Australia’s PM, Tony Abbot ‘is gutted’. The rest of us are shocked and appalled, but mostly we’re disappointed. How can this happen, how can someone we think we know, whom we’ve known all our lives turn out to be a criminal? How did Rolf Harris fool so many of us for so long?
Yes, he’s not the only one. But sometimes the fall of particular celebrities hits home harder. Jimmy Savile doesn’t mean much to me or most Australians, nor does the jailing of Andy Coulson for the phone hacking. Oscar Pistorius means little to me – I think he’s guilty as sin and hiding behind his celebrity status. But Rolf Harris, one of our iconic Ozzie blokes, a battler done good? Well, yes, that hits home. There is a sense of being personally let down as well as being disgusted by his behaviour, by his abuse of power and the deliberate use of his celebrity status.
What is it about celebrities when they fall from grace that is so compelling to us? Why do we follow certain stories with a passion?
Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong were kings of their respective worlds. Both excellent sportsmen but more than that, they were such good guys. Lance and his cancer, and his foundation to help others. Tiger and his pristine, guy next door, all round good bloke image. Both were rich trading on their sporting prowess and their carefully crafted public image. We admired them, we looked up to them and we believed the image. We did not know the substance. So, when the substance emerged – well, exploded in Tiger’s case – the world was aghast. Just as with Rolf, we were shocked – it can’t be true. Not Tiger. Lance’s fall from grace took a lot longer, had a much uglier side to it. But when the scale of his cheating finally emerged it was breath-taking – the lengths he had gone to to shut people down, to kill the truth of his life.
Both men had large secrets that they went to elaborate lengths to hide from the public and many around them. They seemed to believe they were above it all, that they were both different and the same. Tiger Woods famously wanted to be left alone like a normal man cheating on his wife. But he wasn’t an ordinary man cheating on his wife. Lance Armstrong didn’t really think he was cheating because everyone else was. It took both celebrities some time to accept that they were in the wrong: that they were cheats and liars.
Rolf Harris, and many others, traded on his celebrity, lived in a milieu that seems to allow behaviour that is not appropriate. Perhaps it was the times, perhaps it was the company he kept, perhaps he is just a misguided old man who shouldn’t be going to jail…
But the problem with some celebrities is that they hide behind their status, use their status and the power from that status to behave badly. Does something happen to their moral compass when they become famous, or was there something faulty in them in the first place that pushed them to become famous and enabled their faults to have full reign?
We should be in no doubt that while celebrities seem to be like us, they are in fact nothing like us. Their trick is that they seem to be, which encourages us to connect to them, to buy their products, see their movies, follow their lives, which increases their power, status and wealth. But they live in different circles, they do not work as we do, struggle as we do. Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t get divorced, she ‘consciously uncouples’.
Fame and wealth make you different to your fans, your followers. It has to, otherwise why would it be so attractive? Being famous is one of those things we can all aspire to. It’s not accident that many of the big names in the world of sport and entertainment came from humble origins and have such big fan-bases – Tom Cruise, David Beckham, Johnny Farnham and Rolf Harris.
Whether they like it or not, their rags to riches stories resonate for us. It means we can too, if we work hard and have enough talent. It’s also why we admire them: we understand their struggle and we appreciate how hard it was for them to climb their stairways to heaven. Thus when they fall we are crushed. Somehow their journey has been our journey. Their successes ours and therefore their failures ours. We know them, that’s the point of being a fan, a follower – we have a special relationship – albeit incredibly one-sided, but as important for some people as their every day relationships.
So, when they let us down, as David Beckham did a few years ago with his affair and Tom Cruise embarrassed us on the couch with Oprah, and now Rolf Harris, we feel personally affronted. We didn’t know them at all.
No, we don’t know them, we know a version of them, the one they want the world to see. What hides beneath none of us really know. We see the product, the manufactured entity; the version sent out into the world, not the one that lives at home. Rolf Harris’ wife and daughter tell a sad tale of a man they hardly saw, didn’t really know, who saved the cheerful daftness for others, not them. He was away from home at key times, didn’t recognise his wife and new baby, was somewhat self absorbed. His letter of contrition to the family of the friend of his daughter is pathetically about himself, not his sorrow for the damage to her or her family.
So, this weekend another celebrity has fallen. Rolf Harris sits in jail, notionally for 5 years and 9 months. His family sit somewhere, broken and shamed. His victims have some justice. He is 84, my father’s age. Should he be in jail for crimes from over twenty years ago? Yes, justice has to happen and be seen to happen – war criminals from WW2 were pursued and jailed in their 80’s many years after their heinous crimes.
Will Rolf Harris be rehabilitated in the public eye, will we forgive him after he’s done his time? Will we do what we normally do with celebrities and forgive them once they’ve been publically humiliated and punished and sought our forgiveness? I have my doubts. Perhaps finally we are sick of celebrities and their extreme behaviour, their lack of contrition, lack of shame for what they have done, only sorry because they have been found out. Perhaps we are tired of their duplicity, being something they very much aren’t.
So, look to your favourite celebrity. Are you sure they’re all they seem to be? Are Brad and Ange as solid as we think? Are they as nice as we think – like us only infinitely more beautiful and rich, or is there some dark secret waiting to find air, to be exposed… (Images: Rolf Harris, BBC; Tiger Woods, Wikipedia; Brad & Ange, Guardian)
*For a more in depth consideration of the Rolf Harris story read this article by Peter Conrad from The Monthly – ttps://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2014/july/1404178677/peter-conrad/inside-strange-world-rolf-harris