Scrambling for celebrity

Oprah in AustraliaAnd so, it’s over. Oprah. She came, she saw, she conquered, and we have finally watched it all in her Ultimate Australian Adventure. In a year or so, however, I won’t remember the winery tours, or the product placements for Chevrolet, or Jackman’s bloody eye, or the gabby diva’s earnest face introducing those delightful, emotional BFFs from Boston. Nicole Kidman’s botox-placard forehead, I hope to forget within the next fortnight.

But I will always remember our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, getting up on stage to introduce a talk-show host. Our elected head of government, ‘B-List’ to Oprah’s ‘A’, battling the screams of thousands in Federation Square, being swamped, standing aside, defeated.

In the short seconds that Gillard took to the microphone to do her stuff, a cheerleader in a perfectly pressed suit (come on Melbourne! Give us an O!), I suddenly realised how scared politicians must be, faced with the enormous pressure of the new-media age, a place where profile and ‘personality’ can seem to be everything, and policy to count for squat.

In the videos of Oprah’s day in Melbourne posted to YouTube, you can hear the crowd laughing as Gillard begins her spiel, the intermingled boos and hisses lurking under the half-hearted applause, and then the screams as Oprah steps up, the hysterical affirmations of her importance.

The contrast is disturbing.

What were the Prime Minister’s public relations people thinking? When did it become okay for the head of government to introduce talk-show hosts? Of course, in an attempt to achieve some sort of appropriate ceremony they did actually have poor old Premier Ted Baillieu pave the way for Gillard first. His bit was cut from Oprah’s actual show; maybe because of time constraints, maybe because he was completely drowned out by the crowd who just wanted him to get off stage. Or maybe because it was more fitting to Oprah’s star status to have the PM appear to do the intro cold.

Granted, Oprah Winfrey is not any old talk-show host. She’s more than a brand; she’s a phenomenon. As Melbourne Mayor Robert Doyle explained to the ABC during her visit: ‘When you think that she gets to over 40 million people, over 125 different countries, you couldn’t buy this sort of marketing.’

What Oprah is predicted to do for Australia’s tourism industry, Gillard presumably hoped the graceful lady would do for her own lagging polls. And watching Federation Square’s reaction to the politicians, there’s little doubt that they are seriously in need of some sort of public relations ‘extreme make-over’. Her PR team are obviously thinking that if they can just make the Prime Minister’s position shine with a little bit more star dust, then the next time a federal election rolls around, the prime ministerial candidates’ debate won’t have to be moved again to prevent a clash with Master Chef.

‘I can understand the fascination with cooking and eating,’ Gillard told the media when it was announced the prime ministerial debate would be moved so that everyone could watch Master Chef in peace. ‘So I know many Australians will watch that show but I think Australians will still pay some regard to the debate and to the election campaign and what’s said in it.’

Faced with the electorate’s waning attention, Australian politicians seem to be turning to the vast media landscape and attempting to celebritise themselves in an attempt to get people to care. New media brings along with it the temptation to pour everything into the public’s gaping maw. Twitter accounts, 24-hour news cycles, YouTube, the gradual morph of broadsheets into tabloids; profile counts for a lot, and the pressure to appear ‘human’ dominates many discussions over whether or not a particular politician is successful.

But being ‘human’ doesn’t necessarily mean grabbing every possible opportunity for press coverage. Politicians need to remember that new media can be deceptive: the more you drink, the thirstier you can become.

As a member of Gen Y, the generation that politicians seem to be attempting to appeal to through celebrity stunts, I think it’s backfiring. I don’t want stuffy, pretentious politicians. But I do want them to retain some gravitas, for it to be clear that what they do as politicians, the decisions they make, intimately affect people’s lives and wellbeing. To be earnest, to have the courage of their convictions, and to be open, yes. But to carry themselves as if it matters, too.

Sending soldiers to their deaths in war, barricading our borders or treating asylum seekers with dignity, building roads and schools and knocking down forests, the future direction of our 20 million-strong nation; these are the serious, fraught decisions we elect our politicians to make. We don’t elect prime ministers to introduce American talk-show hosts, and when they do, they not only trivialise their public profiles, but diminish the importance of their positions in our shared public life.

We need to ask: how much is too much? Is it important that politicians become B-List celebrities in an attempt to chase our gaze, or are we better served by politicians that are at once genuine, effective and aware of the powerful symbolism of their roles?

Ruby J Murray

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. It’s so symbolic that the PM introduced Oprah; it says a lot about the current celebrity culture, the obsession with TV, the desperate scrabbling of politicians for the ‘popular touch’. Houston, we have a problem.

  2. I enjoyed your post, Ruby.

    Whatever we may think of Oprah, she has charisma. What a mistake it was then for Gillard, so lacking in charisma, sincerity or gravitas to draw attention to her failings by occupying the same stage as the famous talk-show host.

  3. Yes, Trish: you sum it up perfectly. The whole idea was bad, but Julia can’t take a trick when it comes to public speaking.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *