SAVAN: The Truth About Cats and Celebrity

Any day now, the North Shore Animal League in Long Island will hold a press conference to announce the several lucky humans who, out of thousands of contenders, will be allowed to adopt the famous hero cat Scarlett and her four kittens. Major press is expected to attend, setting off another wavelet of Scarlett fever. "They're calling almost on a daily basis asking when the press conference is, they're so afraid they're going to miss it," says Marge Stein, the animal shelter's public relations manager who's been doubling as Scarlett's press agent since the stray was rescued from anonymity on March 30.Scarlett, in case you missed it the last time she drove the media into heat, is the homeless cat who saved her kittens, one by one, from a fire that destroyed an abandoned building in East New York, Brooklyn. "And then with her eyes blistered shut and her paws burned," as AP put it, "she made a head count of her young ones, touching each one with her nose to make sure they were all safe." A fireman who witnessed the extraordinary rescue brought the cats to North Shore, Stein informed a New York TV station, and from there, Scarlett -- named for her reddish coat and her "I'll never be hungry again" grit -- has become a bona fide international celebrity."This cat has been on Regis and Kathie Lee, she's been on CNN, she's been on Good Morning, America, she's been on dozens of local TV news shows. We've had camera crews here from Japan and Italy," says Stein. "We've had media calls from the BBC, Australia, the Netherlands, Scotland, South Africa. It's been media madness." Jay Leno did a Scarlett skit. Oprah's people begged to fly Scarlett out first-class for a Mother's Day appearance. (Since America's only popular welfare mom was still recovering, Oprah had to settle for footage.) And, of course, Scarlett has her own Web site (www.nsal.org/scarlett).Meanwhile, the shelter has received more than 6000 letters inquiring about Scarlett, including a couple thousand offers to adopt her or one of her kittens. "It was just very commonplace to hear from people from all over the world," says Stein. "Distance meant nothing."Out of all the flocks of folks who've caught the litter bug, the shelter has now narrowed the prospective adopters down to 10. The animals, recovering nicely (a severely injured fifth kitten died several weeks ago), will probably be divided among three homes: two pairs of kittens to two different owners and Scarlett by herself to a third. Though it seems ironic that the very family values that created such demand will result in the family's breakup, North Shore vet Dr. Bonnie Brown explains that, separated from her offspring for six weeks in order to recover, Scarlett's "not interested in them at this point," a normal reaction, she says, for mother cats after even a week's separation.GLAMOUR PUSSScarlett is surely inspiring; she's done loads more to earn her celebrity than all the humanoids who are famous for being famous. (Though some animal experts question our urge to label her a hero, contending that feral animals like Scarlett have stronger survival instincts and are more likely to engage in what appear to be heroics than housepets, bred for docility.) But still, why exactly do her would-be saviors insist on owning this particular cat and her brood -- and not, say, any one of the hundreds of homeless cats panting to be adopted at the animal shelter down the block? What's the difference really between people spending highly inflated emotions to get a piece of Scarlett and paying grossly inflated prices to get an auctioned piece of Jackie O?One of the very few differences is that Scarlett is the purest kind of celebrity possible: Presumably lacking self-consciousness, she simply cannot absorb or be altered by the frenzy she's stirred. The media attention can't go to her head; she'll (probably) never develop an attitude. The distance between Scarlett's fame and her innocence of it makes her all the more desirable; it's a desirability that carries the acrid whiff of angel worship. Like Being There's Chauncey Gardiner, the guileless half-wit that society tried to will into a genius, Scarlett's a perfect mirror of our celebrity problem: Whether accidentally or deliberately set, the flames of fame are harder to escape than a fire's.Purity of heart allows for a purer form of celebrity, because it hints at the prototype of all celebrity: gods, saints, and those kittenlike angels. Even today's shallow, tinny famous people carry on an ideal version of our lives. That's their job, to let us imagine them. Celebrities' role in civilization has always been to live on a higher plane: In a sense, celebrities act out what life would be like if it were all leisure time, or if we were all animals.And by loving pure-of-heart animal celebs, we're more apt to confirm our goodness. We might not want to touch a homeless person, but we can redeem ourselves by housing a homeless cat. In a crisis, could we do what Scarlett did? Just in case not, let's adopt her and the idea of doing it. It's as if the very molecules of her courage can be absorbed by touching her fur, like some fifth-century shinbone in a reliquary.CRIES AND WHISKERSThe saga of the Scarlett Letters is, of course, a completely familiar type of media story -- the inspirational rescue tale is a staple, the runny coleslaw of local TV news shows. "Every single time we show on the noon news that a pet store closed down and a dalmatian was found in 95-degree heat and blah blah blah, we just get 500 calls in 10 minutes," says Joan Paylo, spokeswoman for the national ASPCA. "Callers want that dog or another dalmatian, but we don't have 200 people coming in to adopt any of the other animals." Indeed, although North Shore is trying to use Scarlett's publicity to boost other adoptions, says Stein, adoptions in general "have not been skyrocketing."Animals are born to run in inspirational rescue stories, because, in addition to validating our virtue, they confirm other people's evil. "We're crying over the cat now," Oprah said on air after presenting Scarlett's tale. "We're crying because that cat had better sense than Susan Smith."Even so, the heartwarming rescue doesn't absolutely require animals. Small children or suffering adults -- if the adults in no way caused their victimhood -- will do. The role has been played by everyone from the Canadian single mom who recently received $114,000 in donations after claiming she was terminally ill with cancer and that a purse-snatcher had stolen her last few bucks and her painkillers (as it turned out, her victimhood was a hoax) to the little baby Jessicas -- all the little Jessicas stuck in some media well.I'm as cat crazy as the next feline fanatic; I feel for the Jessicas. But is it just empathy, altruism, or even morbid curiosity that makes us drown them in media attention, or do we imagine that by doing so we, too, can become part of the system of fame that has suddenly opened up to them?PUSS 'N' SNEAKERSThat is, rescue stories are ultimately a subtype of the larger fame stories. As soon as a rescue is oxidized by TV news, its protagonists mutate past their particulars and enter a Warholian time and fame warp, becoming essentially stories about celebrity itself.And at that point, the fame system doesn't necessarily even demand human or animal sacrifices -- minerals, vegetables, and abstract ideas are almost as good. Pizza billboards in which people find the face of Jesus are celebrities -- they concentrate the energies of a group into a singular, imagined ideal. Fear of air travel more than auto travel despite the fact that we're more likely to die in a car is a celebrity idea -- plane crashes are more dramatic, more powerfully focused on an exclusive moment, and receive higher-buzz press treatment. The World Wide Web -- as an idea, as words that get attention like the word Madonna once did -- is a platinum-card celebrity. And you don't have to reach very far to see that celebrity and racism are two sides of the same coin. Each force hustles you to a prejudice: in the case of celebrities, the assumption that they are superior; in the case of people of color, the assumption of inferiority.We may sense this, the media formulas may be terribly old hat -- but that doesn't mean we're not still hopelessly in their clutches. A publicist tells me that for two years she tried to get Haitian activists onto The Phil Donahue Show to no avail. Then, a couple years ago, Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover, and Susan Sarandon headlined a Donahue on Haiti. The two actual Haitians on the show barely got a word in edgewise, the publicist recalls, while "Phil asked, in all apparent sincerity, Why do we have to wait for celebrities in order to get coverage on these kinds of issues?"And now we witness a similar phenomenon. First it takes the celeb-like name the Gap and then bigger names like Kathie Lee Gifford and Michael Jordan to bring any attention at all to the decades-old problem of slavelike working conditions in sweatshops around the world.We help make those conditions possible, not just by buying the products but by buying the celebrities, like Michael Jordan, who is paid $20 million a year for his Nike endorsement. The excellent Bob Herbert likened it to "a pyramid of exploitation," with Jordan, Andre Agassi, Spike Lee, and Nike chieftain Phil Knight at the top, while "at the bottom, shouldering the crushing weight..., are the legions of young Asians, mostly women...." But the near-irresistible pull of celebrity -- of the idea that a shimmering few can and should live at a higher plane than the many -- blocks us from making such connections. Or more likely, it makes us view the very process of making connections as an unsporting, unfun, un-American activity.I don't mean to lay any of this at Scarlett's paws, much less at the shelter that's trying to use her publicity for the very good goal of saving more animals' lives. It is our celebrity problem, and it arises every time we purr to the pleasures of big glamorous people petting us.And to its credit, the North Shore Animal League, probably the nation's most successful animal shelter, has for years argued against the celebrity idea that purebreds are more desirable than mutts. Its national ad campaign, "Love Needs No Pedigree," promotes adoption of harder-to-place mixed breeds. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, in order to get across this mild antifame notion, the league had to work within the fame system: The magazine ads feature photos of celebs -- Ivana, Mike Wallace, and, there he goes again, Phil Donahue -- testifying for uncelebrity pets.Likewise, North Shore has tried to ferret out Scarlett contestants who want her just "because she's a celebrity now," Stein says. "There's been a real concern that people are so touched by this story that they want to be a part of it in whatever way they can."Perhaps it's even less surprising that some human celebrities have thrown their names into the hat, asking to adopt the famous cat. They must remain unidentified, says Stein, but as she told CNN, they are "real stars, top of the line -- like if I mentioned the names, you'd say, Wow." And I would.

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