“In the future everybody will be world famous for 15 minutes.”
The legendary words of Andy Warhol in 1968 have proven to be quite prophetic. With the rise of celebrity culture and social media, what’s trending on Twitter today, causing shockwaves and garnering international attention will soon be forgotten with the next big story.
Whereas fame used to be a by-product of talent, in today’s culture people are just ‘famous for being famous.”
The likes of Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton have paved the way for a generation of fame vultures. From the reckless stunt by “ChairGirl,” Nicole Scherzinger’s leaked nude photos, Jordyn Woods’ and Tristan Thompson’s cheating scandal to the Prada, Gucci and Katy Perry blackface fashion faux-pas, there is a common thread that ties these recent stories together: BIG. BOLD. HEADLINES.
None of these names have done anything exemplary to garner their latest attention, rather the contrary. And though people may be talking about them for all the wrong reasons, it doesn’t seem to matter. In our celebrity-obsessed society, fame doesn’t come with a conscience — bad behaviour is simply brushed over with an apology. More so than ever, the goal appears to be any publicity is better than none at all.
Enter Jussie Smollett. On Jan. 29, we were told that Smollett was allegedly attacked near his Chicago apartment at 2 a.m. by two masked assailants. They poured “an unknown chemical substance” on him, wrapped a rope around his neck, and shouted racial and homophobic slurs at him.
Nearly a month later, on Feb. 20, Smollett was charged with felony disorderly conduct for filing a false report after allegedly staging the outrageous attack against himself.
The following day, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson put Smollett under fire in an emotional press conference. “Jussie Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career,” Johnson said. “I am left hanging my head asking, ‘Why? Why would anyone, especially an African-American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations? … How can an individual who’s been embraced by the city of Chicago turn around and slap everyone in the city in the face with these false claims?”
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On Feb. 25, Johnson took to the media again, appearing on Good Morning America. He told host Robin Roberts that the Chicago police have more evidence against Smollett that has not yet been shared with the public, including “physical evidence, video evidence and testimony that just simply does not support his version of what happened.”
Smollett has denied the criminal charges and maintains his innocence. But as more information in the Smollett case is revealed, we are left baffled, bewildered and much like Johnson, want an answer to the simple question — why?
In a 2011 interview with Palm Beach Post on his paper “Power, Fame, and Recovery,” U.S. psychiatrist Reef Karim said: “Little kids today don’t want to be doctors or lawyers. They just want to be famous.”
Social media has further exasperated this phenomenon, and now it’s not just kids but adults who are becoming addicted to fame at any cost — to themselves and society.
John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at Columbia University has a theory on Smollett’s actions, building on the notion of fame, which he coins victimhood chic.
What does it say about the society we live in if you can convince yourself that being the victim of a heinous racist and homophobic hate crime will make you more popular?
It’s a pretty twisted mentality, but the theory holds true — because Smollett was more popular — doing media interviews, trending online and garnering worldwide sympathy, from fellow actors to politicians and activists — for that brief moment before it all went south.
And while he’s not garnering the same sympathy, he still has our attention, dominating headlines and social media — even from the U.S. President.
Donna Rockwell, a clinical psychologist who specializes in fame and celebrity, told The Hollywood Reporter that “one of the darkest corners of fame is that it becomes addictive and then you are so afraid of becoming a has-been or yesterday’s news that you might do something desperate.”
“There’s an incredible amount of pressure on people to stay relevant, to stay white hot in celebrity,” Rockwell said. In the case of Smollett, being in show business from childhood could have played a role, Rockwell added. “To just be a so-so actor isn’t enough. With child actors, this is embedded in their psyche from an early age. It would be more frightening to a child star than someone who didn’t start that young. They’re always afraid that this could be the end.”
As the weeks have passed, I have personally gone through a myriad of emotions with this case. Like many others, my immediate reaction was an almost visceral one. I was overwhelmed with feelings of sadness, fear and rage and held utmost sympathy and support for Smollett. It never crossed my mind that someone could make up something so vile. As the story has unfolded, I have felt embarrassed for being “duped” to later accepting that my reaction was a reasonable one in standing in support with a victim. Now I am simply saddened because hoax or not, the consequences on society are very real. I fear for even myself, whose natural inclination is to believe, because I may now subconsciously second-guess my gut because of this one highly publicized incident. And that is a terrible thing.
Dangerously so, the Smollett affair has put an undeserving spotlight on faked hate crimes. According to FBI statistics, there were 7,175 reported hate crimes in the U.S., of which just 23 were hoaxes. However, hate crimes are on the rise, up from 6,121 in 2016, part of a growing trend over the past five years.
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Likewise in Canada, we have seen a steady climb in hate crimes since 2014, with numbers reaching an all-time high in 2017 of 2,073 (up 47 per cent over the previous year) largely driven by attacks targeting Muslim, Jewish and black people, according to Statistics Canada.
Whatever the outcome in the Smollett case, serious damage has been done. It has put a further rift in an already deeply divided United States. Moreover, it has detracted from the real hate crimes that are happening in America and here in Canada, with the risk of making victims even more reluctant to report these very real crimes than they already are. As Johnson expressed in the press conference on Feb. 21, “My concern is that hate crimes will be met with a level of skepticism that previously didn’t happen.”
There is no happy ending in this story. I don’t want Smollett to be the victim of such an ugly hate attack, nor do I want him to be so deranged in his quest for fame to have faked one. It has led to the harm of many others, and an ill fate for himself. I do hope it causes all of us to pause and reflect on how we are feeding into celebrity culture, because there is a very real and lasting cost to society that lingers long after that 15 minutes of fame is up.