It’s easy for those who covet fame in 2011 to look at Elizabeth Taylor’s life as some sort of guide on how to be a celebrity.
In one full, dizzying life, Taylor did everything we come to expect from the contemporary famous person. She dazzled us in glamorous photo shoots and sparked cruel jokes when she packed on the pounds. She dripped herself in diamonds, but also got actively involved in causes, most notably her work on AIDS awareness. She won Academy Awards and starred in colossally over-budgeted flops. She sparked countless headlines for her marriages and break-ups, and turned her name into a brand with its own line of jewelry and perfumes. She suffered from addiction, but demonstrated an unceasing ability to bounce back.
She even tweeted.
For the wannabe famous person, it’s tempting to think one can just cherry pick a few of those elements — milk some publicity out of your love life, show up at charity events, launch your own fragrance, mention all of this on Twitter — and suddenly became a household name. There’s a reason that Kim Kardashian considers Taylor her idol.
But there’s more to it than that. And anyone who considers him or herself a celebrity (or a wannabe one) should heed a few lessons from Elizabeth Taylor, the woman who was the great celebrity of her time.
Elizabeth Taylor didn’t become famous for being famous. One could argue that this eventually ended up being the case, especially in later years, when Taylor wasn’t acting as often. But Taylor’s many offscreen exploits were only initially intriguing because America already knew her striking face from movies like “National Velvet” and “Father of the Bride.” Maybe critics didn’t gush over her early work, but the point is: she was working. She didn’t try to skip over that important step and go right to notoriety like so many current reality stars (cough, Snooki) and certain heiresses (cough — man, something is really stuck in my throat — Paris Hilton) have a tendency to do.
Taylor didn’t try to pretend she was anyone that she wasn’t. Whether you loved her or thought she was a nutcase, the actress was a what-you-see-is-what-you-get sort of person. Obviously the majority of us have no idea what she was like in her private life. But publicly, she made no apologies for herself or for the many men in her life. As noted in the Post’s obituary, she once said of the affair with Eddie Fisher that followed the death of Taylor’s husband, Mike Todd: “Well, Mike is dead and I’m alive. What do you expect me to do? Sleep alone?” Can you even imagine one of today’s well-trained, talking-point-ready movie stars saying something like that? I can’t, but it might be a more interesting world if they would.
The goal of Taylor’s life was not necessarily fame. Yes, there were definitely moments when her private life was used to manipulate interest in her movies. (The decision to release “Father’s Little Dividend” around the time of her first marriage, to Nicky Hilton, was just one example.) And once her persona exploded into something huge, it often was difficult to distinguish Elizabeth Taylor the image from Elizabeth Taylor, the actress.
But, perhaps because she had been well-known from childhood, she never came across as someone who strove to achieve fame. It simply came with the territory of being Elizabeth Taylor.
In 2011, though, fame is something that seemingly can easily be acquired. All you have to do is make an excessively autotuned, hugely viral video and snap: your name is known. Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes has extended to two weeks, minimum, plus guaranteed face time with Jay Leno.
But that sort of fame doesn’t turn a person into Elizabeth Taylor. Achieving her status can only come after years of work at a craft — plus, perhaps, years of work at maintaining a high-profile, gossip-ready love life. Quite frankly, it can only come about by accident, luck or the work of fate.
Maybe that’s the lesson today’s up-and-coming celebs need to learn most of all: that you can, briefly, become famous. But the kind of long-lasting fame that makes someone an icon who is mourned worldwide after her death? That is rare and something that all the provocative tweets and sexy red carpet walks won’t give you. First, you have to do something to earn it..