Saturday, December 12, 2009

Tiger Woods and the Perils of Celebrity

Tiger Woods' prowess on the golf course has lately been overshadowed, first by a rash of tabloid reports of infidelities and then by his announcement on Friday that he will "take an indefinite break from professional golf" and "focus my attention on being a better husband, father, and person."

Mr. Woods’s balancing act has been, if anything, delicate. A genuine prodigy, he revolutionized the most conservative of sports with his titanic power and superbly honed skills. At the same time he has broadened its audience. A self-described "Cablinasian" (Caucasian, black, American Indian and Asian), he helped dispel golf’s lingering aura of whites-only, country-club privilege at a time when the public watchwords were diversity and multiculturalism. He became bigger than his sport and at the same time was its leading global ambassador.

And in his case, the performance has been financially rewarding on a giant scale. But it also required almost fanatical self-control. Though he has been a public figure for most of his life, Mr. Woods himself remains unknown, perhaps unknowable, through what seems to have been a conscious effort to efface his own personality. It now looks as though he found other outlets, as a sequence of women have come forward, some of them eager, it appears, to claim their own moment of fame, which is also part of the deal in the transactional world of the brand-name celebrity.

The "image or trademark" of 1961 has become the "brand" of today, with many millions of dollars at stake in sponsorships and endorsements. More than ever before the celebrity, in particular the sports celebrity, is trapped in a transactional relationship with his fans, who regard him less as a person than as a commodity — an enormously skilled competitor on the field, but off it just another pitchman selling himself on television and in backlit displays in airport terminals.

It is in part this disconnect between Mr. Woods and his public that makes him seem so isolated just now, as he remains in seclusion.

"The very agency which first makes the celebrity in the long run inevitably destroys him," the historian Daniel Boorstin wrote in 1961. "He will be destroyed, as he was made, by publicity. The newspapers make him, and they unmake him."

For now it’s unclear how much damage Mr. Woods has sustained, and whether he can overcome it. It may be that forgiveness lies only a championship away. But it may also be that his stature has been permanently diminished. In any event, it is clear that his ambition was not to take up space in tabloids but to be ignored by them — for celebrity, the dream of so many others, has been his nemesis from the beginning.

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