As I recall, 1992 was a very good year — especially for Peeping Toms. It was the year when Sharon Stone uncrossed her legs from here to eternity on the big screen and when Madonna peddled her dirty pictures to us in her book Sex, putting the punter in the strange position of paying for the sex object to act out her own fantasies rather than theirs.
Signora Ciccone was never much of a singer — but what a singular salesperson she was, back in the 20th century when we lived in modern times. But the world turns, civilizations succumb to plagues and that which once fetched a high price must eventually be given away for free. Sharon Stone has closed her legs and moved on to philanthropy as befits a sexy sexagenarian.
Madonna just can’t seem to put it away. She has embraced social media as enthusiastically as a teenage Insta-influencer. At the start of lockdown she popped up in her bathtub with words of wisdom to soothe our coronavirus fears; by July she was posing on Instagram in nothing but a top hat and panties. So business as usual, with one poignant addition: Madge was leaning on a crutch having injured her leg after a Bad Fall — the eternal bugbear of the old lady. Didn’t stop her stripping off, though!
Madonna is the best example of what I call the Sex Pest Celebrity; a public figure who reverses the generally accepted power play of pursued star and pestering fan. It’s fair to say that Madonna has been thrusting her sexuality on us for more than three decades now; the singing was only ever a sideline which she obviously hasn’t done a great deal of work on, which is why her live performances are so astonishingly substandard.
She’s not alone, of course, in being what is coarsely known as an Attention Whore — most people in entertainment are. (Also loads in journalism — like me.) During lockdown, celebrities have tried all sorts of ways to get our attention — crying like Sam Smith, murdering songs like Gal Gadot — but nakedness is still the quickest way to get yourself looked at. Except that now Madonna is jostling for attention and our approval with girls young enough to be her adopted daughters, girls who see their nakedness as profound rather than provocative. Bella Hadid posted a naked selfie urging people to stay at home to save ‘literally the entire world’ while Emily Ratajkowski says that her mostly naked Instagram feed is ‘a sexy feminist magazine’.
One thing that COVID-19 has made clear, if we ever doubted it, is that celebrities need us more than we need them. The last celebrity who really wanted to be alone was Garbo, which is why she stopped making films at the age of 35. Other celebs have been making pests of themselves from time immemorial in various ways, often by harassing the poor punter for cash-for-flash. It might have started with Lady Godiva; it’s always been prevalent among perma-priapic pop stars, who love to grab their crotches and wiggle like rude toddlers who’ve just found out what’s in their diapers. Think of Elvis’s KitchenAid pelvis, Jim Morrison actually flopping it out onstage, Janet Jackson’s runaway nipple, Miley Cyrus interfering with herself via a huge foam hand. Sometimes they just boast, thrusting images on us which we can never truly be free of, such as Sting saying he liked to have sex for seven hours non-stop.
Actors are almost as bad: Demi Moore seven months pregnant on that cover of Vanity Fair, Orlando Bloom on that paddle-board, Angelina and Billy Bob boasting they had sex in the car on the way to that award ceremony, Olivia Wilde bragging that she and her partner have sex ‘like Kenyan marathon runners’ — an image not half as attractive as she supposes.
They can wear dark glasses, wince ‘no pictures!’, compare fame to rape (Kristen Stewart) or ‘like how, in war, you go through this bloody, dehumanizing thing’ (Gwyneth Paltrow) and call non-pretendies ‘civilians’, saying that they could never date one because they wouldn’t be able to deal with the ‘pressure’ (Elizabeth Hurley) — but we know their wicked game. George Michael, who certainly knew about these things, once defined a star as ‘someone with a little something missing rather than a little something extra’. Don’t yell ‘Look at MEEE!’ and then be upset when people look at you; try to get a little perspective and admit your part in the mad mutual mazurka of media attention which may well be driven by your own neediness.
A star in the sunset of the sex-pest years can be a sad sight. The more savvy (Paltrow) may tout candles called THIS SMELLS LIKE MY VAGINA and THIS SMELLS LIKE MY ORGASM and make a pretty profit. Back here in Britain, we don’t aim so high; we may be a nation of shopkeepers but we are not, unlike you, a nation of natural salespeople. The Daily Mail recently reported that the 77-year-old Swedish-born, British-residing starlet Britt Ekland had offered to record a personalized Father’s Day message for the strangely specific price of £166 ($208); while the ‘adult’ website OnlyFans has seen a 75 percent increase in subscribers during lockdown, a testimony to loneliness as much as lubricity.
But, because they so add to the gaiety of nations, I do have a soft spot for the Sex Pest Celebrities; it’s lovely to see them come out on top and not go down the familiar ‘troubled’ path to addiction and suicide. I’ve been keen on the Kween of them all, Kim Kardashian, for a long time, and admired her progress from porn star to passionate educator on the Armenian genocide. She may even end up in the White House, if her man Kanye West decides to run again. The day the USA has a first lady who came to public attention with a sex tape, shaming any woman for exposing herself will be off the menu. And on the day after Kween Kim’s krowning, celebrities all around the world can finally give in to their innermost fantasies — rushing into the streets naked and screaming ‘Hey world — get a load of THIS!’ — without fear of being considered déclassé.
This article is in The Spectator’s August 2020 US edition.