When I met Cher, I was surprised at the narrowness of her face. It’s a strange observation to make, I suppose. She was tall, with a very small frame. Clearly there was something dynamic about her, but it’s difficult to discern whether or not I was observing an echo of observations I’d made about the Cher I’d seen on television, in videos, or in movies. Standing before someone who for all of my life has been a celebrity icon, I couldn’t help but notice the trace of something completely unlike what had been displayed in media; something quite ordinary. For a brief moment, peering out at me from beneath the vivacious wig and extravagant outfit, was a simple, 67 year old woman. That person was not someone I’d ever seen before, and someone that few people ever have the chance to meet or know.
She was the person who created Cher.
Celebrity is a series of illusions.
I know this, firsthand, to be true.
In my professional life as a musician and songwriter I’ve had occasion to work with or for a number of high profile people in the entertainment industry. I’ve written for Cher, Kelly Clarkson, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, and a host of others. I’ve seen some of them in the most unglamorous of situations, and I’ve been reminded again and again that the thing that people see is not necessarily the thing that is.
These illusions are necessary and functional. To talk about the illusion so overtly is, in a way, a betrayal of code (the industry may not be pagan by nature, but there is plenty of oath-bound information being passed back and forth). But I think that there are a growing number of people who find little to no function in upholding the illusion of celebrity, or the consumer culture which feeds upon it.
One need only look to voices within our own community to see this perspective being articulated. John Michael Greer, Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America writes in The Druidry Handbook,
“Many people in the modern industrial world go through life with their bodies surrounded by a cocoon of technology and their minds flooded with perpetual chatter from the media. Living and working in climate-controlled buildings, with artificial lighting to see by, commercial music to hear, synthetic scents to smell, chemically flavored foods to taste, and a completely manufactured environment to touch, it’s no wonder so many modern people are deluded into thinking of nature as an unnecessary luxury, and fail to notice that their glittering artificial world depends, moment by moment, on vast inputs of materials and energy wrenched from their places in the cycles of the living Earth.”
While Greer may not be talking specifically about celebrities, he is speaking about the manufactured experiences of comfort, enjoyment, and sensory pleasures which the illusion of celebrity helps to facilitate. The products and by-products of the entertainment industry are, in many cases, tools of distraction. We might seek out entertainment to distract us from our jobs, our relationships, or our living situations, and the entertainment we consume may also lead us to a disconnection from the “grown” or “birthed” world around us (as apposed to the “designed” and “produced” world of consumer culture).
Celebrity culture is to authentic human experience what silk flowers are to spring. The beauty you see is constructed, and only an approximation of the real.
But we like looking at pretty things. Silk arrangements can be breathtaking. So can celebrities. The point isn’t that there is no aesthetic value in what is produced by celebrity culture, but rather that there is good reason to be mindful that what you are seeing was something constructed for you to see — deliberately, calculatively, and for profit.
The images, narratives, and creative works of celebrity culture can be functional in other ways besides surface-level entertainment. The people we lift up can serve as role models, examples of right (or sometimes very wrong) behavior, and most often they are blank canvases on which we quite liberally project our own biases, insecurities, hopes, prejudices, and desires. Celebrity culture produces a series of high-profile mirrors, each of which offers you a reflection of some aspect of yourself. Whether or not you choose to gaze into the looking glass as it hangs on your (Facebook) wall, you cannot deny the influence of this machinery.
What then are we to think about Pagan celebrity?
Do the mechanics of illusion function in the same way in our sub-culture?
T Thorn Coyle captivated me from the moment I first saw her. She has that thing that celebrities have. When she looks at you, you feel as though she is really seeing you. She is very much in her body, too, which is something else she has in common with many of the celebrities I’ve met. She understands her flesh, and she isn’t bashful about it. She owns her space. She commands attention. She has presence.
Thorn was one of the first Pagan celebrities I met face-to-face. She was also one of the first Pagan celebrities who connected with the less public side of my life, offering me insight, advice, and direction during a time when I needed it. In that moment, it was the real connecting with the real. The currency of celebrity did not matter.
I don’t know why Thorn started out as a celebrity figure for me. I can’t quite place it. I was inoculated for celebrity at a very young age, but somehow I got the Thorn bug. Maybe it’s the way that she speaks so clearly about harnessing one’s will, or using one’s own power to affect change in their life. She’s a self-professed magic worker, and that sense of sovereignty is so attractive to me. Self-possession and self-direction have always been challenges for me. Thorn displays through her own example (or at least the example that she offers us to see) some aspect of myself that I would like to develop.
Then that’s it — that’s why. Thorn served, at first, as a Pagan celebrity who demonstrated how one person could be embodied, aware, relentless, compassionate and thoughtful. She demonstrated behaviors that I wished to emulate. She was a person I could imagine modeling myself after.
That is a function of celebrity.
Do the celebrities of Pagan culture serve that function in a different way than celebrities of the mainstream entertainment culture? Do we hold up people for the same reason, or for different ones? Are the expectations we might place on — say — the members of One Direction, a teen boy band, different than ones we would place on Ivo Dominguez Jr.?
What is the standard of realness for Pagan celebrities, and how does that differ from entertainment celebrities? Are we more permissive of the artificial when we consume the products of mainstream consumer culture than when we buy the books of our Pagan authors? Do we expect Pagan celebrities to be more real, or more authentic than other celebrities?
What is the function of Pagan celebrity?