THE WINNER OF my private competition for the best opening paragraph in the Saturday papers for 13 May, 2006 was the following gem from columnist Raymond Gill of The Age. “Anyone who saw Bec and Lleyton — Australia’s answer to Posh and Becks, only dumber — hold up little Mia for the cameras on the Logies dais last Sunday realised in a single blinding instant that Kath and Kim is not a television comedy series, it is a reality show.

“Anyone who could stick their five-month-old in a Mum-and-Midget matching Zimmerman ensemble for a national photo opportunity has definitely lost the race when it comes to both parental responsibility and ordinary old good taste, and let’s not get onto the bow they stuck around her head which, sartorially speaking, was pure “Fountain Gate Goes to the Oscars.”

I endorse Raymond Gill’s sentiments, especially the fact that he makes no mention of Lleyton being a tennis player which is entirely valid because he doesn’t seem to play much these days or at least he is not winning a lot of tournaments. No, Lleyton is now — or fast becoming — a celebrity which is what people seem to become when they stop doing what they did that made them famous in the first place. Lleyton seems to now have the time to plant little bye-bee Mia on the rostrum, next to the microphone, whenever he and Bec consider it useful to do so. Indeed, it is almost obligatory to do such things if you aspire to be a seeded celebrity.

In this latter context Lleyton has obviously sat at the feet of one of the masters of celebrity behaviour. I refer of course to that veritable prince of public nausea; he who resides at “Gracelands”, otherwise known as “Misnomer”; he who runs, or once ran, a sort of free refuge for lads whose mothers thought their boys would shed their insomnia if they bunked down with Michael Jackson for a few nights. And, as we all recall, it was Michael Jackson who dangled his own bye-bee from an upper-floor window.

Chopper Read

I haven’t really considered who and what a celebrity is but I think it is someone who either creates a celebrity persona and then seeks to live out the fictional creation or, alternatively perhaps, it is someone who once did something noteworthy and then trades on it for the rest of his or her life. Or thirdly it may be someone of substance who has done some important and useful things and then retires and is endowed with celebrity status by others.

An example of someone who creates a celebrity persona and then seeks to live out the persona would perhaps be Paris Hilton. Paris has her dainty digits in the Hilton Hotel coffers and thus presumably has the time and resources to travel the world spending freely and otherwise enjoying herself. Her all-consuming celebrity passion — according to her own modest self-promotion — is bonking. Yes, celebrity hotel heiress Paris Hilton’s next bonk will certainly not be her first. She has told us so. I am old enough to ask the question — What is so special about bonking? Why make a fuss about it? It is one of the most actively pursued activities on the planet and yet here is this woman making a fuss about it. I would venture that the vast majority of humanity have bonked at some time whether for purposes of pleasure, procreation or practice. Perhaps Paris is just fine-tuning her style.

Paris’s kindred male spirit as a bonker would possibly be Shane Warne, of cricketing fame, who has also attracted considerable attention for his strong bonking record — albeit, from all reports, not with any great élan — and, unlike Paris, he gets plenty of publicity for these capers without having to say anything at all. Sadly for Shane, however, the frequent reports from the members’ enclosure suggest that Shane’s flipper is not what it once was and rarely finds that inviting edge that results in a joyous yelp when snapped up in slips. I am reminded of a friend who was a fine cricketer and played in the so-called Services Eleven, led by Lindsay Hassett, which toured Britain at the end of World War II and included many of those who would play in subsequent Australian test teams. I remember asking him about some of the players in that team and when I mentioned Ernie Toshack he responded that he was a good bloke and added “I reckon Ernie left a pair of trousers in every town in England on that tour.” So Shane was not the first bedroom bandit among cricketers and certainly wont be the last.

In the second category — someone who once did something noteworthy and then trades on it for the rest of his or her life — there are countless applicants. The celebrity criminal would have to be Chopper Read although Chopper does rather tarnish his celebrity image by doing something productive these days such as writing books. I don’t know whether he calls himself a writer or an ex-crim or something else but, as far as I am concerned, he can call himself whatever he chooses. That’s his right and I want him to know that I am a friendly type and that I wish him no ill at all.

Sam Newman

The sporting world is alive with celebrities of the mostly useless kind. For my part, I have never found compelling reasons for admiring celebrity sporting commentator Sam Newman as doing much that is useful although I have missed the past few years because we have banned him from our screen although he occasionally re-emerges somewhere else in some other context. Apart from specialising in crude slapstick and cumbersome one-liners, Sam seems to specialise in being rude to people, seemingly whoever and wherever they may be. He’s that sort of celebrity. Sam Kekovich, a colleague of the same ilk, features in that television advertisement for a water heater. Sam comes out of the shower, staring at his nether regions and declaring to Kevin Sheedy and another ex-footballer that he’s got one or hasn’t got one. Or who cares anyway? It is not an obscene ad — just inept, tasteless and, well, about the level one would expect from celebrity football once-wozzers like Sam K or Sam J. Or perhaps the more appropriate analogy would be those Grade 2 dicky comparisons in the school dunny during recess time.

There is nothing unique about the behaviour of Newman, Kekovich and many other sporting identities of the same ilk. They miss the glory days — the smell of the liniment, the special goal, the big marks in the big matches, the six off Sobers, the hat-trick at Lords, the ace that won the Davis Cup, the second win at Stawell and, of course, being the flames that attracted the most decorative and willing camp followers. However, in finding roles in the media, Newman and his ilk are the lucky ones because they are paid for being only one step removed from actually playing the game. For every one of that lot there are hundreds who only have the family home and the pub to strut their stuff.

Against that lot, my favourite non-celebrity in the sporting area is Kerry O’Keefe. He was a fine leg spinner in his day but all of that has been surpassed by his engaging commentaries on ABC radio in recent years. He is knowledgeable, shrewd and immensely entertaining. He has great and quirky humour, a library of jokes and quips, a spectacular cackling laugh, and a wonderful fund of analogies and anecdotes to set alongside whatever in the current commentary sparks his imagination. But O’Keefe is not a celebrity. He is much better than that.

The Oscars

Of course, the richest lode in which to find celebrities is that of popular entertainment — cinema, popular music, and the other activities that comprise that milieu. The Oscars is their big night and it is where one sees more plastic boobs, nose jobs, molar implants, bum trims, lost belly buttons, re-fashioned ears, taut facial skin, re-engineered eyes, foreign follicles and the like that you could poke a stick at. And they all belong to celebrities. All except those who opt out. Garbo did just that; so too did Dietrich albeit in a different way; Bogie and Bacall too; and quite a few others but the celebrities had the numbers by a long shot and they still do.

It is interesting, by contrast, to note the paucity of celebrities in other areas of activity. One rarely hears of celebrity poets, novelists or dramatists; nor scientists or educators; and nor do we hear of celebrity generals and the like, perhaps because they are too busy losing bodies, reports and other such items entrusted to their care. In short, the notion of celebrity as presently pursued seems to me to be one that is broadly defined and narrowly practiced. In its modern origins it probably owes most of its raison d’etre to Hollywood and Broadway but it doesn’t matter much either way because I shall still be able to read a good book or drink a good red long after Paris and Shane and Chopper and Lleyton have tumbled off the front page.

However, the true celebrities in my book are those in the third category — those who do have something of substance to offer and who are endowed formally or informally by public proclaim after they have retired or at least are well into their careers. This is when the authors and artists and scientists and others come into the spotlight of public acknowledgement. The list may also include the Australian eye doctor in the Congo, the engineer in Bhutan, the agricultural scientist who bred the new strain of rice, the carers of the old and the sick and all those many others who pursue new ideas and approaches and otherwise devise items and ideas and do things that make life better for the rest of us, wherever we live and whatever we do.

Do we have a Tasmanian celebrity? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I hope not.