From the Archives

I was just chatting with a friend about the focus on Marilyn Monroe recently and remembered this oldie but goodie from 2007…This was an oped in Portfolio weekly, Norfolk VA.

death of a salesman

When Princess Diana died in 1997, she was almost immediately elevated to the status of martyrdom. Five days later, another world-famous celebrity died. woman of unparalleled saint like qualities, Mother Theresa of Calcutta was a woman of unparalleled saint-like qualities. But her death was vastly overshadowed by the lingering grief over the passing of the glamorous Princess Di. At the time, I was appalled by what I saw as a blatant misplacement of priorities among people of my generation. Had Mother Theresa been a blonde bombshell with a juicy page 6 story line would we have lamented her passing more?

I wasn’t belittling Princess Diana’s tireless and profoundly meaningful efforts on behalf of AIDS patients and other people in need. But Mother Theresa had lived a life of complete servitude and worked in the most heinous of conditions and yet her work was treated as an afterthought by the news media, while to this day new shrines are erected and the media blitz is replayed on the anniversary of Princess Dianna’s death. The conspiracy theories about her life and demise continue to garner international attention. In fact, I can’t recall the last time I read anything on the great work of Mother Theresa. When I searched for books and other materials on the two women, I found that Princess Dianna had been the subject of more than three times the coverage as the woman who will likely achieve official sainthood. (She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2003).

I am reminded of all this as I sat in a local eatery eating a late lunch two Thursdays ago. All news channels on the 4 televisions in the restaurant were turned to non-stop coverage of the death of Anna Nicole Smith. The media frenzy was not only on the E channel and MTV but MSNBC, CNN and FOX News. Even local affiliates interrupted programming to report the “devastating news of the death of a centerfold.”

I must say, I was torn. As a child of the media age, having witnessed the first moments of MTV as astronauts stuck a Technicolor animated MTV flag on the surface of the moon, I am drawn to such sensationalism. I admit that I like to read People and US magazines, and I watch Access Hollywood religiously. But in light of what is going on in the world (war, a volatile economy, genocide in Darfur) is this really news?

I suppose you could argue that Anna Nicole was a high profile media figure for truly newsworthy reasons, what with all of her trials and courtroom dramas, but her ongoing battles over her octogenarian billionaire’s fortune and the investigation into the mysterious death of her son (just days after the birth of her daughter) are not the juicy tidbits that made us watch this train wreck so lasciviously. It was the outrageous, over the top and even disturbing behavior, her life as reality show, the weight she gained, the history as a stripper-turned-high-profile-world-class-model, the drugs and alcohol, the simple country drawl and monosyllabic vocabulary. It’s the proverbial five car pile up in the far left lane that we love; it’s that unique element that makes us look in horror, secretly hold back a laugh and thank God that we are not like that.

Why are we so mesmerized by the hype and horror?

Undoubtedly, as we did with Princess Diana we will come to see Anna Nicole Smith as some sort of tragic heroin: a girl who fought to get ahead and make something of herself, yet could not survive the rigors of fame and fortune; the evil juxtaposition that is “HOLLYWOOD.” It’s a global media sales pitch for all of us who have little fame or fortune. She became a spokeswoman for the ultimate product, selling us nightmares disguised as dreams. In reality, it’s Hollywood selling how not to live, what not to be like that’s more mesmerizing than all of the how-to and self-help books out there. It’s not just Guess Jeans, and Trim Spa and magazines and television ratings that Anna Nicole sold; it’s her soul. It’s the broken spirit that has been made cliche time and time again: simple country girl dreams big, lives big and dies big. Perhaps if it makes us think about our own lot in life sans rose colored glasses for a second, then it is worth all of the media attention after all.

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