There was a poetic justice in the recent charging of Melrose Place star Heather Locklear on one misdemeanor count of driving under the influence of drugs (the legal sort, but the law is rightfully blind when it comes to operating a motor vehicle). The traffic stop, which happened nearly a year ago, was generated by a tip to the California Highway Patrol from a “former US Weekly reporter.” It seems cringingly appropriate that someone from the magazine that brought us “Stars, They’re Just Like Us!” should have brought a celebrity down to earthly mug-shot justice—and is it just me, or does the work of the Santa Barbara PD in-house photographer have a rather ethereal beauty?
Heather’s misfortune brought to light, yet again, the curious cultural construct of the “celebrity driver.” Granted, things have slowed a bit since the tumultuous Year of the Celebrity DUI—2006—when it seemed as if any starlet worth her salt was found operating under the influence and driving on a suspended license. And the world is still gasping at the moving violations of Britney Spears—whose most creative act of 2006 was to cruise around with her infant son on her lap. Yet the questions are still with us: Why has celebrity driver become such a meaningful pair of words? And what does our fascination with bad celebrity drivers reveal about ourselves?
Mere logistics explain a lot. Most celebrities live in Southern California, a region that has brought us everything from drive-in churches to drive-up voting, and they naturally spend an inordinate amount of time in their cars. Research has shown that the more miles one travels, the higher one’s “exposure” to risk becomes. There are simply more chances to get into trouble. Exposure is an interesting word in the celebrity context, for in driving, celebrities not only expose themselves to risk but expose themselves to the general public and the paparazzi—who stake out driveways, the threshold to public life in Los Angeles. At the destination, the vulnerability comes in the parking lot, so it’s no surprise that valet parkers supplement their income with tips … to photographers.
Traffic is a ruthlessly democratic environment; you can drive a $300,000 Maybach with high-luster leather seats and still sit in the same congestion, still get cut off by a 1983 Corolla with a “Visualize Whirled Peas” bumper sticker, still hit the same pothole, and still fall prey to the speed gun. Driving is one of the central areas of life in whichcelebrities, inescapably, are “like us,” and, not surprisingly, the vérité photographs are often taken in traffic: waiting at a light on Melrose, pumping gas on Wilshire, pulled over for speeding on Sunset. (There was a curious denouement in this respect recently when David Beckham, flagged in his black Porsche for driving too fast, was let off with a warning by an LAPD officer, who seemingly wanted to prevent the assembling paparazzi —who themselves can provoke bad celebrity driving with their own bad driving—from causing any more traffic chaos themselves.)
One wonders, given the incomes involved, why more celebrities don’t simply hire drivers for their mileage-intensive nights of parties and premieres. Perhaps it’s the privacy issue. (There are rumors of limo services installing cameras.) Perhaps it’s because Hollywood driving itself, with its similarly motorized press corps, becomes a platform for image-making. “They don’t want to spend the money to pay for a car service because they want to be photographed in their fancy cars,” one “image consultant” told the Associated Press. Even arrests can be photo ops. “Paris Hilton being arrested just makes her more famous,” publicist Michael Levine said after her DUI. Her agent, meanwhile, told MSNBC: “She’s been known to have a drink or two.”
Conversely, driving offers celebrities some illusion of normalcy. My wife, writer Jancee Dunn, once interviewed the Olsen twins. The “contrived activity” for the interview was to go shopping at a vintage clothing store. “I drove with Ashley, who could barely see over the dash of her enormous Range Rover,” she recounts in her book But Enough About Me. “Ashley kept phoning her sister in her corresponding Range Rover, because the two of them weren’t sure of how to get to the store.” All the while, their discreet bodyguards trailed in yet another vehicle. Rather than carpool in a limo, a virtual motorcade was required. It’s as if being driven by a chauffer is some relic of old Hollywood—cue the images of haughty Gloria Swanson carted around by the faithful Max (played by Erich Von Stroheim, who actuallycouldn’t drive).
For a time, the staples of “just like us” photography were celebrities such as Nicole Richie or Lindsay Lohan, with handlers in tow, emerging from “traffic school”—that Californian institution where drivers are sent to do perfunctory penance. (Studies have suggested they do little to improve traffic safety.) “The ‘Mean Girls’ actress looked extra-girlie in a purple hoodie with pink shorts and black leggings,” one Web site observed of Lohan as she emerged from traffic school before assuring us, “but later she got to kick back and enjoy her celebrity lifestyle at the grand re-opening of the flagship Fendi Boutique on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, California.”
That sentence embodies the writhingly conflicted feelings we have toward celebrity. On the one hand, they are ultimately unknowable and out of reach to the average person, and so we seem to revel in the moments that, paradoxically, show them stripped of the mechanisms of fantasy that go into building this sense of exaltation. The U.K. reality show Britain’s Worst Celebrity Driver plays on this feeling: dressing down celebrities who are still, at the end of the day, celebrities. (Britain’s Worst Everyday Punter Driver doesn’t quite have the same pizazz.) Perhaps contempt helps breed familiarity. Writing of the “Just Like Us” photographs, Virginia Heffernan aptly observed: “At first I thought, who cares? But then the magazines taught me to care, and mistake the new unkempt images for intimacy, if intimacy is something I might achieve by rooming with a celebrity at a mental hospital.”
We also need to know, though, that celebrities can get away with things precisely because of their stardom; a counternarrative to the harsh blog judgment of celebrity drivers (type speeding tickets or DUI into TMZ.com) is the story of celebrities escaping a ticket with a smile and an autograph. In “celebrity driving,” there is a poignancy in law-enforcement encounters because traffic is often the only place where most people actively experience the law in their lives. Who wouldn’t want to have the moment, say, that Patrick Dempsey had, when pulled over for speeding: “The cop was really cool. He said, ‘At least you’re driving the Porsche properly.’ He said ‘Oh, I know you!’ and I got out of it.” Or how about William Shatner: “Most of them like to have a chat about when I was on Star Trek. Then they say, ‘OK, Bill, not so fast next time.’ ” (Visions of “Warp speed, Scotty” jokes by troopers in mirror-tinted shades).
In this light, what is most revealing about the celebrity-driving episodes is what they show about our feelings toward those celebrities—and about driving. Writing in the Weekly Standard, Louis Wittig perceptively noted of celebrity DUIs, “the crime itself, which is more or less the equivalent of attempted criminally negligent homicide, takes a backseat to the hairdo. When Nicole Richie was popped—driving the wrong way down a six-lane highway, high on Vicodin, with her headlights off in the middle the night—the gossip blogs were, understandably, agog. But not for the reason you think. It was because the police report revealed that the scary-skinny Richie weighed just 85 pounds.” When Mel Gibson was pulled over for DUI, it was his drunken slurs—not his driving—that attracted the most notice.
The lighthearted treatment of these episodes betrays the ways in which bad behavior in cars is still often viewed as a “folk crime”—something not entirely out of the bounds of normal behavior, something less than “real crime.” Consider the case of DMX, one of a number of rappers known to be a menace on the road. (Note that traffic violations provide an easy way for gangsta rappers to burnish their non-law-abiding reputations without actually having to do hard jail time.) It is shocking that this repeat offender, arrested not only for DUI but for impersonating a federal agent while trying to avoid paying $9 worth of parking fees at JFK Airport, is still behind the wheel. His attorney hinted at our cultural laxity toward traffic laws when he declared, after his client was pulled over for going 104 in a 65-mph zone, “This is not a major concern and we are dealing with it appropriately. Basically, it’s only a traffic violation.”
Unless it crosses the thin line into a felony. That’s the fate that befell the then-17-year-old Nick Bollea (a professional “drift” racer and the son of Hulk Hogan), who was jailed for “reckless driving involving serious bodily injury” (a third-degree felony) in a severe 2007 crash that left his passenger with permanent injuries. As the celebrity site TMZ noted, “[T]aking into account the last twelve months, anyone could have seen Nick Hogan’s high speed car crash coming—from a mile away!” as Bollea’s record was littered with at least four violations for excessive speed (and given a warning on at least one other occasion, according to one source, but not ticketed because of his half-celebrity status). There is a real question as to why he was still legally allowed to drive, given the violations and the risk profile for teen drivers, who die on the road at a rate higher than anyone. (In the United Kingdom, newly proposed legislation will see novice drivers lose their license after one speeding infraction.) But Bollea’s case, viewed by some as just another celebrity driver behaving badly, reveals the big societal shrug we give to acting illegally behind the wheel. Celebrities drive just like us—they just get better publicity.