Celebrity Dead Meme

www.celebritieswithyourdisease.com details what celebrities have what disease. Its overall message is simple: whatever ails you is normal. Even celebrities have health problems, and their problems are just as gross and mortality-inducing as yours. Athritis, cancer, COPD, it’s all there, and at least one celebrity has it. Mary Tyler Moore has diabetes; so does Bret Michaels and Wilford Brimley. Pamela Anderson, Naomi Judd, and Steven Tyler all have Hepatitis C. Richard Nixon had shingles.

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I like to sit in the weak light of screens and imagine their broken and bloated bowels, their ailing joints and cracked spines, their creaking sideways feet and poorly-producing livers. I imagine their money and their image, their doctors in clear white smocks, their land stretched out. It feels good, these people who sacrifice part of their selves for publicity. I take it for granted that this website is right. According to them, their sources are mainly Wikipedia and word of mouth. I take it for granted that celebritieswithyourdiease.com wouldn’t lie to me, that they use only the clearest cases. That’s probably not true. They do have a disclaimer which states it’s for “edutainment” only. That word makes me think of shiny new tech offices, marketing companies, branding sessions, and clean white teeth.

The fact of this website’s existence speaks so clearly about America’s celebrity worship and its insecurity. We’re all sickly broken things, limping through being alive, accumulating disease and decay. Just this past week, I was convinced I had a serious stomach issue, getting cramping and having horrible bowel movements. After about a week and five days of heavy-fiber, I feel so much better. If even celebrities have what we have, if even celebrities can break down despite their millions of dollars, then maybe we’re all equals, maybe we’re just as good as the beautiful people we worship on TV. In a lot of ways, that’s the goal of many Americans: to be as good as a celebrity, without being a celebrity.

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We want more than anything to be a part of something worth doing, but are terrified of how our bodies will fail. Celebritieswithyourdiease.com proves that it’s possible to achieve despite pain. Beyond this, though, there’s a weird joy in the failing of celebrities. Tabloids are built around this. People love to see famous people flounder, love to see their millions unable to help them. It’s a pure and simple schadenfreude, but one which is built around a billion-dollar industry. Somehow it makes us feel better to know that celebrities are in bad health. It’s an image beyond the easy sheen of marketing and makeup stylists into a more real world.

The other night, I told my wife I was writing about this website. She said, I’m pretty sure that it was made as a joke. Does that change anything? Not sure how real any of it is.

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We’re living in the Golden Age of celebrity deaths. I’ve read that 50 years ago, being a celebrity meant something much different than it does now. That makes sense; we’re so much more connected, but also so much more interested in being connected. We can get micro updates on celebrities all day long if we want. Their PR people and brand machines love to churn out content. And let’s be honest, there’s something about the availability of their lives that somehow makes them worth following.

Celebrity death and disease reminds us of our own mortality. It reminds us that image doesn’t mean immortal, that our dumb skulls are going to stop throbbing eventually, the big black nothing is coming, etc etc. Even the rich and powerful can’t live forever. Like the slave whispering in the Roman general’s ear during a Triumph: all men must die. Except the general is also the slave and we’re the confused Roman public terrified of the end.
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When Robin Williams died, it was instantly transformed into a meme. Because of the huge media attention, forums, Reddit, and IRC chats all started asking the same rhetorical question: did Robin Williams die? or Who just died? Williams was seriously loved by a lot of people, and his suicide took a lot of people by surprise. But the sheer weight of the reporting, the constant odes and homages, the barrage of Facebook posts, it was all spectacle. It was almost absurd. This human died, and the people that knew and loved him are genuinely affected by it, are genuinely broken up and grieving.

Meanwhile, that dude you know from science class in high school just posted “an amazing video of Robin Williams in Patch Adams RIP.” That’s what the internet does, it simultaneously brings us all together and makes it all so distant. This man’s suicide enters into the media grinder and comes out a meme on the other side. It’s flattening and exciting.

I’m scrolling through these forums both entertained and disgusted. I want the details but also know that wanting the details is part of the problem. It isn’t the internet’s fault, or maybe it is, just a little bit. The memes are both problem and a kind of defense mechanism. If we’re all reminded of how weak and easily killed we are, then making death into a joke is one way of resistance. Look: we can laugh about the death of Robin Williams, although it isn’t really the man we’re joking about. More like the PR machine, the brand-creation industry, the whole obsessive cyclical newsreel. We can turn death into a meta-joke, a nice laugh at our own failing.

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Celebrity culture hinges on the myth. It’s through myth making and image production that celebrity culture flourishes. We want the narrative of the celebrity, we want the carefully selected branding and photo ops to create something beyond ourselves. We want the celebrity to be more meme than human. That myth breaks down with death.

Except celebritieswithyourdisease.com doesn’t break the myth at all. If anything, it’s just another really strange part of the overall celebrity phenomenon. It both humanizes the celebrity and proves that they’re special through the fact of making a website devoted to their health problems.

Maybe the site is a joke. I suspect, though, that it’s more about the little donate button in the bottom left corner and the advertising on the right sidebar than anything else. In the end, even my beloved celebritieswithyourdisease.com wants only two things from me: my attention and my money, which are maybe the same thing.

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Drew Kalbach is from Philadelphia. His website is www.drewkalbach.com and his Twitter is @drewkalbach.

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