Even if he doesn’t want to be.
Whether it be through entertainment or politics, the majority of famous people chose to be in the public eye. Not just ‘chose’ but worked their whole careers to get elected to federal government or star alongside Julia Roberts. So all the bitching about the downsides of celebrity gets a little tiring, especially when it seems like a pose. Fetal starlets like Miley Cyrus make music videos whining about the paparazzi almost as soon as they’ve become famous. Miley, you don’t need to be famous if you don’t want to be.
There’s a long line of people, from influential writers like J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee, presidential offspring like Amy Carter (who essentially disappeared after her father left office), and Hollywood legends like Greta Garbo, who spent the final decades of her life glamorously ‘left alone’ in her New York City apartment, who have given up fame. Inarguably, no paparazzi photographer should jump in front of an actress’s car in order to snap her hair extension-pulling screams for TMZ, but that doesn’t negate the fact that most of the people granted that much attention somehow asked for it.
Which is why I felt oddly protective of Levi Johnston. Back in 2008, when we were all still learning who Sarah Palin was (what halcyon days, those!) and news broke that her daughter Bristol was pregnant, it didn’t take the media long to discover who the father was, and his myspace page. Levi’s sweaty hockey picture was posted everywhere, quotes from his profile were taken out of context (until, mercifully, the page disappeared), and, what should have been a private predicament (the accidental pregnancy of two teenagers) became a late-night punch line. Despite my aversion to Republicans, I thought it was highly unfair. (Didn’t hurt, I guess, that I also thought Levi was pretty cute.)
He didn’t chose for his girlfriend’s mother to run for Vice-President, making her family momentarily the world’s most famous Alaskans. Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everyone argued that, even when it seems public, personal blogs or social networking profiles aren’t actually for everyone. He compares it to teenagers talking in the mall food-court: yeah, sure, anyone could listen into their conversation, but it’s not for you and you’re not interested, so why would you? This is true only up to a point. When you’re made famous overnight, that embarrassing website of yours can go from thirty hits to thirty-thousand.
You wonder what it must have been like for a shy, inarticulate young man to attend the Republican National Convention, receiving almost as much attention as his camera-ready would-be future mother-in-law. It was easy to interpret the deer-in-the-headlights look on his face as that of a ‘shot-gun wedding’ groom’s, but maybe it was the stadium filled to capacity, the bright lights, the screaming delegates in boaters and elephant-themed regalia which was so overwhelming.
“We were planning on getting married a long time ago with or without the kid,” Johnston said, in one of his many interviews. “That was the plan from the start.”
“Well,” I remember my parents saying. “We’ll see what happens if they lose…”
Sure enough, on November 4th, the cooler heads of the American electorate prevailed, and not long afterwards, the cooler heads of the Palin-Johnston family called it off.
And that should have been it. The justification for his fame having been withdrawn, he could have gone back to the Alaskan oil fields to work again as an assistant-technician, saving a couple magazine covers to prove to his future grandkids that he was briefly famous. But it was not to be. Indeed, freed from his engagement and the Palin clan, he had no leash controlling him and the market was white-hot for gossip about Miss Wasilla 1984.
So he went on the Tyra Banks Show, and did an interview with Vanity Fair in which he spread some pretty nasty rumours, including the rather dubious claim that Palin referred to her newborn son with Down’s syndrome as “my retarded baby”. Pretty soon, it was clear I was not the only one to find him handsome. He did some suit modeling, pursued an acting career and befriended (who else?) Kathy Griffin, recently escorting her to the Teen Choice Awards. But of course, most famously, there was the Playgirl photospread. I remember hearing the theory that Playboy generally wouldn’t want A-list actresses and singers to disrobe even if they could get them, that an added bonus for their readers was to sexualize former stars and C-listers, women they could kind of look down upon. This fetishization of loserdom was definitely present in Levi’s pictures, where strategically-placed hockey equipment (including one in which massive gloves cover his crotch) mock his popular jock good looks. ‘Look how far down he’s gone’ you could almost hear middle-aged women and gay men purring.
It also gave Sarah Palin the rhetorical upper-hand, something she doesn’t have most of the time, as she took faux-pity on him and his “aspiring porn career.”
The only good thing he ever did was speak out against the naivety of abstinence-only education. “Abstinence is a great idea,” he told The Early Show. “But I also think you need to enforce, you know, condoms and birth control and other things like that to have safe sex. I don’t just think telling young kids, ‘you can’t have sex’ – it’s not going to work. It’s not realistic.” This was a far cry from his ex Bristol, who didn’t allow the hypocrisy of getting accidentally pregnant stop her from promoting no sex before marriage, a stunning bit of ‘do what I say, not what I do.’
Speaking of Bristol, I haven’t even gotten to his recent reunion with the mother of his child, a wedding announcement splashily played out on the covers of Us Weekly, allegedly before Palin was told. This was followed by rumours of Levi impregnating another young woman (denied), the second calling off of a wedding, and another slew of magazine covers.
Bristol and Levy: the Heidi and Spencer of the Bering Strait.
When, during the filming of her reality TV show, the half-term former Governor of Alaska was confronted by a protestor, angry at Palin’s abandonment of the state in favour of being a “celebrity”, Bristol, on hand for the show, interrupted, “How is she a celebrity?”
Oh, I don’t know, Bristol, it might have something to do with REALITY TV and US FREAKIN’ WEEKLY!
Now, in a nice politics-celebrity-politics circle, Levi wants to be mayor of Wasilla, the town that first elected Palin. He’s not letting his inexperience stop him. (Why should it? Palin’s didn’t.) “It’s for real,” he said. “I’m going to go there and do what I can. Obviously that’s where I grew up and that’s my home. It’s always going to be home to me. [My son] Tripp’s going to grow up there and I want to change a few things.” For his part, the current mayor of Wasilla Verne Rupright gave him some advice: “I think it would be wise for him to get a high school diploma and keep his clothes on. The voters like that!” But the better dead-pane zinger goes to his ex Bristol, who said “I’m glad that Levi has not given up on completing his education and is looking for steady employment.” Nice.
Bristol, who claims that the final straw for their relationship came when Levi shot a music video mocking the Palin family, said that Levi is “obsessed with the limelight and I got played.” Obviously, the money is a very real factor for stretching one’s 15 minutes into a permanent career. A cameo in a music video or a shirtless pose with hockey stick gets Levi a larger paycheck than he might otherwise have ever seen in his life. (Which is pathetic, that’s how it is.)
But is there something more than just the money? Is fame, after the initial leave-me-alone, I’m-just-like-everyone-else, deer-in-the-headlights protestations, actually addictive? At least actors, even the most mediocre ones, have a craft, are contributing something. Levi Johnston, like Jon and Kate Gosselin and their eight children, became famous not for a personal accomplishment, but out of extraordinary circumstances, and now needs to keep finding different avenues (nudey shoots, interviews, mayor of Wasilla) to keep his celebrity flowing.
The fame justifies the means.
Run away, Levi. You’re still getting attention now because you’re cute and we’ve all had the name Sarah Palin permanently programmed in our skulls to pay attention to, like O.J. Simpson before her. But it can only get worse from here. Like the Mediterranean rent-boys at the horrifying end of Suddenly Last Summer (or, if you will, the female rollerbladers in that Robbie Williams video), we demand more and more from our celebrities until we cannibalistically pull them to shreds. Go back to Alaska, work in oil or hunt animals if you have to. To retire from the fame game, rather than continue to take off your clothes and pimp your family dramas, would turn you into someone actually worth ‘celebrating’.