That's the illusion that keeps being punctured in these things. Stepping back from it, how could we think we knew who he was?"

Yet even Mr. Harris said part of him -- the part that is purely a football fan -- was stunned to learn police might be considering Mr. Simpson a suspect in the brutal slayings of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Lyle Goldman. The pair were discovered stabbed to death shortly after midnight Sunday, their bodies sprawled on a walkway near the condominium where Nicole Simpson lived with the couple's two young children.

"Famous people are very important in a democratic society," says Leo Braudy, an English professor at the University of Southern California and the author of "The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and its History." Americans, Professor Braudy says, "have an ongoing preoccupation with the famous as enlarged images of ourselves, ideal versions, versions of traits we'd like to have . . . or do have in small amounts."

The sports world is a place where people still yearn for untainted heroes to remain untainted, says Steven Stark, who comments on popular culture for National Public Radio. So it is especially devastating when sports heroes fall. Recent sports history is full of scandal, ranging from outfielder Darryl Strawberry's drug problems to boxer Mike Tyson's conviction for rape to baseball great Pete Rose's gambling exploits.

"Sports is this place that we like to think is pure, whereas the rest of society has been corrupted," Mr. Stark says. "It's a place where clear rules apply. There is always black and white, there is a winner and a loser."

The refrain -- "Could he really do that?" -- is now being echoed across the nation about Mr. Simpson, despite the legal presumption that he is innocent. The shock is especially acute because of the vast gulf between the football star's image and the grisly nature of the crime at hand.

Mr. Simpson's story was the stuff of media legends -- a local boy who made good and overcame a difficult life, born in what was then the predominantly black Potrero Hill section of San Francisco to a hospital worker mother who was separated from his father.

"He led an aimless, street-corner existence," reads one 1969 biography of Mr. Simpson, "running with a gang and coming close to serious trouble with the law on several occasions before his energies found a positive outlet in athletics."

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