Monday, May 31, 2021

The Rich and Famous

 In my series of mysteries, that villain is most likely rich and famous. Whether it’s surprise, anger, betrayal, or disgust, most of us have strong feelings when someone in that exclusive club of the rich, famous, and powerful commits a crime. 

 To explain why, we need to look at why we’re fascinated with celebrities in the first place.  There are a multitude of theories, but most of them hinge on how we perceive the rich and famous.  To achieve that kind of star status, that kind of success, they must somehow be “better” than us--smarter, faster, more athletic, more talented, better looking. 

 In some cases, they’re role models. They are the people we want to become, the people we wish to be, the friends and lovers we wish we had. 

 We become familiar with celebrities because they entertain us in our cozy living rooms, their faces beaming from our big-screen televisions.  They’re interviewed, talked about, photographed, and caught on video.  We can interact with them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TicTok. Their wealth buys them a life we can only dream about.

 Like the protagonist in a good novel, they’re admired.   They are ‘like us’, but with something ‘more’. They must be smart and talented because they’re star athletes, singers, actors, and writers.  They must be special because they’re rich and famous.  

 Of course, they have flaws.  Robert Downy Jr. was plagued with numerous drug arrests early in his career but ended up the superstar Avengers character, Iron Man. In 1987, Mark Wahlberg was charged with attempted murder, pleaded guilty of assault, and served 45 days in jail, but became an actor, producer, and restauranteur. Tim Allen, star of the hit TV shows Home Improvement and Last Man Standing as well as the voice of Buzz Lightyear in all of the Toy Story movies, was arrested and served time in prison for drug trafficking in the late 70s. 

 We’ve forgiven, if not forgotten, their trespasses. Like the flawed protagonist in a book, they’ve overcome their addiction or anger management issues and have gone on to achieve success.  And moreover, they’re likable. They’ve learned from their mistakes.  At least we want to think so. 

 When Martha Stewart went to jail for insider trading, didn’t part of us think “What’s the big deal?”  We suspect that all successful investors will use insider knowledge to make money. Didn’t we think:  The feds must be making an example out of her because she’s not only a success, but she’s a famous woman? 

 After a firestorm of media coverage and a six-week trial, Ms. Stewart was sentenced to five months in prison and a hefty fine.  And if anyone thought this would be the end of her career, they were sadly mistaken.  She’s jumped back into a limelight that includes magazines, videos, and television She’s as popular now as she’s ever been. 

 While there are some crimes we can overlook, there are some celebrity crimes that we can’t forgive. 

 Starting out as a stand-up comic in the sixties, Bill Cosby released several award-winning comedy albums. Then, from 1965 to 1968, he was the first Black man to appear in a leading role on television, starring in I Spy.  After that, for two seasons, he appeared in his own sitcom called The Bill Cosby Show.  He hit his stride, however, from 1984-1992 as the lead of The Cosby Show. The program was number one in the ratings from 1985 to 1992.  His character, Cliff Huxtable, was named “The Greatest Television Dad” by TV Guide. 

 With even more projects in the works, Cosby was an esteemed, world famous, role model.  

 Throughout his career, there had been dark rumors, but then the hammer finally fell. In the mid-2000s, dozens of women came forward and accused Cosby of rape, drug-facilitated sexual assault, sexual battery, and sexual misconduct.  He was convicted in 2018 of aggravated indecent assault and sentenced to three to ten years in prison and required to pay $25,000 plus court costs. 

 Prior to that, The Cosby Show had gone into syndication and the reruns were ubiquitous across a spectrum of channels.  But as the accusations and trial unfolded, station after station dropped them.  The projects he had in the works, including one with Netflix, disappeared. 

 Collectively, we were not only surprised, but deeply disappointed and betrayed. For Bill Cosby, there is no ‘come back’.

 There are examples of the rich and famous committing awful crimes that we can’t forgive or forget, but take some measure of pleasure from the punishment, the ultimate karma that overtakes them. Schadenfreude.

 As a film producer, Harvey Weinstein had the magic touch, releasing films like Pulp Fiction, The Crying Game, and Shakespeare in Love. He was a star maker, enormously successful, and with that comes power.  He could launch show business careers, but he could also destroy them. His story of sexual assaults, rapes, and harassment are well known, and he may still face more charges of rape in California.  Thus far he’s been convicted of five felonies and sentenced to 23 years in prison.  

 In my first draft of this blog, I’d written that Mr. Weinstein had been a catalyst for the #MeToo movement.  My wife called me to task and reminded me that it was the women that had been bullied and assaulted that had the courage to come forward who had instigated the #MeToo movement.

 Jeffrey Epstein is a much darker story.  Over his career as a financier, Epstein had become wealthy enough to buy several homes, a personal jet, and even his own island.  He built a circle of famous and powerful men.  He was also a sexual predator of the worst kind.  He trafficked underage teenage girls, sharing them with his wealthy friends as if they were party favors.   

 In 2005 in Florida, federal officials identified over thirty underage girls he’d preyed upon, but Epstein was convicted on only two counts of procuring a child for prostitution.  He served 13 months, but most of it was spent on a relaxed work release program.

 Then in 2019, he was arrested yet again for sex trafficking minors and died in prison awaiting trial. The medical examiner ruled that it was suicide, but circumstances around Epstein’s death have sparked widespread suspicion and conspiracy theories.

 So, if the rich and famous are living their dreams, their best lives, why do they commit crimes? In a 2019 article by Ronald E. Riggio PhD for Psychology Today, he claims that famous and wealthy people can become “intoxicated” by the power and prestige that comes with their celebrity status.

 He goes on to say that their power makes them believe that they’re special and the rules don’t apply to them.  They begin to think that they get a free pass that allows them to misbehave. And if they do get caught, that their money and fame will help them escape punishment.

 So, just because they’re rich and famous, celebrities won’t stop being human which means that some of them are going disappoint us.  We won’t stop being surprised, we won’t stop being disgusted, and we won’t stop feeling betrayed. 




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