The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

JFK Jr. and Carolyn showed us the right way to be famous for being famous

John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy defined fame in an era before social media made discretion a loss leader. (Tyler Mallory/for The Washington Post)

John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy died 20 years ago Tuesday — an unspeakable personal tragedy for their friends and family and, for the rest of us, the end of a particular kind of celebrity culture. The couple died before the era of Instagram and Twitter, back when personal lives were something that people still sought to protect rather than curate and then mon­etize. The couple died when discretion was admirable, before it became quaint and then vaguely obsolete.

They died when personal lives seemed real and fragile, something wondrous and precious that could easily be disrupted and, once lost, could never be regained.

Today, nothing seems real. There’s practically no discretion and little call for it because the famous — especially those whose celebrity is built on the shaky sands of infamy, it-ness or social media acclaim — don’t really seem to have personal lives. Everything is for sale; anything can be sponsored.

Today’s biggest celebrities often mistake control for discretion. They dole out expertly lit vacation selfies on their personal Instagram accounts. They produce behind-the-scenes documentaries about their families. They write mind-numbingly self-reverential autobiographies. Discretion is deciding to skip the big publicity gambits all together; control is cherry-picking interviewers and photographers.

John launched George, a magazine about politics and celebrity. Carolyn had a career at Calvin Klein catering to VIP clients. But their fame far outpaced their personal accomplishments. As the son of a president and first lady, he was a celebrity by birth; she was one by marriage. Theirs was a self-perpetuating form of notoriety. Fame compounded by fame. In today’s world, they could have been the influencers of influencers. How many followers will Instagram allow a single user? Is it possible to max out? Their combined account surely would set records today.

They fascinated the public, not because of all the possessions they accumulated but because of all the things they seemed to shun: ostentation, flamboyance, narcissism. Even as they lived in plain sight on the streets of New York City, they were a glimmering, beguiling mystery presumably to all but their inner circle.

One of the most famous portraits of them, taken after the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in 1999, is intimate but reserved. They are perfectly complementary in their black and white. Her eyes are turned away from the photographer. His face is in profile as he kisses her on the cheek. It’s a romantic gesture rather than a passionate one. They are giving the public what it hungers for, but only a morsel. We are no longer ravenous but not sated, either.

Fame looked so different at the end of the past century than it does now. Princess Diana died in 1997. We paused and did a bit of cultural soul-searching. The price of fame was too much; the paparazzi had gotten out of control; it was a dangerous thing for a celebrity to fly too close to the sun.

We weren’t quite done with the introspection and the feeling of culpability when John and Carolyn died two years later in a plane crash. And when they did, it was as though we just threw in the towel and began to indulge in our worst impulses. We demanded to know everything about celebrities — what they wore, what they ate, when they gave birth, who they voted for, how they grieved. And the famous began to make the best of an untenable situation by transforming most every aspect of their lives, including their hobbies and parenthood, into a side business.

In hindsight, it’s as though Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy were holding back the impeding tide of celebrity excess: the costly haute couture, the personal branding, the competitive public confessionals, the grotesqueness of it all.

The collection of portraits the couple left behind tell a story of restraint. Candid paparazzi images capture them in quiet moments as well as in animated conversation. These pictures depict human emotion but not a performative presence.

They refused to turn the red carpet into a competitive sport. They had access to everything; these were their choices: He in a classic tuxedo. She in a simple gown and a flash of red lipstick. The spareness was mesmerizing because it was so counterintuitive.

There was something reassuring about John, this fairly young man, so rooted in tradition — so conscientiously not aiming to subvert norms or bend the rules to his personal preferences. In his personal time, he may be full of rebellion and ad­ven­ture — kayaking, parachuting, swimming out beyond the horizon — but on the red carpet, he is present and accommodating in his dark tux, committed to protocol. He is mature and dignified, attuned to the reality that with fame, particularly his kind of political dynasty fame, comes responsibilities.

Her style reflects the tenor of fashion in the late 1990s. Minimalism was having its moment, and no American brand captured that timeless sensibility better than Calvin Klein, where she once worked. Her style was the very definition of elegant refusal. She was not alone in embracing pure lines as a highly evolved form of chic, but she was the boldface, expert practitioner.

She didn’t put on a show on the red carpet. She gave of herself — a poem rather than an indulgent soliloquy.

Who wins the red carpet now? It’s Rihanna in a monumental Guo Pei yellow extravaganza that sparks memes of fried eggs; it’s a nearly naked Beyoncé in a bedazzled scrim. It’s countless female stars in dresses slit up to their pelvic bone or down to their navel. Even when people do opt for minimalism in their clothes, it’s contrasted with grooming that’s practically baroque.

The dresses are so much tighter now. In part, that’s because virtually no one buys their clothes; they borrow them. They pour themselves into what is available. They dress for the photographers and the video cameras, believing the cleanest, leanest lines are the most flattering.

Women were not encased in Spanx in the ’90s. Carolyn looks like she can breathe in her clothes. When one can breathe, it’s so much easier to look comfortable in one’s own skin. She’s not weighed down with jewelry, either. There’s only the lipstick, which draws the attention to her face, her smile, what she might say.

John and Carolyn were famous for being famous. He used that to promote his magazine. Together, they used it to steer attention to whatever they might be standing in front of. But their style politely declared that fame was not central to what they were selling or who they believed themselves to be — even if that’s what the public wanted to buy.