Personal experiences of violent men have become the vogue in celebrity PR, says Tessa Mayes
Support for a domestic violence campaign is the new black in celebrity circles. Celebrity victims are pinning black and white ribbons to their jackets, lending publicity shots for campaign websites, and revealing personal suffering as fast as you can say 'It happened to me'. The face of Sheryl Gascoigne, ex-wife of footballer Paul 'Gazza' Gascoigne, is now officially associated with the campaign against domestic violence in Britain, helping to launch a nationwide awareness campaign by Refuge in November. In the same month, Amanda Redman, star of the BBC drama Hope and Glory, spoke about her personal experiences at the conference on violence against women held to mark International White Ribbon Day. Meanwhile, the highlight of the London mayoral race was when brash Labour MP Glenda Jackson came out about her experiences of domestic violence.
Celebrity victims say they are raising awareness about domestic violence. But they are also saying, 'Look at me, Me, ME!'. The revelation of personal traumas has become the fashionable way for ordinary people to become famous and for celebrities to reinvent their public image. Welcome to the world of Versace-dressed victims.
Women like Sheryl Gascoigne, who have no particular claim to fame (apart from links to other celebrities), are becoming famous by publicly declaring their personal misfortunes. It's not hard to sympathise with the personal tragedy of the former Mrs Gascoigne. The image of her bruised pretty face and bandaged hand after she was beaten by her husband was in depressing contrast to the photograph of her as a beaming, tanned newlywed on the front cover of Hello! magazine. Yet her claim that the issue of domestic violence involves a 'conspiracy of silence' is not true. It's a fast track to celebrity fame. Sheryl's intimate account of life with Gazza received full coverage in all the papers. Martin Bashir (who conducted the famous Panorama interview with Princess Diana) interviewed her on Tonight With Trevor McDonald, ITV's flagship current affairs show. Across the TV channels, news programmes featured domestic violence reports inspired by the campaign.
Famous women today seem to feel compelled to speak out about their alcoholism, miscarriages or divorces rather than their skills as actresses, TV presenters or comediennes. Hot on the heels of Gascoigne, Amanda Redman told November's violence against women conference, 'my understanding of domestic violence is that it's acceptable as long as you don't talk about it'. Perhaps she has spent too much time behind the TV cameras to notice that politicians are keen to give domestic violence as much publicity as possible. In June 1999, women's minister Baroness Jay launched a campaign to 'change the culture' in the way domestic violence was presented. New regulations have been brought in to help 'vulnerable' witnesses give evidence in court to increase the convictions of those accused of sex and violent crimes. Cherie Blair supports the Refuge charity and the United Nations is compiling evidence of domestic violence worldwide.
It is one thing to be concerned about physical injuries to others. It's quite another for public figures to use their personal tragedies for their own ends. Politicians like Glenda Jackson have much to gain by being a self-styled victim. In a New Statesman interview last year, given to promote her ambitions to become London mayor, she claimed that 'I don't think I've ever been in a relationship with a man in which he hasn't raised his fists to me'. Politicians have always used images of a happy family life to boost their ratings. Now it seems that telling all about private troubles can do the same. It lends authenticity to a politician - 'she's as vulnerable as you or me' - as well as sympathy. After all, while people may vote against Jackson's transport policy, nobody would oppose her denunciation of domestic violence.
Celebrity victims may feel they are just like ordinary victims when it comes to domestic violence. We're all made of human flesh and bones. But celebrities have more opportunities to recover from their past. In the film Notting Hill, the famous movie star played by Julia Roberts tries to compete with dinner guests who are confessing their worst experiences. Her punchline is that her boyfriend used to hit her. All credit to the film that, following an awkward pause, the other dinner guests laugh - she may have had her problems, but she is far too successful to compete in the victim stakes.
By claiming 'I have suffered', celebrity victims feel justified in pontificating about all kinds of other issues, too. For Sheryl Gascoigne, for example, her status as domestic violence survivor has given her a platform to claim that her opinion on which footballer should receive the Football Writers' Association award counts for more than that of the FWA. As Paul McCarthy, the FWA chairman, put it, George Best was not honoured for beating anybody up but for his 'outstanding contribution to English football'.
If celebrity victims want to be judged by how much they have suffered and not by their talents, that is up to them. It's just unfortunate that the rest of us have to listen to it. And whatever you think of the sad ending to the Gascoigne marriage, Redman's relationship disasters or Jackson's past, it is still the case that most people's close relationships put a smile on their faces and not two black eyes.
Reproduced from LM issue 127, February 2000