Shock and ridicule are the primary responses to Charlie Sheen’s recent viral escapades, particularly his infamous interview with ABC, in which he refutes the claim that he is “bi-polar” by stating instead that he is “bi-winning”. The erratic actor played a starring role as the idealistic protégé in the original Wall Street, and is currently best known as the previous promiscuous lead in the sitcom Two and a Half Men. However, it is his private life of late that has been gaining him by far the most notoriety, particularly his penchant for porn-stars and cocaine, which led him to being hospitalised in a pretty serious condition a little over a month ago.
So what is it about celebrity meltdowns that fascinate us so much? Why do the sex-and-drug-filled antics of a star like Charlie Sheen garner so much verbiage, debate and interest?
Firstly, we love to see those who we have elevated to super-human status come crashing down and re-enter the ranks of the normal, preferably with a dull thud. The whole celebrity environment that we have created of late means that we are able to place even the most talentless and undeserving of creatures (Snooki from Jersey Shore anyone?) on a pedestal, paying them vast sums as we watch them stagger from disaster to disaster, requiring ever more daring feats of stupidity or life-endangering benders. In many senses this is akin to watching a horror movie from behind a pillow; you know exactly what you have let yourself in for, yet you are unable to fully withdraw yourself from the action, no matter how gory or tragic it becomes.
Secondly, as human beings we have an infinite number of wants, but only finite means of fulfilling them. That is, unless, you are Charlie Sheen. In my favourite line from his ABC interview, he claimed to be on a ‘”run that would make Jagger, Flyn Richards, and Sinatra look like droopy-eyed, armless children”. Not only this, but he justifies his actions by claiming that he “created magic”, something to wake people up from “their boring lives”. Therefore Charlie Sheen has become the ID personified; he can literally do whatever he likes, with whoever he likes, and we can watch, safe from our living rooms and laptops, the imminent and impending crash.
We have become the ultimate voyeurs, allowing people like Sheen to go and experience every facet of human desire, while we watch with increasing satisfaction as they race ever closer to the edge, until their eventual self-immolation. We then watch smugly, self-righteously, as the dejected star slowly but surely claws their way back to the real world, along the winding and painful road to recovery. In special circumstances we can even welcome them back with open arms, but of course dependent upon their finding of God, or Kaballah, or even worse, Scientology. In this sense, celebrities are the consummate entertainers; they enable us to experience second hand the extreme gratification that comes from having your every whim granted to you, but without the inevitable hangover.
Finally, and most importantly, there is a massive value chain attached to this morbid process. It is no coincidence that Charlie Sheen has recently published an auto-biography. It will be no surprise therefore that in the wake of his interviews, his Twitter outbursts (he managed a staggering one million followers a mere two days after joining the site), and the more general media hype that his book sales will sky-rocket. Also don’t be surprised when in six months he starts proclaiming the benefits of product x, or rehab clinic y, or endorsing religion or some other cosmic cure. This is because, whether we choose to forget it or not, Charlie Sheen is only worth the airtime he generates.
It is the sad truth that if he saved a group of orphans from a burning building he would be headline news for a day or two, but by protracting a long drawn-out downward spiral of depravity, and an even longer and more painful recovery, he can remain squarely in the public eye for months, even years. He can then charge for appearances on major networks, for interviews in glossy magazines, and, god forbid, a tell-all book at the end of this painful journey. More over, it is not just Sheen who benefits; one has to remember that all of his publicists have a vested interest in this game, not to mention the magazines, networks and anyone else who can attach themselves to the Sheen rollercoaster (the porn-stars who can release their own tell-all stories, for example).
So is Charlie Sheen the tragic victim of the media spotlight and the intense pressures of being constantly hounded by mass media? Or is he shamelessly exploiting the system that we have created, and that he and so many others self-perpetuate? Regardless, Charlie Sheen is most definitely bi-winning. How many others can go on a drug spree that would make Hunter S. Thompson wince, surrounded by doting porn-stars, and still be welcomed back by his wife and children? And all this whilst cashing in millions of dollars in interview appearances and book sales. I think he may well be onto something….
by Barclay Bram-Shoemaker