The famous are fuming over photos of Jessica Simpson that prove the singer is—of all things—human.
Simpson has put on a few pounds. She is, to use her celebrity pals' favorite euphemism, curvier.
The news media, as is our constitutional obligation, have picked up on this. Any time a national figure grows, shrinks or is somehow altered in shape, we are obliged to make note of it for historical purposes.
And yet, once again, aspersions are heaped upon us for simply doing our jobs.
"I am completely disgusted by the headlines concerning my sister's weight," blogged pop star Ashlee Simpson-Wentz.
Actress Carmen Electra and supermodel Heidi Klum also denounced the attention paid to Jessica's waistline, and the consistently incoherent Paula Abdul described it as "damaging to one's psyche."
Even President Barack Obama weighed in. When told he was cropped out of his family's portrait on the cover of US Weekly magazine by a picture of Simpson, he quipped "it was hurtful."
One would think that by now the people we celebrate—i.e., celebrities—would understand that their fame doesn't come with an on/off switch. Celebrities don't get to control their own stories—those narratives belong to the people, and the people are intrigued by failure at least as much as success.
Yet even those whose fame stems from alleged misdeeds—politicians like ex-Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich or circumstantial celebrities like former Illinois cop Drew Peterson, who has been accused of killing his third and fourth wives—seem oblivious to the rules of the game. They embrace attention then recoil when that attention turns negative.
Blagojevich mugs for the cameras, bloviating about his innocence while parrying any attempt to address the criminal allegations he faces. Peterson seeks the spotlight like a mustachioed moth and yet, when he looks bad (or worse), seems aghast at the attention the media pay to his personal life.
And now, poor Jessica Simpson, who owes much of her fame to her figure, must endure comments about the fact that her figure has changed.
"This is the height of hypocrisy in the world of celebrity," said Cooper Lawrence, author of "The Cult of Celebrity: What Our Fascination With the Stars Reveals About Us."
"Our contract with you is for you to look gorgeous at all times. It's like a job description. We hired you to be our celebrity, and if you're not doing what we expect, we're going to notice."
Celebrities can't just turn the faucet of fame off when they don't like what's coming out. It's part of the bargain, the pound of flesh the masses take for agreeing to hoist you up on a pedestal.
Unfair? Perhaps, but the only way it will disappear is if Americans lose their appetite for gossip or rise above their voyeuristic interest in the dalliances of the rich and famous.
That's as likely as a tabloid ignoring a photo of Britney Spears with a baby bump.
"We have expectations of our gods and goddesses," Lawrence said. "Should we feel bad about criticizing Jessica Simpson? No, because when I look at her and feel she's perfect and beautiful and I'll never live up to that image, and then I see even she couldn't keep up with those unrealistic expectations, that makes me feel better.
"I can't do it, and neither can she."
That's self-serving, of course. But so is the whole concept of celebrity. The fans want to be entertained, if not by the good then certainly by the bad.
Jessica Simpson should know the deal, as should anyone else who totes enough narcissism in their belly to seek out fame.
Don't bemoan the media or the people who consume what the media offer up—that menu's not going to change any time soon. The only way to avoid the unpleasant aspects of celebrity is to avoid celebrity altogether.
There was a man standing on the football field in Tampa during the Super Bowl on Sunday. When the TV cameras turned his way, the commentators identified him as Chesley Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who safely landed his plane on the Hudson River.
Sullenberger has been honored repeatedly since he gingerly set that plane down. He could, if he wanted to, be a figure who needs no introduction. He could make himself an overnight celebrity and ride his hero status through the talk show circuit.
He hasn't done that, at least not yet.
Maybe that's because he's humble. Or maybe he's just smart enough to know that once he takes that first step into the spotlight, it's going to follow him—white hot and relentless—no matter where he goes.