The fame monsters
Novelist Carl Hiaasen takes a satirical swipe at celebrity culture
Last Updated: Monday, August 9, 2010 | 1:26 PM ET
By Jason Anderson, CBC News
Having been assured that Canadian TV viewers have not been denied the privilege of watching Jersey Shore, Carl Hiaasen explains why the new choice of location for the misadventures of Snooki and The Situation is absolutely fitting.
'When you go to court like Lindsay Lohan did and face the judge to find out what your sentence will be and you paint "F--- you" on your fingernails, you're not deeply troubled – you’re deeply moronic.'— Carl Hiaasen
“So you have these troglodytes,” says Hiaasen, a proud Floridian, a longtime columnist for the Miami Herald and the author of some very funny novels, “and now for their show’s second season, they ship them to South Beach. It’s the perfect place for them. It’s the epicentre of pretension and self-absorption. Miami is one of the poorest cities per capita in the U.S., probably in North America, and yet here is this mecca of almost jubilant decadence. And the emptiness of the place is somehow something to celebrate, the fact that nothing of consequence ever happens there.”
Where else but South Beach, he wonders, would anyone even think about assassinating a fashion designer? For Hiaasen, the bizarre tragedy of Gianni Versace and Andrew Cunanan serves as another example of the sheer absurdity of the place that also serves as the setting for his latest novel.
The twelfth comedic thriller he’s written since 1986, Star Island is a typically boisterous not-quite-true-life tale about a talentless pop singer starlet named Cherry Pye, a fictional amalgam of some very familiar young women, and a true creature of South Beach. Cherry has a habit of having messy, drug-addled breakdowns in various clubs and hotels, so her freeloading parents and money-hungry manager have employed Ann DeLuisa, a lookalike actress, in order to fool the paparazzi into thinking that their quarry is still on the scene when the real Cherry’s been hustled into rehab.
As Hiassen points out in a recent interview in Toronto, the idea of a decoy is hardly far-fetched, given the sometimes dangerously co-dependent relationship between stars and the photographers who document their flameouts. According to Hiaasen, “At some point, somebody must think, We’re just going to hire an actress who looks like her and have her pop around here and there and make people think she’s up and about. Fleeting glimpses are enough for the paparazzi to get what they want and to feed the beast.”
In Hiaasen’s view, that beast is consuming more and more of what used to pass for America’s culture. Whether his means of attack is his long-running column for the Miami Herald or bestselling novels like Tourist Season and Basket Case, Hiaasen has frequently taken aim at the people he believes have exploited and destroyed his corner of the country, be they rapacious developers, callous polluters or profiteers of all stripes. (He’s also written an anti-Mickey book called Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World.) But it’s the corrosive effects of our collective obsession with celebrities that have inspired his outrage this time around.(Random House of Canada)
Hiaasen presents Cherry as an empty-headed waste-case, which shows how little stock he places in our tendency to treat troubled stars as poignant figures of tragedy. “They always say they’re ‘deeply troubled.’ No, they’re deeply stupid. I’m sorry, but when you go to court like Lindsay Lohan did and face the judge to find out what your sentence will be and you paint ‘F--- you’ on your fingernails, you’re not deeply troubled – you’re deeply moronic,” he says. “She had every chance in the world and she chose to be a train wreck.”
Despite the harshness of his sentiments, Hiaasen does concede that celebrities have it rougher than ever now that the 24/7 news cycle and the proliferation of online media have driven tabloid culture into overdrive. In Star Island, Hiaasen introduces readers to Bang Abbott, a paparazzo who develops a surprising relationship with Cherry Pye.
The author says it was only natural for him to get interested in Abbott’s kind, having worked alongside photographers as a journalist for many years. “News photographers have nothing but contempt for these guys,” he notes. “But I became fascinated with how you get to that station in life, where this is your job – chasing around actresses whose husbands have cheated on them or hanging out in the shrubbery outside Britney Spears’ house or tracking Lindsay Lohan from one nightclub to another.”
Yet Hiaasen can understand why the ranks of paparazzi are swelling. “It’s the only part of the media business that’s growing,” he says. “While the news business is shrinking, those shows are multiplying on television and online. Online sites like Radar Online and TMZ didn’t even exist a couple of years ago. It’s dispiriting that this is the only segment of the so-called news business that seems to be thriving.”
Star Island also includes an appearance by Hiaasen’s best-loved character, Skink, a former Florida governor who’s now a gonzo defender of the Everglades. For all the moments of slapsticky excess – quintessentially Hiaasen touches include a bodyguard with a weed whacker in place of a hand and Skink’s increasingly deranged reactions to the obscenities of South Beach – there’s a palpable sense of anger and frustration directed at our ever-more-narcissistic age and the distorting effects of celebrity on everyone involved.
“I have a scene in the book where Cherry is looking out the window after her latest meltdown and there are no cameramen,” says Hiaasen. “She asks her mom, ‘Where are they?’ I’m quite sure there is an addiction that sets in. And I have Bang Abbott saying, ‘What do you think they’d do if we didn’t show up any more? They’d know it was over.’ I think it’s very true.
“Sean Penn was probably one of the last actors who said, ‘Stay away from me,’ threw a punch and meant it. He was probably trying to break their necks. Now, I think it’s more a matter of swagger and show to do that coming out of the club – it’s pathetic. And if you write satire, it comes on your radar so much. You wait to be inspired-slash-outraged enough to sit down and write – this all seemed like something I had to use.”
Star Island is in stores now.
Jason Anderson is a writer based in Toronto and the author of the novel Showbiz.
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