We Are All Famous Now
A Listers & Z Listers
My husband takes me to see the movie Author, and I become obsessed with the story of JT Leroy, the literary phenomenon who was unmasked as a fictional figure created by the writer Laura Albert. Albert’s story is harrowing, perplexing, wholly absorbing. The film asks more questions of its audience than it answers. What is fame? What do we want from writers? What is it about a spotlight that simultaneously withdraws and repels us? What do we do when we want everyone to see us, and no-one to look at us?
A few days earlier, I attend a launch event for press and “influencers”. I’m early, and I don’t know many of the other guests. I talk to a woman who introduces herself as a blogger, and says her name as if she expects me to light up. “Aha! Wow, it’s you!” I try to make the right face, but it’s too late. In conversation I mention a friend who has written a book that I’m very excited about. She’s a huge talent, I say, and I think this book is going to change things for the better. I’m so excited. The blogger’s face turns in half a second, like a sky switched to grey on a sultry summer’s day. She’s upset about young women, pretty women, thin women, successful women thinking that anything is new, that anyone could have the answers. It’s all been done before. She’s done it all before. She’s been ripped off. Once her name was on everyone’s lips, now it’s just her ideas. What’s the point?
At the end of the week, I’m on a panel at a conference discussing the celebrities of new media and the responsibilities that old media has towards them. The star of the panel is a petite, slender, cartoonishly beautiful girl. She’s charming. She makes me feel like a troll living under the bridge in a fairy tale, my inner ugliness, my jealousy and resentfulness making me grotesque on the outside. She’s famous because she talks about beauty and body confidence. Before I was asked to go on the panel, I’d never heard her name. I discover she has a million Instagram followers. She talks about the pressures of fame, how every major global media outlet wanted to interview her, how difficult life is and how unfair it is that newspapers only want to talk about the negative news if you’re a famous internet person. Later, Troll Me tells my friends “She was describing herself as if she was Madonna, and had just dropped Material Girl. I don’t understand.”
A couple of nights ago, or early mornings ago, I wake up at 4AM and find myself dwelling on a magazine commission that I’m worried about. A formerly friendly editor has been hiring me less and less, and has gone so quiet about a recent piece of work that I’m convinced it’s going to be killed. What have I done? Does everyone hate me? Is my career over? Who am I? I Google my name, searching for proof, searching for hope, searching for my reflection in the reeds. I Google ‘narcissist’. I think about Gary Shteyngart’s book, Super Sad True Love Story, a dystopian tale in which everyone wears a device around their neck that details their metrics, giving evidence of their fame and fiscal worth. I want the device. I want to reduce myself to my metrics, my digital bones.
I think about an anecdote my husband told me about a drinks thing he went to a while ago without me. My name was mentioned, and a man neither of us had ever met before said “Huh, you’re going out with her?” in a way that might have been impressed or mocking. It made me feel a bit sick and scared. Who else can see me, squeezing my spots, shilling my secrets? I’ve chosen to do this. It’s how I make rent. It might be easier if I didn’t often think that everyone is better at it than me.
I read a spectacular essay by Heather Haverilesky about what it means to be young, or youngish, ambitious, too connected, frightened. It’s a sort of Millennials Prayer. “You must live your best life and be the best version of yourself, otherwise you’re nothing and no-one,” is how she puts it. If I am not the best, I am the worst. If I am not the most, I am the least. And I cannot possibly be the best or the most. I burst into tears.
Many of my friends are very, very successful. I go to parties where more than half the guests have book deals. I spot their names on television credits, bestseller lists, newspaper bylines. I’m proud. I’m jealous. I am incapable of not comparing their work to my work, and coming out bottom. Am I a narcissist? I am a narcissist. If you think about yourself all the time, you’re a narcissist. Even if you think you’re shit.
Particular friends are doing incredibly well — so well that their work is dissected in a broadsheet by a lesser known artist who claims they have been copied. Knowing the story behind the story, I understand the claims are false — but I wonder why the artist continues to make them. Especially when the success of my friends is only boosting the artist’s fortune, and selling their product for them. What is the difference between wanting recognition and just wanting as much attention as possible? At what point does the desire for fame force us to alter our narratives, to believe the stories we have invented?
No-one admits to feeling good, or having their lives together. Everyone I ask can come up with a minimum of ten failures for every success. I remember reeling when a journalist I adore told me that she reckoned her pitch success rate was about four pieces out of every ten. It’s estimated that lions only achieve a kill once in every five hunts. They don’t eat every day. They just make sure that when they do, they are sustained by their feed. When you write, or paint, or make things, how can you ensure that your kills sustain you?
A few years ago, Facebook found out that its users spend most of their time on the site looking at their own page. “I have noticed,” wrote Nancy Mitford in 1945, as Fanny, “that when women look at themselves in every reflection…it is hardly ever, as generally supposed, from vanity, but much more often from a feeling that all is not quite as it should be.” Can everyone see us? Who is looking at us?
Do you remember Justin Bobby? Jeremy Spake? Maureen Rees? Kari Ferrell? Ally Hilfiger? Morgan Olsen? Gemma Gregory? Fredrik Ferrier? Nick Bateman? Anna Nolan? Normandie Keith? Lucinda Ledgerwood? I used to want to know everything about the lives of the people on that list. Now I need help to spell their names.
Laura Albert responds to my tweet about the movie. I haven’t named her. I haven’t used her Twitter handle. I imagine her sat in a coffee shop in San Francisco, searching and scrolling, asking the binary runes “Who can see me? Is everyone looking at me? Is anyone?”
We see ourselves as A Listers and Z Listers. Everything is interesting, everything is publishable, every moment is filtered, curated and put on display. We’ve trapped ourselves behind mirrors, and our gaze has warped the glass. As our view of ourselves becomes more grandiose, we zero in on our own flaws, we become detached from ourselves, we’re subject and objectifier, we’re on either end of the long range lens. We are all famous now, in our heads, in our hearts, on the internet. And this is what’s going to break us.