Celebrities go way back with me. I used to play with them at my grandmother's house. Or, more accurately, I used to play with photographs of them--the kind of photographs that depict them as you've never seen them before!
My grandmother was one of those awful people you've been hearing about all week: the kind of person who not only glanced at lurid tabloids but bought them and brought them home. And read them. And gave them to her little grandchildren to play with because the full-length candids made great paper dolls.
"Here," she'd say on rainy days, fishing some sleazy tear sheet from the pile next to her ancient coal stove. "Aren't Liz and Debbie cute? Isn't that Eddie Fisher just a son of a gun!"
None of us--not she, not we--had a clue that we were contributing to a pernicious industry that would someday be sharing blame for three accidental deaths.
All we knew was that there was something interesting about those pictures, something a person didn't see in her everyday life. Also, if Eddie was in a dinner jacket, we could pull out the scissors and make him take the Liz and Debbie dolls to the prom.
This has been a bad week for people who like tabloids, and there are, we are told, a lot of them. Not us, of course. We're above buying such dreck. But those other people. The multitudes with the base instincts and the Enquiring minds. People like my grandma.
Those people, we are told, ought to be ashamed of themselves. If they weren't so fascinated by the private lives of public figures, there would be no market for the paparazzi who hounded the Princess of Wales.
Except that she wasn't a base person, my grandmother. Kooky, yes. But not base. In fact, if she were alive, she'd probably be saying a rosary now for Diana's poor sons.
It's just that when you're a widowed cleaning lady in a tiny town in rural Pennsylvania, you don't encounter a lot that's exciting in your life. My grandmother's dirty little secret was that she had a weakness for glamour and status; aside from those moments when she could dress up for a dance at the Sons of Italy or corner the priest after Mass, she didn't have much of either in her life.
So she did what she could to break the monotony, and one thing she did was read her movie magazines and tabs. It never occurred to her that anyone would ever take her interest so seriously that they'd risk their life, or the lives of the celebs in her magazines, just so she could see how they looked smooching on a beach.
Contrary to the notions of editors--and I think this holds for most tabloid readers--she didn't see celebrities as her be-all and end-all. They were just interesting, that was all. She could read about them and get a jolt of excitement. She could gossip about them and be pretty sure they wouldn't gossip in return about her.
These were things you couldn't say about the jilted women and the sons of guns who inhabited her own real life. They were ordinary, difficult, unpredictable--as hard to connect with, sometimes, as paper dolls.
Of course, tabloid news has changed markedly in the last generation. What may have started out as fairly normal demand for celebrity gossip has been fanned by satellite TV and circulation wars and the Internet into a supply of dirt that would have made my grandma blush.
And, on a moral level, rich people are people too. It must be terrible to be a celebrity. What a burden, to wake up every day and have to play the part of your public self, lest some stalking camera show the public a less marketable you.
I don't know how I'd feel if someone told me that some little girl and her sisters were sitting in their crazy grandma's kitchen somewhere, making the Shawn doll have a pretend shopping spree with a cutout of Sharon Stone. I suspect it would feel a little frightening, to know that someone out there wasn't seeing me as a human being.
But at the same time, I think we ask the wrong question when we wonder so condescendingly what possesses "these people" who supposedly are so addicted to celebrity news.
The question shouldn't be, Why must they use celebrities to break the monotony? Rather, we should wonder, Why do so many of us feel this kind of monotony at all?
Life is life. It can be equally rich or empty, whether you are a princess or a widow who scrubs floors. We live in an era of peace and prosperity; we should be connecting with the fascinating complexity of the human condition as we've never connected with it before!
But we aren't. And maybe it's because we are a base, awful species, or maybe it's because we aren't giving ourselves the right opportunities, as a society, to connect with the most satisfying aspects of life.
Either way, we should find out. The human frailty in tabloids isn't the only kind that's compelling. Enquiring minds want to know.
Shawn Hubler's e-mail address is email@example.com.
My grandmother was one of those awful people you've been hearing about all week: the kind of person who not only glanced at lurid tabloids but bought them and brought them home.