If John Key really is our first celebrity prime minister, we are entitled to wonder whether he has quite got the hang of either role. As a rule, prime ministers don’t go around labelling essentially harmless famous people as “thick as batshit”. (There seems to be some dispute over the origins of the dumb dung, but not that Key took a gratuitous potshot at David Beckham’s mental capacity.)
And being a celebrity is a 24/7 occupation: you are never off duty and nothing you say is off the record. Although your bog-standard hypocrite can get away with being smarmy to a person’s face and snaky behind his or her back, celebrities’ unguarded unvarnished observations make front page news. The gaffe police had a field day. Key was derided as New Zealand’s Borat, although Sacha Baron Cohen’s character is, among other things, an inspired variation on the innocent abroad who draws attention to inconvenient truths that society affects not to notice.
Key could also point out that when Rob Muldoon called an entire nation stupid, Kiwis backed him to the hilt. The lesson would seem to be that it’s better to rubbish those who are closest to us, literally and figuratively, than a global brand.
Key is right to characterise it as a storm in a teacup. He thinks that’s because the media is “out of sync” with the public who see him as a normal guy who speaks colloquially and kids around. I would suggest that it’s because they understand Brand Beckham has nothing to do with IQ, and furthermore, is impervious to popgun attacks from the back of beyond.
There are two ways of looking at Brand Beckham’s success and staying power. One view is that it’s a largely artificial construct, marketing at its best – or worst; although not quite famous for being famous, Beckham is certainly far more famous than he ought to be. The counter-view is that although it’s more than the sum of its parts – bland, good-looking international footballer and family man who happens to be married to a pop star – its resilience derives from that multi-dimensionality.
Beckham is obviously a highly talented player – he won 115 England caps – but he’s no Pele or Maradona, and his career is not without lowlights. His red card in a vital game at the 1998 World Cup for one of the most pointlessly feeble fouls ever committed contributed to England’s elimination and made him a target of fan abuse. Even though he is a deadball specialist, his attempt to draw first blood in the penalty shoot-out in the Euro 2004 quarter-finals ended up in row Q of the stand, having posed a greater threat to circling seagulls than the back of the net. Not surprisingly, it was all downhill from there for England.
He is now 37 and since 2007 has plied his trade in the US which, rather like Japanese club rugby, provides fading stars from the big leagues with a lucrative, unscrutinised twilight. When it emerged in 2004 that Beckham had had an affair with his personal assistant, the tabloids crowed that the devoted husband and family-man image had been exposed as nothing more than a marketing strategy. Whether the public had already factored that in or simply didn’t care, the episode had no discernible impact on his brand power or popularity.
Becks and Posh mightn’t be the sharpest knives in the drawer, but they grasped long ago that the key to being one of the most famous couples in the world is to remain a couple. Don’t bet against them outlasting Brad and Angelina.