Royally Famous

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 14.02.2020

Well, Luxembourg’s royal family is back in the spotlight. Even the grossly underinformed, myself as their champion, have heard about it, which can mean only one of two things: great news or scandalous news.

I was happy to learn it was the more interesting of the two. The talk, as everyone knows, indicates that one of Luxembourg’s royal figures has been accused of having a personality flaw of remarkable profundity. The stories say that, behind closed doors, she suffers her position with a distinct species of aggression that is unbecoming in any employer, let alone one funded by taxpayers. I have even heard it gently suggested that she is mildly tyrannical, either as a natural gift or by virtue of having lived a bizarre life. Common wisdom suggests that it’s probably a little of both.

My native United States is famously without a royal family (although the analogy is a useful one for celebrity empires or certain despot presidents), so you might think that monarchs are terribly interesting to us. To an extent, perhaps they are, in the way that very old European buildings are also fascinating. You gaze at the Grand Duke and whisper to yourself – because it isn’t self-evident – that the position this man holds is the same position that the magnificent rulers of ancient history held. Like any medieval building, he is a remnant of bygone times that we only know from stories. How thrilling!

Beyond that aspect, however, modern royals appear to be just another breed of celebrity. A unique one, but recognizable. They command enough public importance to deserve our gossip, and because they don’t lead normal lives they tend to generate plenty of it. That’s all you really need. Americans will swiftly place this type of figure in league with our own stars and politicians, and, even though we have no good equivalent to a national figurehead, we thoroughly understand the concept of a celebrity famous for something other than talent. Actually, we love this idea. We have a collection of talentless opportunists whom we are quite proud of, all the luminaries of Kardashianism who clog up the airwaves with their brand of extreme nonsense. Well, proud isn’t exactly what we are. There’s certainly shame involved, too. Perhaps we’re ashamed of being proud of them.

But never mind, for now, about characterizing the exact genus of celebrity that monarchs belong to: what’s clear is that scuttlebutt, rumor-mongering, gossip – whatever you want to call it – clearly has mass appeal. People everywhere seem capable of turning the mere details of somebody else’s exciting life into real gratification. If you think about it, that’s pretty weird.

Comparing the culture of fame in the United States to its counterpart in Luxembourg is hard because one of the countries is five hundred times smaller than the other. Nevertheless, I can confirm what you might already think: America produces a bunch of celebrities, we’re intensely proud of our ability to do it, and we don’t really know much about foreign superstars. Virtually nothing, to be honest, unless they bring their careers to our shores. Actually, there is a loose notion that other places are, like us, engrossed more or less exclusively in their own celebrity scenes, so we tend to be a little surprised and embarrassed when we learn the extent to which Europe (for example) shares in our Hollywood nonsense.

Perhaps the difference in the two cultures is simply that: in the States, no celebrity gets refracted through the lens of a foreign culture, while Luxembourgers are more naturally able to unpack a superstar in cultural terms. Of course this English singer is pictured wearing shorts in London in January; leave it to the Italians to drink espresso in a sexy music vid; that Canadian actor speaks as if everything is a question? Even when it definitely isn’t a question? And so on.

In the States, no such commentary. That huge American media beast is rampaging in our very midst, which brings a cultural pressure to be aware of it. If you don’t even know the basics of who won what at the Oscars, you’ll be labeled eccentric (putting it nicely) or snobby (less nice) or some kind of loser weirdo (extremely hurtful). Our celebrity universe is just another platform on which to assert – or defy – your individual “Americanness”.

This exact pressure isn’t quite replicated in Luxembourg, but I thought of it anyway when pondering royal families, because, analogously, the Grand Ducal clan must have cultural repercussions on Luxembourgers specifically. So what kind of celebrity are monarchs, really? Not rulers (anymore), not talented stars, not shameless opportunists. Definitely not influencers or YouTube sensations. I might humbly suggest that they are the most European type of thing ever, which is a historical celebrity, somebody famous merely for safekeeping an ancient name, bloodline, title. Like medieval buildings, indeed. But what I adore about it is how joyfully reluctant everybody seems to be about the situation. The monarchs themselves get annoyed at their silly lives (the former prince Harry, for one) while the public show a sort of effortless, but highly begrudging, interest in the royals and their nonsense. Yet, at the same time, these institutions remain honored and beloved parts of the national identity! Nowhere but in Europe do people find so much pleasure in misery – royals and commoners alike, in this instance. I think it’s my favorite thing about Old World cultures.

Anyway, my big conclusion: if we Americans are slightly ashamed to take pride in some of our stupider celebrities, then I believe Europeans are slightly proud to be ashamed of their royal families.

Jeffrey Palms
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