In the week that Paris Hilton goes to prison
and loses her record deal
- it seems appropriate that a new biography of that heroine of the 19th Century demi-monde Lola Montez has hit the stands- reviewed wonderfully in the London Review of Books by Bee Wilson
- it seems appropriate to delve a little into the role of the celebrity in our societies- what does she or he actually do and what does it mean to seek fame like Hilton or Montez have for its own sake.
Hilton is too close to us for real analysis of her effect- but Montez's life gives us some clues to the significance of the celebrity culture that we live in. Lola Montez was married young to a soldier- after an unhappy marriage she was deserted by him in India and set sail back to England. Upon returning she invented the identity Lola Montez and became a Spanish dancer- erotically girating for the pleasure of the English aristocracy. She was not a good dancer- almost all our sources are in agreement about that- but men flocked to what was a semi-respectable strip show. She had a string of affairs with men including American millionaires, the son of a British Prime Minister, the composer Liszt and most significantly the King of Bavaria. She ended up touring the gold mines of San Francisco lecturing and dancing, making money on the basis of her noteriety.
Montez was a vapid and vacuous woman- her affair with the Bavarian King demonstrated her real interests. She was no Pompadour- a patron of the arts whilst mistress of Louis XIV- rather she enjoyed the capricious power of the mistress of the boudoir. Childishly picking on the King's ministers and demanding they be sacked. She was incredibly expensive to maintain as a mistress- costing the Bavarian state what in current terms would be millions- she demanded titles and precedence- and was always ready to see a slight. Her ultimate acheivement was that her lover King Ludwig fell from power and she had to flee.
Ultimately though she had almost no impact on the life of her times- yes the Bavarian king fell but he was anyway an eccentric monarch whose obsession was with building palaces in the style of Versailles. Her exploits led to no real social movement in response- she claimed to have met George Sand and others but there is no evidence that she ever did. More men in the 19th Century saw her dance than read Mary Wollstonecraft or heard of Harriet Taylor, and yet it was Wollstonecraft's Rights of Women and Taylor's collaborative intellectual project with J.S. Mill that had much more effect on the world than Montez's cavortings. Wilson makes a just comparison between Montez and the aristocratic ne'er do wells that she seduced- its a comparison that works on many levels including this one. Ultimatey the lesson of Montez's life is that what we pay attention to isn't neccessarily what is most important in our own era.
In a sense you would expect this to be true. Montez, Hilton and their ilk- the colonists of gossip columns- are the subject of relaxation- you can tell a lot about a society's unconscious cravings by looking at the dark beauty of Montez or the plastic California blondeness of Hilton but not much about its direction. Montez and Hilton are entertainment- but they aren't interesting in themselves.
What is fascinating about celebrity is that in reality it is a reflexive thing- the most interesting thing about it is what it reveals about ourselves- not about the celebrity- both Hilton and Montez reveal for instance something about what men desired at the times when they were famous or are famous in the case of Hilton- but neither of them have anything much interesting to say for themselves. As lives they are only important as mirrors- vacuously reflecting back the obssessive looks of society.