In this very personal essay, Catherine Mayer remembers her friend Michael Hutchence, and wonders if our hunger for celebrity gossip is debasing our society
These days I know lots of dead people, but 20 years ago my ghosts were few and elderly. Then, on 22 November 1997, Michael Hutchence died, the first close friend of my age to do so. Grief doesn’t always manifest in tears and pain. For months afterwards, numb and fizzing with a demented energy, I strolled into walls and tripped over paving stones. The bruises multiplied as if my body was trying to tell me:” This hurts; this really hurts .”
Michael’s death also began to crystallise my malaise about renown and our relationship with it.
Eleven weeks earlier, photographers had pursued a vehicle into a tunnel in Paris, then stopped to take pictures of its dead and succumbing occupants. In the manner of her death, Diana the hunted seemingly left the media nowhere to hide from its culpability. In truth the events enabled a false distinction between mass-market press and the rest of my profession. As Michael’s friend, I had direct experience of the excesses of the paparazzi and the tabloids who paid them. I recollect trying to drive his Jeep with a photographer draped across the bonnet, firing a flashing firearm straight into my eyes in his efforts to capture an image of Michael huddled with Paula Yates in the back seat, attempting to shield their newborn- their tiny, new newborn.
Yet as a journalist- and a consumer of celebrity news- I couldn’t ignore the ways in which print journalists right across the spectrum, from red-top to broadsheet, falsified Michael. It wasn’t just about the mixture of sloppiness and invented detail, or even the crass reinforcement of every conceivable stereotype about masculinity and boulder stars. Their reports concealed toxic narrations that played out in unexpected routes after Michael’s death and define me wondering about the wider effects of celebrity culture.