The Word Made Flesh

Media Coverage of Dead Celebrities

How to Cite

Farley, R. (1999). The Word Made Flesh: Media Coverage of Dead Celebrities. M/C Journal, 2(3).
Vol. 2 No. 3 (1999): Flesh
Published 1999-05-01

1997 was a bad year for celebrities. Deng Xiao Ping and Mother Teresa died of old age, Gianni Versace was shot, Princess Diana killed in a car accident, John Denver's plane crashed, Michael Hutchence hung himself and Sonny Bono died in a skiing accident. In each case, the essence of the news story is the extinguishment of life and the consequent extinction of the body. So-called journalism ethics usually prevent photographs of dead bodies (especially when mutilated). However, recently we saw, on the front page of The Courier-Mail, an unnamed Albanian lying in a pool of blood with a clear bullet wound in his head; the lack of photographs of dead celebrities' bodies is therefore political as much as it is influenced by the editors' sense of propriety. Live celebrities fulfil a particular function; what, then, are their bodies made to do in death?

I. Versace / Cunanan

Gianni Versace was shot on the front steps of his Miami mansion in July 1997, after a morning walk to the local cafe for magazines and coffee. He received two bullets in the head and was pronounced dead on arrival at the local hospital. Ten stories in four magazines carried only two small photographs of paramedics attending Versace on a gurney, despite its obvious newsworthiness.

Live Versace is surprisingly absent from the accompanying photographs, where he appears alone, with celebrities or with family (including his lover) just 15 times in 68 photographs. Intriguingly, Versace's body is similarly expunged from the texts. The word 'body' itself also only appears twice in relation to Versace; only one report mentions his cremation and his ashes' return to Italy. Versace's blood, spilling down the steps, appeared much more frequently (textual references plus photos: n=15). Most magazines reported a fan who tore Versace ads from a magazine and sopped them in the designer's blood, but there are no photos of this bizarre act. At no point does any article actually describe Versace as homosexual, although most note that when he was ill in 1996, the press assumed he had HIV/AIDS (in fact, it was cancer). His lover, D'Amico, only appears twice and is only once referred to as such; elsewhere he is a 'companion', 'life partner' and even 'significant other'. What Versace did have, frequently discussed in safe monetary terms, was his business -- a respectable living entity accessible through, importantly, the discourse of family. Anxiety about the continued survival of the eponymous body corporate partially covers the extinction of Versace's fleshly body.

So where is Versace's body? The photograph tally gives us an important clue: his alleged murderer, Andrew Cunanan, appears in more photographs (n=16) than the celebrity victim. Importantly, although they supposedly met at an opera, any link between Versace and Cunanan is implied only by the proximity of descriptions of their respective lives. Some texts explicitly suggest the opposite (Time 32): "yet Versace in mid-life, it turns out, was a tempered bon-vivant, a high-glitz homebody. He remarked, 'You can go to a restaurant if you want, but things are always better at home.'"

Cunanan's perverse body permeates the texts, too. All stories decribed his career as a "worthy companion" to older, wealthy gay men; all mention his mother's incorrect claim that he was a prostitute. There were 29 references to his preference for "kinky sex" and bondage gear found in his apartment and 41 to a mythical "gay lifestyle" (including references to the "gay scene", "gay bars", "gay hangouts", his alleged work as a gigolo and so on). A suggestion that he might have been HIV-positive (later disproved) also occurred repeatedly. New Weekly devoted its coverage entirely to Cunanan, purporting (however inaccurately) to explain "the lust for fame and rich men that perverted" him (cover); it alone asserted Cunanan had worked as a transsexual prostitute. Increasing Cunanan's apparent perversion were repeated stories that he did this to support a wife and child.

Cunanan's sexuality is directly associated with his crimes (see also Crowley): variations on the word 'killer' ('assassin', 'murderer', 'gunman') appear as many times as references to 'kinky' sex. Versace, on the other hand, becomes corporeal; he exists in terms of money, his family, and, finally, in terms of death (passive and active variations of that noun appeared 58 times). In life, Versace's (gay) body was transgressive; in death it was mutilated. By leaving the (transgressive, dead) body out altogether, Versace's narrative became a prosocial tale of capitalist success, a handsome, benign family man destroyed by the 'evil' of a perverted gay lifestyle (Crowley).

II. Michael Hutchence

Michael Hutchence hung himself -- accidentally or deliberately -- on the door-closing mechanism in his hotel room in November 1997. There are, of course, no photographs of his corpse. However, unlike Versace, Hutchence's body is liberally scattered throughout the text. Direct references to it appear 12 times, including three to his "naked body". We are told in every story that Paula spent 20 minutes alone in the Glebe morgue with his "body". References to his sexuality are also prominent, with variations on the theme (for example, "Michael Hutchence was sex on a stick" -- NW 23) appearing 30 times overall. There were articles on "his harem", featuring photographs of various girlfriends over the years, and Yates's description of his as "the Taj Mahal of crotches" appears repeatedly. Evidently, excessive heterosexuality is more acceptable than transgressive sex.

This is quite clear from the determined "suicide" narrative. The British tabloids suggested that Hutchence died practicing autoerotic asphyxiation, a not inconceivable claim, given that some 1000 American men die annually of this practice (see Garos) and in light of Hutchence's apparently overwhelming sexuality. Australian magazines, however, only mentioned that possibility three times in 23 articles from 7 magazines. The assumed fact of suicide was mentioned (directly and euphemistically) 30 times. Suicide is apparently more acceptable than autoeroticism, and it certainly "fits" the Hutchence narrative. The only reason offered for Hutchence's apparently perplexing suicide was despair over the enforced separation from his family.

Family is overwhelmingly important in the Hutchence narrative. Photographs of him with Paula and their daughter Tiger Lily, or Paula's and Geldof's three daughters, appear 25 times -- more than Hutchence appears alone (n=21). The total number of photographs of Hutchence with other people only amounts to 27, despite his high-profile career and high-profile lovelife for 18 years before he met Yates. Yates is Hutchence's "lover" more often than D'Amico was Versace's, but she was also his "soulmate", his "girlfriend" and, most often, "the mother of his child". Mention of Hutchence's familial role -- 'daughter/s', 'father/hood', 'dad', 'family' and so on -- appear 44 times. (The only comparable frequency is variations on 'death' such as 'died' or 'dead', not including references to suicide.) This, then, is where Hutchence is recuperated -- the excessive sexuality which, unsaid, may well have led to his death -- disappears completely in family life. Live Hutchence was a sexual wildcard; dead Hutchence is a role model of responsible domesticity.

III. Mother Teresa

Unlike Versace or Hutchence, Mother Teresa's body caused no trouble when it was alive, and, conveniently, wasn't mangled in death. Six of fifteen photos of her were of her dead body, including a close-up enlarged across two A4 pages. Also included are photos of people holding photos of her, which fits Wark's suggestion that re-presentation helps to create godliness (26). (Interestingly, Diana was the only other 1997 death treated the same way, confirming Frow's point that some deaths are qualitatively different and providing a point for further analysis.)

There are photographs of people touching Teresa, and this is mentioned in the text (n=6) more times than her dead body itself (n=3). Interestingly, the fact that she died of a heart attack is nearly absent from the accounts (n=2), although her metaphorical heart looms large (n=9). It is the only part of her live body which was narratively significant.

One reason that Mother Teresa's dead body is able to be present, in both pictures and photos, is that her flesh did not need to be replaced with pro-social narrative. Instead, her (tiny) body in life did what society wants women's bodies always to do: she was not just Mother Teresa, but a 'mother' to us all (n=8), chaste (n=3), and always described with diminishing adjectives (n=14). There was none of that pesky female sexuality to deal with, though gender was undeniably significant (she was described as "a woman" 11 times), and of course, it is there in her very name (shortened often to Mother, rather than to 'Teresa' -- she was a role, not a person). The only discourse more powerful -- and intimately connected -- is saintliness (n=38). The sexless (selfless), tiny, maternal body can be displayed, in death, as an icon of the good female.

IV. Conclusion

In their lifetimes, Michael Hutchence and Gianni Versace both displayed transgressive sexual personae, Hutchence's being excessive and Versace's being 'wrong'. In death, the media deals with this, unsurprisingly, by replacing the now absent bodies with a pro-social narrative. This is taking Foucault's proposition that the body is ultimately the site where ideology is practiced to a whole new realm, since ideology was forced to wait till the bodies stopped to reclaim them for its own. It also reinforces the sense that a "free" (live) body is somehow beyond ideology (Hutchence was apparently practicing just this when he died). Soon after Versace, Diana's death prompted stories of why the good die young (Bulletin 23 Sep. 97, 71-2). However, this article shows that, patently, the good live to 87 and those who die young often don't "come good" until they die.

Author Biography

Rebecca Farley