By Rosemary Overell, University of Otago
This morning I woke up, rolled over and, as I always do, scrolled through my Twitter feed. Owen Jones – a British socialist – tweeted his shock that Peaches Geldolf, 25, had died. I immediately checked for a hashtag and went about trying to find out more.
Predictably, Twitter was in overdrive with a constantly refreshing feed of #RIPpeaches and other hashtags. There is something awfully banal about this kind of memorialisation. The deaths of celebrities have always been mediated, but the ascent of social media has produced a kind of hyper-experience of mortality, which I engage in, but also find unsettling.
Twitter rolls from one highly-charged affective state to another. Many have already written that the default mode for trending tweets is one of outrage. I would also say that public grieving is just as prolific. Just recently I wrote about the death of Dave Brockie – lead singer from metal band GWAR. As with Peaches’ passing, Twitter was the forum where ordinary fans and celebrities articulated their grief.
There is something touching in the seemingly infinite number of tweets – platitudinous, awkward and often full of cute emoticons – generated by ordinary people in the face of the tragedy of a distant celebrity. In turn, mainstream media run obituary stories peppered with tweets from celebrity mourners as a means for fleshing out the story.
Then it’s all over. We roll to the next outrage and next tragedy punctuating our thoughts with hyperbolic language until the feed refreshes and something new captures our affect.
What struck me most this morning, however, was that Peaches – daughter of Live Aid founder Bob Geldof and the late Paula Yates – will now most likely be most famous for her death. In the last decade there was a buzz around celebrities famous for “doing nothing” – Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, the Kardashians.
In the mid 2000s, Peaches was one of the “brat pack” partying in London and featuring in gossip magazines. She was never as prolific – or criticised as much – as Paris in the “doing nothing” stakes, and she had some hipster clout in her status as Bob and Paula Yates’s daughter. Then she dropped off the radar – marrying and having two children.
Her death is now her distinguishing identity. And even then, it seems to be skewed through a rehashing of Yates’s apparently similar demise. Tweets such as “with mum now” and much-covered fact that Peaches’ last Instagram post was a snap of her and Paula reinforce a kind of fatalism that not only was her death inevitable, but that this is what will define her.
This sort of post-mortem celebrity is in part fuelled by twitter, which produces willing twitterlebrities but is also able to elevate less tweet-savvy stars to trending status in death. “Peaches_g” had far fewer followers than Gaga but the tweets of mostly ordinary people in the last few hours have memorialised her in the twittersphere, and elevated her to a celebrity status beyond her “famous for doing nothing” image ten years ago.
There is obviously a moral dynamic to this post mortem celebrity.
As a very much alive, messy, rowdy teenager, Peaches was criticised as a bad daughter – pitched against a virtuous Bob Geldolf who had selflessly taken on another man’s children. Peaches’ mother, Paula Yates, famously left Geldof for the Australian rock musician Michael Hutchence, with whom she had a daughter, Tiger Lily, in 1996. Hutchence died in 1997 and when Yates died in 2000, Geldof assumed care of their child.
Key to criticisms of Peaches’ partying behaviour was a moralising concern that Peaches had not “learned” from her mother’s death from a heroin overdose.
In death, Peaches accrues moral standing, however. In part, this is because the strain in tweets and subsequent media write-ups rehearses a narrative of helpless inevitability. Emphasised in these stories – alongside the “mother’s daughter” line – is Peaches’ redemption – in her marriage, child-rearing and rediscovery of her Jewish heritage. Peaches, then, died with some moral standing – at least in terms of her representation in the press.
In terms of “post mortem celebrity”, perhaps it is important that the star memorialised is also moralised. The banality of recent articles on Peaches – about home renovations, and watching Lord of the Rings – is matched in the tweets of her ordinary fans who appear to relate to her not as “famous for doing nothing” but as “real” because of her status as a mum: “RIP peaches geldolf, two little boys left without a mum. Proper heartbreaking”, tweeted @nata1ie_sk.
I had reservations about writing this article. Was it too soon? Was it in bad taste? I don’t wish to moralise on Peaches’ worth myself. Rather, I am interested in how the media – and the mediated public – constitute celebrity, even in death.
Rosemary Overell does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.