Lamar Odom, the Kardashians, and the Questions of Celebrity Privacy and News Value

Like drivers rubbernecking on the road, Americans stop and gape at tragic celebrity stories  whenever they arrive in the headlines. Yet TMZ is popular for a reason that can’t just be reduced to rude curiosity. Musician EMA addresses the complexity of this dance in her song “Dead Celebrity”: these awful moments allow us to see that at least some of the worst aspects of human existence don’t discriminate by fame and fortune, and may even land harder on those whose lives we otherwise covet. And mourning or praying or wringing our hands over a sad or sordid celebrity story gives us an outlet for our own existential dread and worry, a chance to be sad or worried, but with a level of safety and insulation.

The headline-dominating tale of former NBA star and Kardashian spouse Lamar Odom, currently in a coma after being found unresponsive at a Nevada brothel, has brought up some of the questions that often arise in moments like these, from Whitney Houston to Owen Wilson. The fact that Odom is in the Kardashian sphere, a circle of influence which has given up even a pretense of privacy — and that the members of that famous family are the ones by his bedside — magnifies the usual issue, too.

I’ve seen people asking two questions as this story unfolds. The first is, does someone who willingly lives an entire life before the cameras have the ability to demand privacy at his or her darkest time?  And another response has been, as the commenters on the New York Times’ devastating piece about Odom’s life asked, why is this such “big news” when the Middle East is in flames and Europe is struggling to make sense of the refugee crisis? Why do people want to read about Lamar and not about other, less famous people whose lives are imperiled?

Yet none of these questions have really complicated answers. The reasons can be found in the way human beings  process stories and use them for our own lives. I’m no avid followers of the Kardashians, but one of the reasons people clearly like them is because they allow the messiness of their lives, from feuds to health problems, to be broadcast widely. They give fans a chance to escape from our own mishegas (Yiddish for “craziness”) into someone else’s, while vicariously enjoying the glamour and glitz of their lifestyles. The clan understands this and capitalizes on it. But it’s telling how silent they’ve been on social media of late. Of course the Kardashians deserve privacy when they ask for it, because even for them, some moments are too personal and painful to share with everyone. This isn’t inconsistent; they just draw the line between public and private in a different place than most people would.

As for Odom, what the media has revealed in the wake of his hospitalization is the story of a person who led an incredibly painful life and seemed to nonetheless try to be very decent and kind to those around him. From the death of his mother when he was young to the death of his  infant son to the deaths of two close friends just recently, his demons weren’t just fame, competition, and the spotlight, but also loss and sorrow. He’s exactly the kind of person to attract public sympathy. Rather than a pure and noble type, he’s an obviously struggling human being. Most people have been touched by some sort of tragedy themselves, and most human beings indulge in excess to deal with our demons. Odom is incredibly relatable, maybe even more so than his famous ex-wife. That’s why it’s so natural that so many onlookers are keeping vigil for his recovery.