I’ve had a creepy fascination with dead celebrities — especially the ones who’ve committed suicide, accidentally overdosed, or otherwise perished from their own addictions — for quite a while.
In high school I eschewed typical social activities, instead spending my Saturday nights reading paperback biographies of Gia Carangi and Kurt Cobain that I’d purchased from the neighborhood library. I’d sit on my couch watching hours of VH1’s “The Drug Years,” imagining what it would’ve been like to party at Studio 54 during the coke-fueled late 1970s and early 1980s. Would I have ridden that wave of decadence to the 1990s, or would I have simply speedballed into oblivion à la River Phoenix outside of the Viper Room? I was gruesomely attracted to the latter alternative. If you’re questioning whether or not I had many friends in high school, the answer is a resounding “NO.” I did, however, cry on the day that Heath Ledger died.
I papered one of my bedroom walls with pictures of the deceased. Upon seeing it, my mother recommended that I join more clubs at school and offered to make me an appointment to see her psychiatrist. Ignoring her misguided advice, I smiled beneath the scowling countenances of Edie Sedgwick and Ian Curtis and Elliott Smith, a local musician who’d died of a self-inflicted chest wound only a few years earlier. In the center of my adolescent shrine, I placed a photograph of Richey Edwards, the former guitarist and lyricist of the Manic Street Preachers, a Welsh rock band that reached the pinnacle of its success in the early 1990s. The photograph depicts Richey wrapped in a leopard print coat, his eyes weighed down by layers of mascara so massive they’d probably intimidate a drag queen. I remember the picture vividly because it’s still saved on my hard drive, four laptops later.
Richey was an unabashed disaster, and I loved him for it. A notorious self-injurer, he’d famously carved “4 REAL” into his forearm immediately after a journalist dared to question his band’s authenticity. I’d been dabbling in my own habit of self-mutilation at the time, and it became something of a secret that we both shared. I figured that he was the sole person who’d understand why I was rummaging in my Dad’s hardware collection at two o’clock in the morning, trying to find a sharper blade.
I devoured interviews with Richey where he defended and validated his destructive tendencies. He was both recklessly impulsive and dangerously manipulative. He spent hours barricaded in hotel rooms, reading Rimbaud (seriously) and excessively staring at his own reflection while reapplying his eyeliner. He spoke frankly about his experience with anorexia, not as a sickness to be battled but as a sort of inescapable marriage. His unrelenting depression had become his wife.
I rejoiced upon discovering that his birthdate was December 22nd, only five days following mine, but lamented the fact that we shared neither the same astrological sign nor even romantically compatible signs (he was a Capricorn; I, a Sagittarius). I instantly ordered a first edition copy of Lolita from a used bookseller after reading that he loved Vladimir Nabokov’s writing. And instead of finishing my homework, I perused online postings describing recent sightings of Richey.
See, Richey had been mysteriously declared missing in February of 1995, yet rabid fans were regularly reporting — and continue to report — sightings of him in exotic international locations. He’d be seen roaming the mountains of Tibet or combing an outdoor market in Marrakesh. We conveniently ignored the evidence that suggested otherwise: his old sedan had been found more than a decade earlier parked next to the Severn Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge of the United Kingdom in terms of suicide attempts. We insisted that he’d simply had to fake his own demise to escape a demanding public; there was a reason why his body had never been found. Surely he wouldn’t have done something so utterly cliché as jump off of a bridge?
My imagined relationship with Richey continued until I moved across the country for college and mostly forgot about him. No one that I met had listened to the Manic Street Preachers or even knew who they were, so I hung posters of David Bowie and Mick Jagger above my bed instead. I started to idolize Joan Didion after reading The White Album, which had been glowingly recommended to me by a beloved creative writing professor. I unknowingly stopped searching for role models in graveyards.
Still, Richey’s picture confronted me when I returned home for the first time over Thanksgiving break. Staring at the expression of bitchy nonchalance on his face, I wondered if it was obvious to him that I’d forfeited my vulnerability and therefore, my credibility. Did he think that happiness, my most recent acquisition, had made me hollow? Did he recognize me? I lost the chance to disentangle my thoughts because on November 23, 2008, Richey’s parents announced to the press that they were finally allowing him to be designated “presumed dead.” Although I’d subconsciously understood him to be dead since 1995, the announcement still carried a profound impact. The time had come to symbolically bury my best friend, but I was late to the service. I felt like Vada Sultenfuss in My Girl when she crashes Thomas J.’s funeral — he can’t see without his eyeliner! I didn’t feel ready to let go of what seemed like such a substantial aspect of my personhood; a part of me still doesn’t.
I maintain that there is truly no other bond comparable to that which exists between a despondent teenage girl and the dead celebrity over whom she obsesses most. It’s a relationship that develops from a sense of shared loneliness, from a desperate longing for commonality. It’s a refuge during a period of incredible alienation, providing the gratification of acceptance, yet remaining inevitably one-sided; after all, dead celebrities can neither criticize nor disappoint those who fixate upon them. Such a relationship inspires the hope that something dangerously worthwhile exists beyond the mammoth wasteland that is female adolescence.
Ironically, maybe it’s a dead celebrity who made me want to live.