June 11, 2009

(+++) DARK SIDES OF CELEBRITY

Airhead, Book 2: Being Nikki. By Meg Cabot. Point/Scholastic. $16.99.

A Day in the Life: One Family, the Beautiful People, & the End of the Sixties. By Robert Greenfield. Da Capo. $24.95.

     One of these books is aimed at teenagers, the other at adults; one is fiction, the other nonfiction. But both are astonishingly similar in their single-minded fixation on celebrity – not in the sense of being famous for accomplishing something meaningful, but in terms of being famous for being famous. Certainly that is the premise of Being Nikki, the followup novel to Airhead, in which brainy but plain Emerson Watts went to a major store opening to look after her little sister, Frida, and a bizarre and never-explained accident caused Em’s soul to migrate into the body of teen supermodel Nikki Howard, who was on site as part of the store-opening festivities. This setup made no sense, and Meg Cabot – author of The Princess Diaries and other books that also made no sense but possessed the same quality of transformation – wisely got past it as quickly as possible so she could explore the implications of being in the wrong body. In Being Nikki, those implications get darker and more complex, as Nikki’s mother is missing (and Em feels she needs to find out what happened to her); Stark Enterprises, the company in whose new store the bizarre brain switch occurred, begins to look more and more like one of those fount-of-all-evil corporations with nefarious motives galore; and Christopher Maloney, on whom Em had a crush, like, forever, is now coming on strongly to Nikki (or is to Em in Nikki’s body?). While trying to unravel these mysteries of the heart and head, Em/Nikki also has a few things to do with her body – she is a teenage supermodel, after all – and she starts to wonder what Nikki did with the body when it was 100% hers, since a number of girls seem to think Em/Nikki is or was after their boyfriends. This is what passes for introspection in the book: Christopher had “never said he’d loved me back when I had that snaggletooth and didn’t look like the goddess that I did now. I mean, I was still the same person on the inside then that I was now.” And this: “Getting paid thousands of dollars to stand in a pair of leather pants under some hot lights for a few hours wasn’t that big a sacrifice. You do tend to lose your perspective pretty quickly after a while.” By the end of Being Nikki, it turns out that the real Nikki isn’t dead, as Em had thought she was, and that opens up a whole new set of completely unbelievable possibilities, some of which will be explored in the next book in the series, Runaway.

     The thing is, celebrity lives proceed in ways that are completely unbelievable to the mere mortals who follow celebs' every move so attentively. Cabot gets that right, and so does Robert Greenfield in his biography of Tommy Weber and Susan “Puss” Coriat. Never heard of them? They’re old news – very old news – and for that reason alone, A Day in the Life is less than wholly enthralling. Tommy and Puss were wealthy, privileged Brits cutting a swath through Swinging London in the 1960s. Upper crust, enamored of drugs and free love but not of responsibility, they moved among the folk heroes of the day (Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards – who called Weber “Tommy the Tumbling Dice”) in a typical swirl of celebrities feeding off each other. Married in 1964 after a widely followed celebrity romance, they produced two sons and much heartbreak for each other and those around them. Puss died in 1971, Tommy not until 2006; their story is one of failed (or lacking) aspirations, pie-in-the-sky planning, wasted inheritance and (more arguably) wasted talent, and eventual descent into familiar elements of celebrity hell, including wildly extravagant spending and drug smuggling as well as drug use. Greenfield tries to generate some sympathy for Puss and Tommy (whose birth name was Thomas Ejnar Arkner) by focusing on their difficult, neglectful childhoods. But it really doesn’t work – they come across as spoiled “poor little rich kids” who should probably never have had children of their own but whose own children seem to have overcome their parents’ legacy and to be doing all right (one, Jake Weber of NBC’s Medium, is promoting Greenfield’s book). This is a sad story but scarcely a tragic one, and Greenfield fills the book with so many “celebrity moments” – Tommy or Puss with one famous or formerly famous person or another – that A Day in the Life comes across as just the sort of voyeurism it pretends to decry. Greenfield eventually concludes with a cascade of clich├ęs: “Born to privilege, Puss and Tommy threw away opportunities that others never had. …[T]he best anyone can offer is the hope they have both found the kind of peace in death that they never knew in life.” This is a (++) book trying hard to be more important than it is, although generous readers may give it (+++) for its accurate portrayal of some of the less-than-“groovy” aspects of the Swinging Sixties.

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