Copyright ©2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

More and more of us, it seems, are famous for less and less - "American Idol" runners-up and sex-tape celebrities, along with quarterbacks and sitcom stars. But even if they're only famous for being famous, says writer Tom Payne, that makes them different from you and me, part of a long line of demigods that can be traced to the dawn of civilization.

Indeed, Payne argues, these are people we need, people who have been essential to the creation and continuity of civilization. Homer, Euripides and Horace all had plenty to say about their contemporary versions of Snookie, Alex Rodriguez and The Situation.

There are people almost everyone, though, can agree ought to be lauded, rewarded and widely celebrated: Nelson Mandela. That's not who we're talking about today.

Who's the celebrity you need to be famous? What part does he or she play in your life? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates, as we continue our conversations with people from diverse backgrounds on what's changed in 2010.

But first, Tom Payne. His book is "Fame: What The Classics Tell Us About Our Cult Of Celebrity," and he joins us from the BBC studios in Dorset. Nice to have you with us today. Happy New Year.

Mr. TOM PAYNE (Author, "Fame: What The Classics Tell Us About Our Cult Of Celebrity"): Hello, Happy New Year.

CONAN: And I guess another subtitle for your book could have been "Fame: From the Bronze Age to Britney."

Mr. PAYNE: Yes. There was a moment when I was thinking of writing it right from the dawn of time and seeing how things had changed. But in the end I ended up making it a series of studies and looking at how far back we could go with different aspects of fame.

CONAN: You start, though, with an incident that many of us will remember from more recent tabloid headlines, and that's the aforementioned Britney Spears shaving her hair off.

Mr. PAYNE: Yes. I was very surprised by that image and became intrigued, as lots of us did, I think, in the question of how much she wanted us to see of that incident, how public it was.

And there have been lots of theories about why she did it. For example, the hairdresser in question thought she just needed to sort her roots out. Someone thought that she needed to get evidence of drug abuse out of her hair and these kinds of things.

But there was this knowing look at the crowd that had gathered around her which seemed like a kind of sign, and even if it wasn't a sign, it made me think, well, what really matters, what's really worth exploring about this situation and many like it is what we make of it.

So it's the way in which we responded to that that's as much a part of the story as to what on Earth it was that she had in her mind when she was doing it.

CONAN: And this was, of course, part of the downfall of a great star, part of the arc of every star, it seems.

Mr. PAYNE: Yes. In a way it seems like a clich� to say that we knock them up and then we bring them down. And again, one of the disturbing aspects about the way that gesture was seen was that I remember looking on a YouTube clip of it and someone had written as their message: Don't you just love watching somebody self-destruct in the fast lane? And then they'd written: Mwa-ha-ha-ha, in that sinister, cackley way.

And it is part of that, and he really - that correspondent really captured something of the pleasure people seem to feel in that cycle, no matter how cruel it is.

At least, I suppose, one comfort is that if you go back further in history, people are crueler still.

CONAN: And that is called schadenfreude, taking pleasure in the discomfort of others, yet you say it plays an important part in how we all see ourselves as not like them, and going back to the dawn of time, the dawn of civilization, it's played an important part in bonding people together.

Mr. PAYNE: I think that's true. I think the bonding thing is almost like what we experience when we're in a congregation or a church or a mosque or wherever we are, that we gather around a story and we bond around it.

For example, in Islam there's the Festival of Eid, where people remember the sacrifice, the sacrifice that didn't quite happen with Abraham and Isaac.

So continually there's a sort of violence or deferred violence or something we do instead of being violent, and often we do that around a central figure.

So the cult of celebrity seems to be another way of doing that, that we have these people, we glorify them, and then when it's time, when we decide communally and collectively, we can deprive them of their fame and often well, sometimes - their lives.

CONAN: And you talk about the story of Iphigenia, of course in Euripides' famous play. She is to be married to Achilles, the great hero, but of course it's just for one night because she is to be sacrificed if the Greek fleet is going to be able to go on and land at Troy.

Mr. PAYNE: Yes, it's an extraordinary thing, and it's an extraordinary play. It's one of those things that's almost comic, is that Iphigenia is tricked into coming to the island of Aulis because Agamemnon will have to sacrifice her, his daughter, so that the Greek fleet can sail on to Troy. And at first she's understandably upset.

CONAN: Yes.

Mr. PAYNE: But then this peculiar thing happens, is that she realizes that her own fame will accrue from this incident, and also she says: Will my own solitary death stand in the way of so many people gaining their own glory? And then she decides that she will go through with it, to the chagrin of her mother and also Achilles.

There's this extraordinary image in the play as well, where Achilles decides: I'm not going to let you die. And all his soldiers are outside of his tent, banging on the wall, saying: We need her, we need her sacrifice.

It's one of those baying images that links up, I think, with those scenes around Britney Spears, those scenes around gladiators as well, and Christian martyrs.

CONAN: And Christian martyrs as well. It's interesting. You also take it to the level of sports car drivers and bullfighters. You quote the great Federico Garcia Lorca - pounding grief, you say, for the moment of loss of the bullfighter Ignacio Sanchez Mejias, groups of silence in the corners at 5:00 in the afternoon and the bull alone is left high-hearted at 5:00 in the afternoon, and later nobody knows you, but I sing of you for posterity, I sing of your profile and grace, of the signal maturity of your understanding, of your appetite for death and the taste of its mouth, of the sadness of your once-valiant gaiety.

Celebrating, for example, the idea that this man went into the ring knowing that he faced death.

Mr. PAYNE: Yes, and that would have been one of the attractions of seeing the fights, the possibility that that could have happened. With bullfighting as well you have the idea that there will be something, there will be a communal sacrifice, an animal will be dispatched in a more competitive way than an animal would have been killed in a Greek sacrifice or a Roman sacrifice.

But you know that there will be blood, and there will also - well, in that case there was the blood of the bullfighter as well, which was commemorated, and now he's the one bullfighter, dare I say, of whom I've heard.

CONAN: We're talking with Tom Payne, the author of "Fame: What The Classics Tell Us About Our Cult Of Celebrity." We'd like to know who the celebrity - which celebrity is important in your life and why. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Andrew, Andrew with us from Ann Arbor.

ANDREW (Caller): Hello, Neal. I love the show, and thank you so much for having me on.

CONAN: Well, thank you for calling, and thanks for the kind words.

ANDREW: I would like to kind of talk to your guest about, I guess, "Jersey Shore." And I find it fascinating, looking at this concept of the cult of celebrity throughout history.

And I really agree with his comments on it almost being a bonding experience. I'm a college male who's in a lot of, you know, socializing situations.

And it's - you know, for me it's like a lot of the time, if there's no other thing to talk about, you can almost universally talk about "Jersey Shore" or something like that. And it really brings that idea of it being a social, I guess, construct into focus.

CONAN: So you can talk with your friends - can you believe what Snookie did the other night?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANDREW: Exactly, and it's - I guess at first, when I started watching "Jersey Shore," I resisted it for so long because it is, it is like that. It's can you believe, you know, what's going on here, here and here. But it's almost being able to separate yourself from that.

And then I guess almost you feel like a cut above, which is, which is kind of condescending but kind of interesting as to how that plays into psychology in general. So I was wondering what your guest has to say about the psychology. Is there anything actually going on in our brains, particularly, when this kind of thing happens?

Mr. PAYNE: Yeah, it's a hard thing to answer that because I've heard it argued strenuously that we're not hard-wired to admire celebrities. But I think we must be.

I think that these people fill an essential role in our lives, and I think to take it on the level that you're talking about, where we can bond by talking about Snookie or The Situation, if we underestimate that, we underestimate the power of gossip.

And the power of gossip really can't be underestimated. It's absolutely vital to us, and it does connect us. It helps us understand what someone else is like, for example. So if you and I have a different view of Snookie, then in coming to talk about that, we'll have a view on how you and I would get on as well.

ANDREW: Oh, okay, yeah.

Mr. PAYNE: So it's an important icebreaker, even if that's a thing, and it is a thing.

Virgil talks about fame, and he calls it fama. The Latin word is fama. But it doesn't really mean fame. It means something very much like gossip or rumor.

And he says that it starts off really little, and then it - bit by bit it grows so tall that its head's above the clouds, and then it sprouts wings, and every wing has 100 eyes and ears and mouths.

And before long, this gossip thing, this casual conversation about what Snookie did get up to and what we think about Snookie, has gone global. This is - Virgil was writing before the Drudge Report or before news broadcasts and Twitter.

But it's still there. It's the same thing. And although the way in which it happens has changed, I think something fundamental about us is the same. We need that gossip.

CONAN: I was going to say perhaps he'd not heard of basic cable, Virgil, so...

Mr. PAYNE: No...

CONAN: Starting out small. Andrew, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

ANDREW: Yes, thank you so much. And I feel like only TALK OF THE NATION could take something like "Jersey Shore" and make it so, so intelligent. So thank you (unintelligible)...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We're doing our best. Tom Payne is with us. His book is "Fame: What The Classics Tell Us About Our Cult Of Celebrity." Among the things he writes about is Stravinsky's ballet "The Rite of Spring," perhaps the best-known resurrection of this theme(ph). Its subtitle is "Scenes from Pagan Russia."

As Stravinsky explained, the idea behind the music came to him in a dream: I saw in imagination a solemn pagan rite, sage elders seated in a circle watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.

It's a kind of fame that may not be too attractive, but, well, is it all that different from Kurt Cobain or the aforementioned Britney Spears?

Who's the celebrity you need in your life and why? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Neal Conan.

US Weekly, Paris Hilton, TMZ, products of a hyperactive celebrity culture but not necessarily a new obsession. We're talking with Tom Payne about his book "Fame: What The Classics Tell Us About Our Cult Of Celebrity."

He traces the relationship of our modern obsession with fame all the way back to ancient civilization. Even Catullus, the writer Payne calls the smartest poet of the Roman Republic, was not above a little celebrity namedropping. You can read more about it in an excerpt from "Fame" at our website. That's at npr.org.

We'd like to hear from you as well. Who's the celebrity you need to be famous? What part does he or she play in your life? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

CONAN: And let's go next to Bryce(ph), and Bryce with us from Flint, Michigan.

BRYCE (Caller): Good afternoon. Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: Sure.

BRYCE: Great topic as always, wonderful show.

CONAN: Thank you.

BRYCE: I was really fascinated by hearing the recent mention of Stravinsky and the whole "Rite of Spring" and the beautiful young girl as the inspiration. And it made me think of a more contemporary version with "South Park" about three years ago, when they, you know, did their whole Britney Spears meltdown thing.

(Unintelligible) the whole, you know, ending of the story was that she was the latest in a line of beautiful young girls who had to be sacrificed for our own, you know, survival.

CONAN: And Tom Payne, perhaps the writers of "South Park" anticipating your book.

Mr. PAYNE: Yes...

BRYCE: And if could say, you were talking about the psychological (unintelligible) the last caller was asking.

CONAN: Yes.

BRYCE: I think it's a perfect example of what you would call the looking glass self, where people will basically, you know, form part of their opinion about themselves and their own identity by looking at the culture at large and how they fit in and how other people fit in and weighing yourself against other people and the culture.

CONAN: Tom Payne, I wonder...

Mr. PAYNE: Yes, I think that's absolutely right. I think one of the things we do when we look at famous people is we think: thank heaven we're not like them. Or: wouldn't it be great if we were like them.

And I think mythology has adapted or given us a way of dealing with that. So for example, in a Greek tragedy you can go there and you can think: thank heavens I'm not Oedipus, Oedipus who brags about his fame, his achievements and then ends up completely wrong-footed by something he didn't even know he'd done.

Also the Faust myth is another example where you can look at Dr. Faustus, see him selling his soul to the devil, and being to envy the kind of life he lives and the kind of hedonistic pleasures he enjoys, and then you know that he'll be punished.

So you have the double satisfaction, one of knowing that you're not getting the same punishment but also that that kind of pleasure can be experienced through somebody else, so you know that you're not that person.

And I think that's absolutely right, that we do work out who we are through celebrities, either by wanting to be more like them or else by thinking it's just not worth the effort.

CONAN: It's interesting though - and Bryce, thanks very much for the thoughtful call - it's interesting, as we think about it - is, though, something like Oedipus - no fault of his own finds himself in that awful situation, or the celebrities, the modern celebrities you cite, the Jimi Hendrixes or the Kurt Cobains, who kill themselves with drugs.

Mr. PAYNE: Yes, it's a difficult thing because you can wish you had that much talent or that ability to be in touch with truth that we don't experience, so that Kurt Cobain can come up with that song and we can think that puts so perfectly something I didn't know I was even feeling yet.

And we can feel that, but also we can know just how short-lived the life is that came into contact with that. Again, the myth that seemed to tally with that is the idea that those the gods love, they send mad first.

And it's part of, part of that. We almost think that they know these things because they are stardust, they're fleeting, they're not going to be with us for very long.

CONAN: Let's go next to Dillon(ph), Dillon with us from Loveland in Colorado.

DILLON (Caller): Yes, hello, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

DILLON: The one person that I really look up to and sort of, to use your verbiage, you know, need to be famous, is Heidi Klum. She sets such a wonderful example for women who are working, who are mothers, who are trying to have good relationships with their spouses. And I think that for me she sort of is the pinnacle of what, you know, I strive to be each day, is really great at what I'm doing and to try and be a dynamic person.

And I'm curious, just based on some of the other callers and some of the conversation up to this point: Do you find that fame is something that there are, you know, more levels of fame for people who are just - who are comparing ourselves and saying, oh, I don't want to be like them, versus comparing ourselves and saying that's something to achieve, or that's something to sort of strive for, and I'd like to be more like that person?

CONAN: Well, Tom Payne, you write quite a bit about beauty.

Mr. PAYNE: Yes, and beauty is one of those things which people can be famous for, and it's difficult to know how to aspire to somebody being beautiful and to take on that beauty yourself.

And one extreme example is seeing somebody who actually turned herself into a Britney Spears look-alike with quite a lot of difficult surgery, and I saw this happen on MTV and rather recoiled, but also thought of those Aztec ceremonies where people would dress themselves up in the skin of someone recently sacrificed.

But to go back to what you're saying, I think an interesting example of how you can simultaneously admire a celebrity and also slightly wonder about emulating them is the case of Marie Antoinette, who would put on the most elaborate poufs, these extraordinarily ornate hairdos, and would almost put little messages in them - so a ship if there had been some distinguished sea action, and other little signs.

But one extraordinary one was that she decided to use this pouf one day to promote the idea of vaccination, when it was becoming recognized as a good thing to do. She put a little syringe somewhere up in her hair, in a good way, so that you could at once admire her style, the elaborate nature of her hairdos, but also she could put out a positive message there.

And I do sometimes thing that the good celebrities do does get underestimated. For sure they hype it, and they'll do everything they can to make it seem even greater, but the example that you give of Heidi Klum is a heartening one.

And I remember seeing Madonna performing in Wembley in London, where she, in a very direct, demotic way, promoted using condoms during sex in a way that really needed doing because this was at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.

And I think she succeeded in doing something that the government hadn't quite managed to do, to popularize safe sex. So I do think that there's a moment when a celebrity can tread the cusp between naughty and beneficial and give people the power or the authority that they need to go and do what they can work out for themselves to be the right thing.

CONAN: It's interesting. We got an email from Alma(ph), who wrote about Julia Roberts as her touchstone, Michael Jackson as her heart but when 9/11 happened I felt a panic, not knowing how my celebrities were going to help. I needed to see them helping, reacting. The George Clooney telethon comforted my soul.

Mr. PAYNE: Yes, it's an extraordinary thing, isn't it, that people need to know that there's someone to speak for them. I think an interesting moment like that was when Michael Jackson died. And people were thinking: Well, where is Barack Obama at this moment, a man who's sometimes accused of being too much like a celebrity himself? It's almost as if there was a kind of awkwardness about should he step in and try to find the words, and what are the right words.

Should a statesman deal with an event of that magnitude? And people felt yes. And possibly Barack Obama took a day or two to concur with that feeling.

CONAN: All right, Dillon, thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can - I have some emails, this from Anthony(ph) in Minneapolis: I personally have been fascinated by the self-conscious stylizing of Lady Gaga's brand of fame, which is oftentimes the subject of her music and her career, rather than simply the byproduct.

Gaga's works seems to have an element of meta-celebrity or even meta-fame to it, and she seems to present herself therein as a hero to a generation of Facebooking fame-seekers.

Mr. PAYNE: Yes, I think that's right, and extremely well put. And I think if I had to nominate anybody to answer that question - who is the famous person who's not quite Nelson Mandela that without whom I couldn't live, or would rather have around - I have to say that I think Lady Gaga is magnificent, and for precisely the reason Anthony says, because she's so savvy to what fame is, discusses it so openly, seems to be aware of its vicissitudes.

The thing with the meat, for example, it's something - I mean, I'd love to meet her. I perhaps wouldn't have liked to have met her that night because of the smell, perhaps, but it's something that you know is fleeting.

You know, she's even using her body to show something that is perishable. And that too, I think, is an example of meta-celebrity. And her songs are great too.

CONAN: You write a lot also about warriors and, of course, the great example, Achilles - we've mentioned him before - a great hero, a great warrior but hardly a moral example.

Mr. PAYNE: No, not a moral example. And it's odd because it - in Greek culture, he was a moral example. Although it's one of these wonderful things about Greek culture that everyone debates everything the whole time. So Plato says, well, you can admire Achilles if you want, but he weeps. He weeps like a girl when Patroclus dies. Well, why wouldn't? Why wouldn't he weep? But Plato is being very, very strict and saying he's a not a role model. He behaves badly. He's arrogant. He's - the very first thing we know about him is that he's ruffled. You know, these things, we identify as mortal - as deadly sins in (unintelligible).

CONAN: And - but as Homer puts it, plainly, he's made a decision to die young and famous or live a long life but sacrifice my celebrity.

Mr. PAYNE: It's odd, that, isn't it? And Homer does say that. What's odd about that in - is it in "The Odyssey," he appears, again, in the underworld.

CONAN: Yes.

Mr. PAYNE: And it's perhaps for this reason that people think that underworld episode - it isn't really by Homer. But I love it so I want it to be cherished.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PAYNE: And one of the odd things is that Odysseus meets Achilles and says, you must love it, being king of the dead. And he said, no. He says no, I would rather be the meanest servant. The word is to indicate someone who's not quite a slave, but is as serf-like as you could possibly be without being one. I'd rather be one of those people than king of all this, that the life force is to be cherished.

And we need to be very careful, I think, when we emulate the famous and when we want that kind of thing, because Achilles, in the context of "The Odyssey," which is he didn't have it.

CONAN: Email from Jonathan in New York City. Hasn't the modern trend been to conflate the fame and the flame out, accelerate the process so there is no prerequisite for celebrity besides degradation and collapse?

Mr. PAYNE: Yes. I suppose we do it quickly. It's a technological thing, I think, that you could become famous very, very quickly and then vanish away again. But I think some aspects in which - of fame that technology has changed have been, for example, that we can each have our own little Pantheons. So if I want different people on my iPod from what someone else might on his or hers, then that's fine by me. And I can cherish my own little fireside gods. And that's one thing.

But another development perhaps more in line with what your correspondent is saying is that we can be nasty about people in tweets or in comments on YouTube and little snotty comments like that, but it's less likely that anybody gets hurt or killed. I think technology and the speed of this turnover of celebrities is something which is, dare I say, saving lives.

CONAN: We're talking with Tom Payne, author of "Fame: What the Classics Tell Us about Our Cult of Celebrity."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Ben. Ben with us from Cincinnati.

BEN (Caller): Yeah, hi. Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: Sure.

BEN: I have a question that's, kind of, been touched on already, but I'm kind of interested in this distinction between what I see as the historical conception of celebrity sacrifice, which seems to be, in many cases, more ritualized. And I'm thinking, of course, of Euripides and of this, sort of, actual cult of celebrities of gods in Ancient Rome and Greece.

And this sort of distinction between that and this more modern cult of the celebrity in which almost seems to develop somewhat organically or inorganically, depending on the case. But it's sort of these two parties, kind of, playing these parts unknowingly in a way. And I'm wondering if you think this modern celebrity sacrifice is something that's going on more subconsciously.

Mr. PAYNE: I think that's - I think that he's right. And I think, certainly, it's not as formal as it's used to be. Gladiators used to say, those about to die salute you, and everyone knew what was going on. And - but there was a moment when I was writing this that I thought, well, it's the handy metaphor, isn't it really? That's what I'm doing. And the more I lived with it and the more I thought about it, I thought, but we are really sacrificing these people. We are doing what is quite ritualized in a way. In an Ancient Greek ritual, you would put gold around the head of an ox or whatever animal you were sacrificing. You would sprinkle water on its head. And you would, by doing that, make it make a kind of gesture that was accepting what was going on.

Now, that's what took me, I think, to look very closely at the Britney Spears moment. A lot hinged for me on what - whether or not she knew what she was doing, whether or not she was doing something - which she was doing something very ritualistic of cutting off her hair. But did she have any awareness of its significance? Was it something that represented something she was doing willingly?

And what really stood out for me was the moment when she did it herself. She took the shears herself and took off her own hair, took from them the hairdresser Esther Tognozzi who thought, actually, if she wants all her hair taken off, I might get sued. And it's something very public and very knowing.

Now, not every case is like that. Some cases are more informal, if you say, and much less dignified. But I do think that the psychological response we have and the things we get from it are analogous.

CONAN: Thanks, Ben. And we've got a lot of emails, like this from Linda. Why should one need celebrity in their life at all? Don't know, don't care. Happy to be me.

Mr. PAYNE: I've wondered about that. And I think we're all rather implicated in the cult of celebrity, whether or not we want it. And, you know, one of the things that made me think that was that I used to write for a newspaper and became very aware of how powerful the advertising department was in the newspaper. So that they would know a lot about their readers and what kind of pages they went to and what kind of products, therefore, to place on those pages.

And I can't help thinking that at every stage when we go around our lives when there are billboards around, when there are ads around, when there were jingles in our head that seem to signify something else and urging us to buy something. I think it's very, very hard to separate ourselves from the world of selling, the world of - the iconography, the idolatry that comes around celebrities, to detach ourselves from endorsements. And as Dylan was saying about Heidi Klum, it's hard to avoid that. I think it's everywhere.

CONAN: That newspaper Tom Payne mentioned was the Daily Telegraph, where he served as deputy literary editor. He now teaches English and classics at Sherborne School in England and joined us today from BBC studios in Dorset. Thanks very much for your time.

Mr. PAYNE: Thank you.

CONAN: When we come back, more on our series of talking with people from diverse backgrounds. 132441723

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.