Leave Them Alone! A Reading List On Celebrity and Privacy

Todd Williamson / Invision for JDRF / AP

I read Alana Massey’s essay collection, All The Lives I Want: Essays About My Friends Who Happen to be Famous Strangerswith a pencil in hand. I read it behind the counter at work when it was quiet and customer-free. I read it in bed, long after my partner and cat had fallen asleep. I read it in Starbucks when I should’ve been writing but needed inspiration. Massey is a writer I’ve followed since I became interested in journalism. I admired her incisive blend of pop culture and literary criticism. I especially loved when she wrote about religion—Massey spent time at Yale Divinity School—because I went to a conservative Christian college and I was yearning to see how I could translate my weird, vaguely traumatic religious background into beautiful sentences. I bought her book as a reward for myself for meeting a writing deadline.

This reading list is partially inspired by Massey’s excellent writing about the way our society honors and rejects celebrated women—and also about society’s inclination, if not blatant desire, to know every little detail about our favorite celebrities and judge them according to our own arbitrary moral standards. (I’m not immune to this: I spent ten minutes in bed Googling potential paramours of one of my favorite YouTube stars, even though I know it’s none of my damn business.) Why do we feel like we own celebrities—not just their art or their products, but their images and their personal lives? What do celebrities owe us, if anything?

One of the many moments that struck me in All The Lives I Want was a quotation from Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, which Massey employs in her own essay about the Lisbon sisters: “In the end, we had the pieces of the puzzle, but no matter how we put them together, gaps remained, oddly shaped emptinesses mapped by what surrounded them, like countries we couldn’t name.” We can know celebrities’ favorite foods, their birthdays, their thoughts on feminism, but we can’t know them, no matter how many Instagram Live videos they share, exercise classes they teach, or meet-and-greets they attend. Are we prepared to accept that?

1. What We Miss When We Miss Richard Simmons

On Thursday, People magazine released a teaser for their weekend issue with Richard Simmons’ smiling face on the cover. His presence coincides with his absence from the finale of “Missing Richard Simmons,” a popular six-part podcast debating the whereabouts of the exercise guru, who disappeared from public life several years ago. I listened to the first three episodes, which were beautifully produced, but eventually felt weird about the conceit. I was sad for Simmons’ friends. How would I feel if someone I loved dropped off the face of the earth and didn’t think to let me know? Then again, none of my friends are cultural icons who spent most of their adult lives in the public eye. “Missing Richard Simmons” demonstrates more about the people who yearn for Simmons public resurrection than it does about Simmons well-being.

At The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert, in “The Ethical Minefield of Missing Richard Simmons,” writes about the ethics of journalism and the ethics of friendship:

[Host Dan Taberski] rehashed questions about Simmons’s sexuality, his mental health, and the rumor that he was transitioning from male to female. He weighed his subject’s desire for privacy with his own desire for information and closure, and decided that the latter was more important.

And at NPR Linda Holmes, in “‘Missing Richard Simmons’ And The Nature Of Being Known,” writes about the importance of boundaries professional and personal:

The more the gratitude is for what has already been done, the more it is written on paper: I’m so grateful for the thing you made; it meant the world to me. That is weightless; it is wonderful. The closer it gets to expecting something from you in the future, something that must continue, the more it is written on stone: You’re the only one who understands me. You’re the only reason I can get out of bed every day. I have a feeling Richard Simmons received a lot of gratitude written on stones.

2. Massey’s Corner

Let’s kick off Massey’s Corner with “Your Imaginary Relationship With a Celebrity” (Pacific Standard, April 2015). In the 1950s, Massey explains, researchers named a new kind of relationship, “parasocial interaction,” which described the bond fans felt with the burgeoning TV stars of their time. The intensity of parasocial interaction has only increased with with social media. There’s an illusion of egalitarianism as Taylor Swift sends care packages and Christmas gifts to the laypeople and Selena Gomez reveals which CD she’d choose if she were you.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t include excerpts from All The Lives I Want:

3. The Excess of Access

  • When parasocial interactions go wrong, fans resort to harassment and stalking; reporter Claudia Rosenbaum spoke to detectives in the Los Angeles Police Department’s Threat Management Unit.
  • Remember when tabloids broke the news? Social media decimated the paparazzi industry.
  • One Direction fans are really, really intense re: virtual and physical proximity to their boys, whether they’re writing slash fic or trapping them inside a bakery.
  • We’d do well to remember Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, the Queen of Tejano, murdered by the mentally ill president of her fan club and close friend.
  • And what kind of creep sells a celebrity’s naked photos on the internet?

4. Ferrante Fever

I want to conclude with a story about literary celebrity. In October 2016, Claudio Gatti “unmasked”the acclaimed, pseudonymous Italian author Elena Ferrante in the London Review of Books. The purported revelation of Ferrante’s true identity led to a flurry of thinkpieces, the majority lambasting Gatti’s misogyny and insensitivity. What Gatti declared investigative journalism seemed, instead, a pointless intrusion. What a world we live in now, where a desire for privacy is perceived by unimaginative men as a marketing gimmick. Now, Ferrante may not write for the public again.

At n+1, “Bluebeard” includes a lovely catalog of the physical and psychological spaces acclaimed writers have utilized. Dayna Tortorici makes clear just how much Ferrante has given to her readers and her critics, from interviews to interpretive aids, as well as a variety of perfectly valid reasons for remaining anonymous:

More than Ferrante herself, her readers have benefited from her choice, spared so much extradiegetic noise. We are as invested in her anonymity—and her autonomy—as she is. It is a compact: she won’t tell us, we won’t ask, and she won’t change her mind and tell us anyway. In exchange, she’ll write books and we’ll read them…It’s difficult to read a man’s attempt to ‘out’ a writer who has said she would stop writing if she were ever identified as anything but an attempt to make her stop writing.

Ann Friedman wrote a brief piece for New York Magazine, exploring the connection between Kim Kardashian’s terrifying burglary in Paris, France and Gatti’s invasion of Ferrante’s private life. The essay is pointedly tagged “choices“:

In theory, each woman decides how exposed she’d like to be on social media. In reality, it’s not so simple….Don’t listen to Ferrante’s outers or Kardashian’s haters, who say that women who shy away from publicity are inviting exposure and women court publicity are inviting attack. Listen to women themselves when they declare how much privacy they want.