How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

By Toby Young

Several years ago, Sports Illustrated sent one of its writers to interview Earl Woods, the father of Tiger, in order to get some background for their Sportsman of the Year story on the famous golfer. What happened is related by John Feinstein in his book on Tiger Woods, The First Coming:

In talking to Earl Woods, Smith got quotes in which the father insisted that his son had been sent by God and that he would be the most important human ever – not the most important golfer or the most important athlete, but the most important human. “Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity,” Earl Woods said. When Smith asked Earl Woods if he honestly thought his son – a golfer – would have more impact than Nelson Mandela, more than Gandhi, more than the Buddha, Earl Woods didn’t blink. “Yes, because he has a larger forum than any of them. Because he’s playing a sport that’s international. Because he’s qualified through his ethnicity to achieve miracles. . . . There is no limit because he has the guidance. I don’t know exactly what form this will take, but he is the Chosen One. He’ll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations. The world is just getting a taste of his power.”

Madness? Maybe. But then, celebrity is our religion. Its temples are arenas, stadiums, and movie theatres. Its deities have a place in our homes, within the electronic hearth that is the TV. Their faces follow us everywhere, smiling from the covers of the magazines that line the supermarket checkout, the packages of the products they endorse, and the dustjackets of their (ghostwritten) bestseller autobiographies.

John Lennon was only stating the obvious when he said the Beatles were bigger than Christ. The tithes of the medieval Church and the selling of pardons were as nothing to such an industry. The crowds bowing before Tiger Woods with their Wayne’s World chant of “We aren’t worthy!” are not being entirely ironic. He really is the Chosen One (chosen by the media and advertisers, that is), just as our Madonna is, well, Madonna. Indeed, to call celebrity a religion is to belittle its unprecedented range and power. To reject it is to reject almost all of our contemporary culture.

British journalist Toby Young went to Manhattan in 1995 to take a job as a staff writer at Vanity Fair with no intentions of rejecting it. He wanted to celebrate the superficial glitz and glamour of high fashion and Hollywood. Scorning elitist culture snobs, he reveled in American pop entertainment. His highest aspiration? To make it beyond the velvet rope at exclusive Oscar parties and hob-nob with the stars.

His total failure at “making it” leads to disillusionment and soul searching. Most of the book is taken over by Young’s self-analysis of why he turned out to be such a loser in New York, and what prevented him from fitting in with the “Condé Nasties” (Condé Nast being the media empire that published Vanity Fair). His conclusion is that he could never believe in it all. “In the temple of the Zeitgeist, I was a heretic.” This media Zeitgeist is the “glossy posse’s religion . . . a distant echo of God’s will.”:

To be in fashion is to be in a state of Grace. Strange as it may sound, lurking within the Condé Nast buzz factory is something that closely resembles the God of Judeo-Christian theology.

You have to wonder why he was surprised. Didn’t he read the interview with Earl Woods?

That celebrities are creations of the media, typically without any intrinsic merit (yes, Tiger Woods can hit a little white ball, but Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt can scarcely act!) leads Young to reflect on the difference between American and British attitudes towards fame and class. “The big difference between Britain and America isn’t that Britain has a class system; rather, it’s that Americans believe their country to be meritocratic whereas Brits don’t.”

As it happens, Toby’s father Michael Young invented the word “meritocracy” in his 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy. In that satire, supposedly written in 2030, meritocracy is found to be even worse than aristocracy since it leads to the domination of a self-satisfied, oppressive elite – a class without shame or even the saving grace of noblesse oblige. This is the problem with America’s current ruling class as Young sees it. When you add the fact that American celebrity is not based on any sort of merit you have only a circus of vulgarity and excess.

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People is a very enjoyable book, full of funny, star-studded anecdotes and provocative digressions on things like the decline and fall of New York City journalism and the rise of the celebritocracy. But it is also grating because of Young’s own split personality. “It was as if there were two people co-existing in my head, one a determined little careerist, ready and willing to do whatever ass-kissing was required, the other a demented, bomb-throwing anarchist intent on wreaking as much havoc as possible.” When his memoir turns into a love story it’s even unclear whether he is the last romantic or still just a clumsy dweeb trying to score with a hot chick. You’d like to think the heretic Toby wins out over the true believer, the romantic over the cynical sex columnist, but in the end you only wonder if there’s a difference.

Review first published September 28, 2002.

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