Jenny McCartney: An industry powered by schadenfreude

Women’s magazines home in on the insecurities of stars like Kim Kardashian

The story of the 50-year-old woman known only as “C”, who recently argued for her legal right to refuse life-saving treatment on the grounds that her life had “lost its sparkle”, has a particular resonance for our times.

It was not “C”s expression of exhaustion with a potentially dreary future which seemed unusual: such feelings are common among people who have lost the will to live.

What unsettled so many about this particular case were “C”s frankly outspoken reasons for wishing her life to end: she was terrified of ageing and becoming ­– in her own judgment – “poor and ugly”. The judge said that it was agreed by all – including “C” and her three daughters – that her life had revolved largely around “her looks, men, material possessions and ‘living the high life’”. She had been married four times, had a number of lovers, and was known for reckless spending and heavy drinking.

A life of perpetual motion, however, had recently been stalled by events that would challenge even the most stable person: “C” had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and her most recent relationship had collapsed, leaving her in debt.

In her view, the kind of life she wished to lead was over: she took an overdose of painkillers washed down with Veuve Clicquot. It was this that meant that she required dialysis, after which her prospects of a full recovery were nonetheless held to be very high. Yet the court found that “C” was within her legal rights to refuse life-prolonging treatment, and so she did, resulting in her recent death.

Many of us will find it sad that she did not want to cling to life, particularly as her daughters – to whom she had reportedly been an erratic parent – still seemed to care deeply for her. Yet “C”’s essential view of herself and her role is echoed, if not by most ordinary people, then certainly by websites and gossip magazines on British shelves: there, women’s lives are depicted as rollercoasters of drama and self-obsession.

An invitation to admire the beauty of actresses, supermodels and reality TV stars such as Kim Kardashian is spiked with hot news of their insecurities: the body parts they dislike, their frantic new exercise regimes, their plans for plastic surgery and their fear of ageing. And as they do, inevitably, grow older, sniping sharpens into outright mockery of their fillers and Botox, their attempts to snag the limelight and to cope with perceived threats to their status.

Gossip in the pamphlets and coffee-houses of old was surely always edged with gleeful malice, but today it has found a bigger and more confident global voice. The celebrity industry glories in cataclysmic life events, not small, unremarkable pleasures.

There are people who keep on the move – through the next relationship, drama, drink, spending sprees, divorce – because they fear that when the party stops, all the lights will go out. Behind them, they leave a memory of burned-out glamour.

George Best, blessed with unforgettable looks and talent, seemed to belong to this category. Best often told a humorous anecdote about the hotel bellboy who delivered champagne to Best’s room, saw the footballer surrounded by casino winnings and that year’s semi-clad Miss World, and asked: “Mr Best, where did it all go wrong?”.

As the years passed, that story began to seem more poignant and prophetic than funny. Best later admitted: “Perhaps he saw something in me that I didn’t.”

It doesn’t do to be too pious. If an excessive quest for “sparkle” can fatally unmoor a character, then we wouldn’t wish to be devoid of it entirely. In the right quantities, a pinch of vanity, an urge towards fun, the manifest enjoyment of a party, can all be the making of a person – indeed, the very things that slow a gradual slide towards the grave.

I can recall my grandfather, then in his late nineties, leaving the house each week for church on Sunday, immaculately dressed in a suit and tie and sporting a generous splash of whatever French cologne his grandchildren had bought him for Christmas. He reminded me physically of one of those rackety classic cars Cubans used to drive in Havana, moving forward at uncertain speed but with undeniable dash.

My grandfather liked a whiskey or a glass of wine, and sometimes spoke with an enjoyable disdain about so-called “oul’ fellas”, who were probably at least a decade younger than him.

He was also fundamentally happy, with deep roots in his family, his gardening and his faith.

It seems that “C” was honest and determined in her feeling that she had lost her “sparkle”. Yet of course the true loss didn’t really lie in the ebbing of youth and wealth at all, but in her perception that without those things she was nothing.

Jenny McCartney is a writer and reviewer