Debating current affairs
Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Strange things occur when celebrities visit

Sir Don McKinnon. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Sir Don McKinnon. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Sir Don McKinnon must be feeling pretty silly right now. No sooner had the former Deputy Prime Minister asserted the inevitability of New Zealand ditching the monarchy than Kiwis of all ages, stages, shoe sizes, star signs, income brackets, ethnic backgrounds and philosophical persuasions fell truly, madly, deeply in love with the Cambridges.

Once again Prime Minister John Key was in sync with the public mood: "There's absolutely no doubt that [the young royals] have added a huge amount of enthusiasm for the royal family."

In fact, it's McKinnon who's seeing the big picture. "There's a celebrity side of it," said the former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth. "These are two very attractive young people and wherever they go, in the United States and elsewhere, they get crowds."

It's almost impossible to overestimate the power and pervasiveness of celebrity culture. Take the case of the young woman who went to a Bruce Springsteen concert recently.

When the time came for the Boss to invite a female member of the audience to dance with him onstage, his eye fell on her and she spent a couple of minutes in his apparently still brawny arms.

After the concert it took her over an hour to get away from Mt Smart because of the number of people wanting to get her autograph. In town that night she didn't have to buy a drink. At the airport the following day people queued to have their photograph taken with her.

Incidentally, the first celebrity royal was Edward, Prince of Wales who went on to become Edward VIII. He was the most photographed celebrity during the 1920s, inspiring a song that went "I'm wild with exultation, I'm dizzy with success, for I've danced with a man who danced with a girl who danced with the Prince of Wales". Edward abdicated over his insistence on marrying American divorcee Wallis Simpson. There are various ways of interpreting the crisis he precipitated, one of which is that when push came to shove, he wasn't prepared to let the responsibilities of being a constitutional monarch inhibit his celebrity lifestyle.

Celebrity culture is based on the transformative power of fame: when you become famous you also become fundamentally different from ordinary folk. The famous are elevated into super-beings in much the same way as primitive communities elevated mystics and charlatans into prophets and miracle workers.

And celebrity culture validates vicariousness: there's nothing wrong with having a virtual relationship with your idol. Indeed, there's a lot to be said for it since some of their magic may rub off on you.

The mass media is the engine that drives celebrity culture, and this week our media went into overdrive.

The royals need this hype since their fame doesn't have much underpinning it. It is, essentially, accidental as opposed to being based on achievement, however dubious. Thus William's proposal was the first step in Kate Middleton's transformation from just another pretty product of middle-class suburbia into a glamorous international style icon. The media did the rest.

According to the Dominion-Post's man on the royal tour, Kate displayed "a smile that cut through the drizzle, and a sense of fashion that drew 'ohs' from onlookers". I think it's safe to say none of those onlookers will be offered a job by Vogue magazine any time soon: she was wearing a pillbox hat, for goodness sake.

She was also "fearless when faced with a bare-buttocked Maori warrior". Was there a clear and present danger? If so, what was it? I think we should be told.

But Kate is at least a fully formed human being. According to the Dom-Post's front page headline, the big takeaway from day one of the royal visit was, "Gorgeous George blows fans away". If 8-month-old George really does have a fan club, its members are in dire need of more specific advice than "get a life". On day three ("New Georgian era") the Dom-Post detected three kingly qualities - chivalry, bravery and leadership - during George's playtime with 10 Plunket babies at Government House.

Bravery? Apparently, it was terrifically brave of him not to be overawed by "wee Kiwi strangers gurgling in weird accents". The lad's clearly officer material.

You can say it's all harmless fun, no one got hurt and so what if the media chooses to go into women's magazine circa 1955 mode. Or you can ask what it says about us that we cling like timid children to this aristocratic family on the other side of the world and descend into infantilism every time they grace us with their presence.

- NZ Herald

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