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A Guilty Peek at Private Lives

burning tabloid/Reuter
None of our business: Los Angeles area resident Jack McGrath burns a copy of the Globe in protest against the tabloid and its coverage of Princess Diana. (Reuter)
By Elizabeth Kastor
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wed., September 3, 1997; Page D01

No one, apparently, buys the things: We all just read them in the checkout line. Or so we claim.

When a Mercedes swerved and smashed in a Parisian tunnel Saturday night, guys on bikes with cameras around their necks were transformed from paparazzi into sadists. The editors who buy the film became the callous financiers of intrusion.

But what about the rest of us? Why are we so insatiably hungry for images of the famous? The cameras flashing away at the crumpled Mercedes illuminated not only a gruesome accident, but also our ambivalence about the hunger.

In a Silver Spring drugstore, Ann Stephens puts her hand to her mouth and says, in an amusingly melodramatic whisper laced with genuine embarrassment, "I admit to it!"

Yes, she reads the tabloids -- although she is quick to point out that she does not actually spend money to feed her curiosity. "I look at them in line, or my mom gives them to me. She subscribes." Stephens says she is not an inveterate celebrity-watcher, but like so many women, she found herself identifying with Princess Diana ("Married the same year. Divorced the same year!") and is deeply sad about her death.

"I'm very torn, wanting to look, but also disliking the intrusion," she says, acknowledging that "a good number of us who are outraged by the paparazzi" now have consumed pictures of Diana for years.

The profound, intimate sorrow that greeted Diana's death is a reminder that celebrity fascination is more than a sordid mixture of envy and voyeurism.

"Almost all the stories in the tabloids are about individuals suffering from pain and confusion and shame and things of that sort, which are more or less constants in human experience," says cultural critic and New York University professor Neil Postman. "They really touch us at the deepest levels. I think stories like this, where people will say, `Why her? Why in this way? What will happen to the children now?' -- these are the things that most human beings really think about at the deepest levels."

In her book "Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages," historian Phyllis Rose wrote, "We tend to talk informally about other people's marriages and to disparage our own talk as gossip. But gossip may be the beginning of moral inquiry, the low end of the platonic ladder which leads to self-understanding. We are desperate for information about how other people live because we want to know how to live ourselves."

Just a week ago, it was possible to stand in the checkout line, a little self-conscious but essentially comfortable, studying a grainy picture purported to be a flabby Goldie Hawn, perusing one magazine's list of the 40 most fascinating stars of 1997, glancing through the latest dispatch from Kathie Lee's marriage. Now the curiosity feels sour. Yesterday Kmart Corp., Safeway and Giant Food pulled the current issue of the National Enquirer with the headline "Di Goes Sex Mad" (see story on Page A22).

Another Silver Spring shopper, Maddy Becker, a 22-year-old from Northern Virginia who spent her adolescence entranced with Diana and has a sister named for the princess, struggles to tease apart her feelings. "It's kind of -- I don't think they should invade people's privacy as much as they do." But she adds, "I guess I'm guilty. I sort of blame the people who sell the magazines, but I also blame our interest."

For days now, people have been condemning photographers who "go over the line," as if the boundary between acceptable curiosity and prurience is always clearly delineated. Like many others yesterday, Stephens said she had had no interest in the pictures of Diana and her boyfriend, Dodi Fayed, that had obviously been snagged by unwanted cameras. She felt affection for Diana, and to look at pictures the princess did not want taken seemed wrong.

"I suppose I'm more interested in glamour, and I don't like the look of someone being coerced," says Wayne Koestenbaum, author of "Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon" and a connoisseur of celebrity fascination. "I don't like a photo that looks like a document of coercion."

But Stephens, like so many others, does enjoy "seeing behind the curtain." So much of what we know about celebrities is filtered through publicists. To see stars seemingly unguarded "almost made you feel closer to them."

How does she look without makeup? What is he really like? Pull back the curtain just a bit. Okay, maybe a little further.

We talk about "following" celebrities the way we "follow" a soap opera: They provide us with that most luscious commodity, a dramatic narrative. Who is walking out of a marriage, who has a "cancer nightmare," who has friends worrying about drug use? Which of the mighty have fallen? Who has found true love?

"We all look at those pictures for different reasons," says Koestenbaum. "I'm sure there are people who don't look at them, but I don't think the people who don't look are morally superior than those who do."

The tie between fan and star is oddly private. It exists not in the world of relationships, but in the fantasies and imagination of the fan. The sorrow on the faces of the people weeping for Diana would seem more appropriate at the death of a relative or friend -- except that Diana, they say again and again, was their friend. They felt as if they knew her.

"She was more like an ordinary person," says Angie Lanier of the District. "It feels like a close family member died. She always presented herself as not royalty -- she was with the common people."

And where did that feeling come from? Through the pictures. We saw her doing good works, but also falling in love, splashing at a water park with her sons, skiing and dancing and walking and laughing. She flirted with the camera, with her public. A lot of us watched her, thought about her and turned our fantasies -- our curiosity -- into something more.

Come Saturday morning, when the coffin enters Westminster Abbey, we will be watching, and not just to steal a glimpse of the private moments of famous people. In her death, and our reaction to it, we have ceased to be observers and become participants. We have made her story our own.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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