The rise of the 'infamous' famous

Who is David Sedaris? Could you pick Conan O'Brien out of a line-up? And does Helen McCrory warrant any recognition in his own right? These are the questions perplexing a nation, as we come to terms with the unstoppable rise of the unfamous famous. They're all well known, so why does no one know who they are?
It started in Sussex, where David Sedaris, noted radio broadcaster and author of bestselling books, lives a double life as a litter-picker.

So appreciative is Horsham District Council that it's named a rubbish truck in his honour.

But when the story appeared in the local news, Sedaris was referred to simply as a "volunteer", with no mention of his literary fame.

Or take Mary Beard. As a Cambridge classicist, she's completely up to date with all the juicy goss concerning Caligula and Nero but she couldn't tell Emmy-winning Homeland actor Damian Lewis from a lowly plebeian.

She admitted to an accidental snub at the National Theatre where his wife Helen McCrory is appearing in Medea. Finding herself seated next to Lewis, Beard opened conversation by asking, "What do you do?"

I once asked the same question of a man sitting next to me. This was in a Soho nightclub circa 2003. He said he was in a band, at which point I bettered Beard with this rejoinder: "Yeah, sure, you're 'in a band' (eye-roll optional), but what do you do for a living?"

That man was Pete Doherty and, as someone later informed me, his band, the Libertines, were on the cover of the NME that very week.

This anecdote has done good service in my humble-brag repertoire. It suggests I'm too cool to fawn over the famous and too egalitarian to treat them differently.

Or it did, until everybody who's anybody started failing to recognise the famous.

At a recent television industry party, the guest of honour was a man called Conan O'Brien. Ask your American friends. Over there he's more famous than David Sedaris, Damian Lewis and Pete Doherty put together.

Over here, however, where he's not on television four nights a week, hosting a talk show watched by millions, no one has ever heard of O'Brien. So when he got up to speak it might as well have been open mic night at the Dog and Duck. Some people had their backs to the stage and next to me a woman carried on a phone conversation at full volume.

Is the rise of the unfamous famous a sign we've started to outgrow celebrity culture? I'm afraid not.

It's just that the number of celebs is increasing exponentially. Between the Commonwealth athletes, the YouTube sensations and the ex-girlfriends of Prince Harry, who can keep up?

People at this party weren't ignoring O'Brien because they'd been too busy living their authentic lives to care. They were ignoring O'Brien because they were captivated by someone else in the room.

A cast member from The Only Way Is Essex was ordering a beverage. I'd tell you her name, but I can't remember it. Rest assured, she's very, very famous.

The Independent


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