Jane Graham: Why do we love to hate celebs like Gillian McKeith so much?
Gillian McKeith is a difficult woman to warm to. The no-nonsense TV nutritionist is not particularly blessed in the departments which make women immediately popular.
Her laughter does not tinkle like fairybells in a summer breeze, her hair is not softer than bunny fur, she has neither youth nor beauty on her side. Schoolgirl enthusiasm is an attractive trait, but less so when that enthusiasm is for mung beans and poking through other people’s poo.
Nevertheless, watching her on I’m a Celebrity this week, crawling in terror along a vertiginous rope-bridge on her way back from sharing a closed coffin with an army of exploratory cockroaches, I squirmed with discomfort.
The ‘Bushtucker trial’ she had been subjected to was nightmarish by any standard, but for a 51-year-old sufferer of phobias, involving both heights and insects, it must have been horrific. She fainted at least once during the encounter, and endured the whole thing with a contorted look of embarrassment and fear.
Though one could say she volunteered to be on the show so knew what she was in for (and many, I know, will say just that), the awfulness of her suffering, and the stripping of dignity which accompanied it would, I felt, prove distasteful for viewers — it might even soften them to her, elicit a scintilla of sympathy.
Not a bit of it. Not only did the TV audience vote for her to go through another trial immediately, they also swarmed online to call McKeith a phoney and a liar. The general opinion seemed to be that McKeith was either faking her fear in order to secure airtime, or she was a fool for taking her phobias into the jungle in the first place and should thus be punished by the public until she couldn’t take anymore.
The whole incident was a sharp reminder of the dehumanising effects of a culture so consumed by celebrity it has convinced us that people on TV, in magazines and even in the news have no connection to reality at all. Whether they’re A-listers like Angelina Jolie or tomorrow’s chip paper like I’m a Celeb’s Kayla Collins, we no longer see famous people as sentient beings with imperfect lives.
Instead we regard them dispassionately, like cardboard cut-outs created for our delectation, designated ‘goodie’ or ‘baddie’ status by the powers that be, and then loved or hated accordingly.
The same self-declared ‘ordinary folk’ who scorn teenagers for being desensitised to violence after playing computer games are gleefully voting for Gillian McKeith to be tortured on I’m a Celebrity, or calling radio phone-ins to state that, no, they still don’t have any sympathy for ‘neglectful’ parents like the McCanns.
The result is that, should you ever garner any kind of press attention — even if it’s shunned — you can almost guarantee that you will be routinely abused on public forums, have endless lies and rumours about your private life spread across news-stands, and if you’re particularly unlucky — as both Cheryl Cole and X Factor contestant Katie Waissel have been recently — require the help of the police to deal with death threats.
Helen Mirren said this week she felt the notion of decency was disappearing from UK society, “where people are nasty and cruel on the internet and everybody seems to be very angry”.
I’m afraid she was right. We have become vehement purveyors and drooling consumers of what Burns once called ‘man’s inhumanity to man’, and it seems we’re now proud to be so.