A campus celebrity may seem like an oxymoron, but Lucy Peden discovers a fascinating subculture as she attempts to create her own legacy
Many aeons ago at the height of the Ancient Greek empire, the seeds for Big Brother, the latest instalment of which launched itself at us on Thursday last week, were sown. The immortal Pheme, daughter of Gaia, was the Goddess of fame and rumour and (according to the ever helpful Wikipedia) was usually depicted with wings – perhaps she was the inspiration behind that wonderful line: ‘Fame I want to live forever, I want to learn how to fly.’ Pheme used to carry a trumpet and was notorious for spreading gossip. Her loose tongue – of which, incidentally, she had many, along with numerous ears – lost her a place in Heaven, so she used to hang out just under the clouds, exposing secrets and generally bitching.
In Pheme’s day, fame was only an option for mythical figures, Gods and royalty, i.e. those who really deserved it – which is to say, nobody who was actually alive. Admittedly, royal families are an exception as the majority do have blood pumping through their veins, blue or no, but their fame is inherited and guaranteed from birth. Andy Warhol’s 1968 statement, ‘In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes’ indicated a paradigm shift in the world of celebrity. Now anyone with the looks, gall and ambition has a shot at getting their face on the cover of Heat magazine. Today’s celebrities are famous for being famous and we love it. Reality programmes dominate television, propelling ‘normal’ people into the public sphere; celebrity is the ultimate success. It’s not surprising then, that the mini-world of York University campus contains its very own exposure-hungry fame fiends.
Who are these campus celebrities, and is York simply a microcosm of Hello? It is terribly tempting to compare James College with Primrose Hill, with its picturesque landscaping, quaint common room and drug abuse allegations, and one can’t help but think that its clean and fragrant residents are secretly lonely people, despite all the swingers parties, and will bugger off to Brighton at any given moment. Halifax, being remote but worth the trek for a damn good shindig and occasional live band, could be Brighton, except with fields instead of beaches and farmers instead of surfers. Goodricke is Brixton, the asbestos-infused land of stripy-scarfed hipsters, although residents should be very afraid of gentrification – rumour has it that the services manager is planning to rip out the accommodation and replace it with an entirely organic, macrobiotic café for conferences constructed from only glass and chrome. Vanbrugh is Wandsworth, up and coming but ultimately soulless (an ideal starting point for the campus wannabe politico), and Alcuin is, quite possibly, Surbiton. On the other hand, if you try to get from one end of London to the other it is more than likely that you will pass through Surbiton and no-one ever passes through Alcuin – even its residents. Derwent and Langwith have a trendy Hoxton/ Islington vibe with the celebrity spotting potential of Brompton Road mixed with the accessibility of Leicester Square, making it an ideal stomping ground for both star and spotter.
The prospectus may claim that all colleges are equal, but surely some have a greater chance of providing their members with meaningless fame and glory? Langwith has produced a bumper crop over the last couple of years, with perhaps the most notorious on the celebrity circuit being James Alexander. Some have suggested that his bitter battle with campus media was in fact an attempt to gain infamy that extended beyond York and so leave the University a legitimate celebrity. If you consider the frequency with which Mr Alexander appeared in the headlines during his reign, you can ascertain whether or not his plan succeeded. Next we have his successor, present incumbent Micky Armstrong. Despite being a member of the lacrosse team and a regular at the infamous Langwith football team punch, the only dirt circulating on Micky is a dubious allegation claiming he divested himself of clothing and danced provocatively at a Langwith JCR event. An unnamed source revealed that the event also included “cider and a lot of kissing”. More worryingly, the respected Students’ Union President once attended a Busted concert, although, intriguingly, he did not include this information in his promotional material.
Micky’s entry in York’s ‘Who’s Who’ may be a little thin on the ground in terms of salacious rumours, but he does bring us conveniently to two other campus celebrities: Grace Fletcher Hall (token campus feminist – is she Women’s Officer again or does she just love that hoodie?) and Ethan ‘Mr Tweed’ Connor, the disgraced former treasurer of James JCR. Connor, who is not averse to a spot of public nudity, has, according to rumour, nicknamed his pillar of manliness Tinkerbell; the campus Paris Hilton perhaps? Obviously anticipating the loneliness that fame brings, his campaign to become James Treasurer included his telephone number, email address and house number as well as a promise that he was available for contact at any hour of the day or night. Good old-fashioned exclusiveness works for the likes of Kate Moss, who never grants an interview, but this strategy will not maintain York students’ interest. To be a successful campus celebrity you have to devote more time to self- promotion than a former Big Brother contestant.
If you want to do the job properly, excessive exposure is the key, and who better to exemplify this than Nouse’s very own former columnist Robbie Dale? Of course, this was only one of his public personae, as Dale also had time to compere the Comedy Club and Woodstock alongside running an unsuccessful Students’ Union presidential campaign. In the bad old days when the majority of students were dull, Dale bravely put himself forward as “the closest thing York has to a campus celebrity”. However, nowadays Dale’s official response to the idea of campus celebrities is one of surprise, and asked if “there even is such a thing?”. Dale is continuing in his bid to raise his profile and has recently nominated himself for PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ Graduate of the Year award. One can only pity the thousands of other graduates who have missed the opportunity for self promotion that could have won them ten grand.
Thankfully, some campus names are made through rather more risqué methods. Take Lucy Misch, recognisable for her nationwide innovation in adult exercise techniques. Misch founded Pole Exercise Soc, the first student society of its kind in the country, just as the erotic arts reached a pinnacle of coolness; Dita von Teese was the new It- girl, there was a Bettie Page renaissance and that White Stripes video sparked a secret desire in every girl’s heart to be the campus Kate Moss. However, pride must come before a fall, and all her kitsch-cool neo-feminist glory was lost when it was revealed that her ultimate ambition was to be named winner in the FHM High Street Honeys competition. In a show of self-promotion that Anna Nicole Smith would balk at, Misch made requests to James and Goodricke to have college events dedicated to her campaign. Unfortunately, students were denied the pleasure of ‘Vote Misch’ merchandise when the colleges in question voted unanimously no. The last we saw of Misch was a shocking confessional to Glamour readers, offering a to a blow by blow account of her sexploits – something which made for very uncomfortable reading at the hairdressers.
I, however, have felt rather jealous of these luminaries and so decided to forge my own campus brand. The following is my chart of how I got on, and may one day prove useful in advising how you too can become a bona fide York University celebrity.
My search for celebrity begins by accident, as I am in a would-be trendy hair salon chain when an idiot stylist decides that my request for highlights is actually a plea for two tone hair. I look like Vince from the Mighty Boosh. Whilst trying in vain to cram it all under a hat, I recall the dodgy hairstyle of a former SU president, and realise that I too have a sort of reverse “badger”. I rock up to Vanbrugh bar and heads turn. I strut smugly; I am a celebrity hair sensation. All too late I hear someone whisper, “Who is she? Why does she have roadkill on her head?!”
I am obviously not making enough of a visual impact, so I examine my wardrobe. Indie Soc went on Ethan Watch after being intrigued by the man’s tweed, and so I look for any clothes I own that might conceivably belong to a farmer. Sadly I don’t come up with anything, but I do find a dusty fake fur jacket. In my mirror (or just in my mind) I look like an Agatha Christie villainess. I add a Chanel handbag and Dior dinner plate shades, proving that, although I may not be a celebrity, I can spend my student loan like one. As I cruise around campus no one gives me a second look, but when I collapse dejected in the Nouse office my colleagues look at me with recognition. The features editor tells me “you look like a famous person” and I smile with delight until she adds “Stevie Wonder”.
Lots of colleges have been using real students on their events posters, and I decided that this is a legitimate avenue through which I might attain celebrity. I approach the JCR of one college, which shall remain nameless, and tell them of my plan. They try not to laugh. The Ents Rep explains: “The thing is, people go to college events to pull, and if they see you on the posters (I don’t mean this in a horrible way) but it might put them off.” As I stumble out mortified they advise me to try Wentworth- apparently they’re looking for people who are “a bit wrinkly”.
Many real celebrities kick-started their careers by appearing in pornography. I had hoped that I could avoid this route but it’s nearly the end of the week and I’m getting desperate. I spy a drama soc audition and sign up faster than you can say “Jenna Jamieson”. I’m called in and I’m down to my knickers before I am asked to leave. “You did know that this was an audition for The Fantastic Mister Fox?” they ask as I try to cover my shame with my photocopied script. On the plus side, I am banned from DramaSoc for life.
It has been a horrible, humiliating week. Like any burned out celebrity I seek solace in good old fashioned liquor. I try to inject some sort of sordid glamour into my shame by pretending that I’m Judy Garland, before remembering that she was a legitimate star before it all went horribly wrong. Finding myself in the Charles (the campus Met Bar) I somehow drink two bottles of Jacobs Creek Merlot. I try to leave and fall under a table. About seventeen people I have never seen before come to say hello. They all know my name. I am a real celebrity at last. On further reflection, I am probably just too drunk to recognise them.