Assholes! They’re just like Us!
I desired Johnny Depp with the intensity of one thousand suns. He was the very best bad boy and my unmitigated lust for him, which caught flame in 1987 with the arrival of 21 Jump Street, would embarrass me if I chose to really bring up the sense memory now. My ardor for him was natural, of course. At that point in time, Johnny Depp was the hottest tamale around and many a twelve year old girl fantasized about those smoldering brown eyes, those luscious, floppy locks, those sky high cheekbones, and that sensuous single earring. Johnny was heat, he was passion, he was danger. He was bad, but not, you know, frightening. He was tortured, possibly, but not, like, disturbed. I bought the book of Herb Ritts photographs that contained several black and white images of him and Winona Ryder. I remember flipping to a page and seeing the most erotic kiss I’d ever laid my eyes on. I remember reading that he loved her so much that he tattooed her name on his arm. Theirs was a love that made me ache and so naturally I wanted to vaporize her and take my rightful place at his side.
From the ages of 11 - 43, I spent quite a chunk of time studying the lives of celebrities. Old celebrities, young celebrities, literary celebrities, Bravolebrities. I knew who was sleeping with whom, who had what “work” done, who was in rehab and who was freshly out of it and needed us to respect their privacy during this difficult time as they focused on their family and their health. In that decades long epoch, there was not a face I did not recognize in that long annual fold out in Vanity Fair, on the cover of People magazine, or in the sophmoric screed that was Perez Hilton dot com. I loved and admired and hated and ridiculed and felt envious of hundreds of people I had never met, but who felt like an integral part of my foundation as a wannabe actress. In a way, it felt important to form my thoughts about celebrities because, even though I would have never articulated the thought - even to myself - I was destined to be among them.
My favorite page in Us Weekly magazine was and still is the section called “Stars! They’re just like Us!” I enjoy it now in a campy sort of way, but at ages 12 through 25, I viewed it in an utterly sacrosanct fashion, as an actual bible - a set of principles to live by. It was nothing short of a foregone conclusion in my mind that I would one day be in those nasty, gorgeous little pages, stuffing my face at an outdoor restaurant, wheeling my recycling can out to the curb of my home in the Hollywood Hills, or scurrying into my personal training session with Gunnar Peterson. As the years have worn on and life has, shall we say, offered me some unexpected growth moments, I have learned that, of course, stars are nothing like us, and the fact that they all have to pump their own gas sometimes does not move the dial on this reality. It is also fair to say that stars are exactly like us, just genetically superior and with rather more gifting suite opportunities than the rest of us can expect from life.
Right around the time I did not make it to the second round to ask Johnny Depp a question for a forthcoming episode of the Oprah show (my proposed questions were political and they were looking more for those of the teen-heartthrob fangirl persuasion), he stopped lighting my fire. The impish grin seemed more sad than sexy, the tattooed, bejeweled swagger said less “I’ll be your bad boy” and more “I’m fundamentally an unwell person”. By the time Pirates of the Caribbean 2 came out, my white hot sexual desire for the man I saw becoming a high school musical version of Keith Richards was, despairingly, freezing cold.
When celebrities do bad or embarrassing things, we get a tiny thrill, like when you get a cookie on an airplane after you forgot to grab lunch at LaGuardia before boarding. When celebrity couples fight and separate and divorce, we consume their stories like hot dogs and coleslaw on the Fourth of July. And when celebrity couples fight and divorce and have very public courtroom trials which we can watch on the internet and turn into memes on TikTok? Well, that, my friends, is a whole fucking Bacchanalian feast.
I have a super delayed response to most things in the zeitgeist. I usually only start to pay attention to cultural phenomena when their relevance is nearly a distant memory. For this reason, I did not mentally take on all the shenanigans between Monsieur Depp and his disgruntled ex-wife (whose name is a noun plus an adjective, just saying) at first. It was only when the videos of their courtroom drama came into my feed with such a rate and volume that I could no longer ignore them, that I began to watch. Side note: I just realized the term “feed” is disgustingly apt, as, when I have had my fill of time scrolling through these constantly refilled troughs, I feel about as enlightened as a cow about to be murdered by a stun gun.
When I did finally wade into Amber Depp waters, I felt instantly sad. The you-left-the-seat-up bickering over you-destroyed-my-life matters is at once cinematically tragic and wholly pathetic. Instead of the gleeful schadenfreude that I might feel over the misfortunes of two gorgeous, wealthy, vibrant, wild artists, I felt the maternal urge to put them each into bed with a cool mist humidifier and rub Vicks on the soles of their feet. Then again, that’s pretty shitty of me when you consider that I am part of the virus that has infected them and brought them to such a place as to have their most intimate and shameful secrets carelessly and permanently blasted all over the internet. I have handed over thousands of dollars to the Celebrity Industrial Complex to participate in a system that, arguably, is at least partially at fault for creating such a pitiful tableau as is currently on display in a courtroom in Fairfax, Virginia. Yes, maybe celebrity foibles translate to box office revenue and they’re crying all the way to the bank, and maybe when a person chooses to live in the public eye, they are entitled to a little more scrutiny than the average bear, but MY GOD it’s all gone too far.
By virtue of the fact that we call them stars - a term that has previously meant actual, celestial entities - we have cruelly engineered the machine that will inevitably destroy them. With every snicker and giggle and mouth agape, I have been as much a part of that which I am decrying as the sleaziest of tabloid pushers. Still, a falling star is pretty while it’s dying, but then what?
When I was 12, I needed to believe in a magical land where people were perfect and life wasn’t ugly. To fantasize about a parallel universe - Hollywood - where bad boys were only bad on TV and deep down they were actually good men - offered me a beautiful lie that also gave me much-needed hope. Johnny Depp roared and danced and lived wild and free like Hunter S. Thompson as I stayed gripped in one position, desperately clinging to the scaffolding behind which I could begin to build my actual life. I inhaled his beauty and devoured his charm until I grew enough to outgrow him. Now that the gifts of his youth are themselves turning into smoke and the world continues to feed off his destruction, it seems he finds himself stuck in amber.