So You Want To Be An Icon?
Don't believe the hype

Celebrity, or icon status, is a creation that exists outside of the people it's attached to. It lives only on television, and in magazines, newspapers, and water cooler gossip.

See also...
... by Jenn Shreve
... in the Dirt section
... from September 15, 1999

Take the case of poor Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, a woman who never seemed comfortable in the world of tabloids and glossies -- unlike, say, Madonna, who would probably melt like the Wicked Witch of the West if the media stopped paying attention to her.

Each week, a new picture of Carolyn would emerge on the magazine stands, reality be damned. Depending on what moment the paparazzi managed to capture, she was a gorgeous bride, a petty harridan, a glamour babe, an ice-queen from hell -- and, according to the September 1999 issue of US magazine, she looks like "Jar Jar."

Oops. Somebody went to press before JFK Jr., his wife, and sister-in-law plummeted to their deaths on July 16.

The same issue of US also features a picture of JFK Jr. hobbling on crutches, his foot in a cast from an in-line skating accident on Martha's Vineyard. The headline ("His Left Foot") and caption poke fun at his clumsiness. The Jar Jar comment runs under the headlines, "When bad clothes happen to good people," and includes yet another foot-in-mouth statement: "Even perfect people make mistakes." So, apparently, do glossy magazines.

Of course, US's treatment of Carolyn and John John wouldn't raise an eyebrow if the couple hadn't died tragically. But they did die, and their life stories were transformed once more for public consumption, illustrating ever so clearly the fictitious nature of magazine content.

Compare US to the September 1999 issue of Vanity Fair, which was hastily yanked out of production and given a complete makeover upon the sad news. A sentimental tribute to JFK Jr. leads the editorial offerings, which include a previously unpublished photo spread of Carolyn. The photos were earlier deemed uninteresting. Now they're accompanied by a brief essay where Evgenia Peretz comments that "Bessette was not an icon, but a wife, a worker, a daughter, and a friend, with an insatiable appetite for life."

Aside from being guilty of inflicting vomit-inducing treacle on her readers, Peretz is wrong. Carolyn was all the things she mentioned, and she was an icon. The real person and the icon have little in common.

Magazines like US, and to some extent Vanity Fair, are little more than contrived nonfiction -- in other words, fiction with a twist of truth, like Peretz's eulogy.

Alas, it's that twinge of truth that makes our information-rich society pay such close attention to People magazine. We're aware that much of what we read is more processed than hotdog meat, but because there's a real person involved, we choose to believe.

Carolyn Bessette never sought fame in the first place. When she had it, it was a nasty, painful ride. Now the tides have turned, and she's not even allowed to enjoy it, not that she would have.

Jenn Shreve is a freelance writer in San Francisco, a media columnist for