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Joanna Weiss

Stars in freefall

We expect our troubled celebrities to rise again

(Louisa Bertman for The Boston Globe)
By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / July 27, 2011

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IT’S HARD to know precisely what artists owe their fans, but one thing we seem to expect is a tomorrow. There will always be another album, another tour. And in today’s culture, there’s another expectation: that a fall, any fall, will be followed by a rise.

In some kinder alternate universe, you can imagine a future like this for Amy Winehouse. There would be a shocking low - perhaps that Belgrade tour date in June, when the soul singer stumbled around on stage and couldn’t summon the lyrics to her songs. But instead of a tragic death at 27, there would be a resurrection: a successful stint in (yes) rehab; a respectable pause; a comeback tour; a soulful album that showcases her newfound wisdom.

Or maybe, in a coarser alternate universe, Winehouse would go through a longer bout of obscurity; then star as herself, a world-weary diva, on an MTV reality show; then win a gig as a regular judge on “American Idol,’’ season 23.

Winehouse never got that chance; her troubles were too deep. But the career-resurrection narrative has become so commonplace that it has changed the way we view troubled celebrities. It’s harder now to parse out the difference between an ambitious fallen star and a fragile human being.

That’s partly because the career resurrection has become not just a cliché, but a business opportunity. In some ways, a lost-and-found career creates such interest, such goodwill, that it’s better than long-term stability. Britney Spears’s return to the pop charts this year had less to do with the quality of her techno-pop than with the mostly-well-intentioned desire to welcome Britney back.

Now, it seems that every week, some new celebrity is hopping on the resurrection train. In the final season of HBO’s “Entourage,’’ which started on Sunday, Andrew Dice Clay is the latest to play a version of himself: Fallen from fame, down and out, trying to claw himself back with a sitcom gig. It’s one of those brilliant meta-moves that could well raise the actor’s profile: just as his “character’’ is coarse but quite possibly savvy, the real-life Dice Clay proves that he knows precisely how to play this game.

Or maybe it’s his agent who knows the game, and the real Dice Clay will squander this opportunity, too. The resurrection story is so filled with winking stagecraft that it’s hard to know when things are truly dire. Is Lindsay Lohan’s life in danger, or are these lows manufactured partly for public consumption? When we buy tickets to revel in Charlie Sheen’s public self-destruction, are we playing his game, or laughing at his demise?

We don’t know the answers yet. But Winehouse’s death is a reminder that the resurrection route isn’t open to everyone. Self-destruction has always been possible, particularly when addiction is at work: Look at Billie Holliday, Patsy Cline, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin. And a turn in rehab is no insta-cure; Corey Haim was no Amy Winehouse, to be sure, but it’s worth noting that his demons got the best of him, despite his own career-resurrection reality show.

Winehouse was a bigger talent than most, and her demons were intertwined with her art. When she sang of sex and drugs, loss and love, she felt authentic, believable, real. Even her self-destructive turn in Belgrade was met with a certain gawking interest. Her hard living was part of her appeal - and part of the reason the streets of London were lined with grieving fans for her funeral yesterday.

But the photos of her shellshocked friends and relatives, passing through the gates of Edwarebury Cemetery, were a reminder that this was a private tragedy, too. This wasn’t just a career. It was a person.

A death at 27, however unsurprising, seems to upset the balance of the universe. That’s why it’s so tragic to read about Winehouse’s father’s eulogy: stories from her childhood, memories of her struggles - a tribute, not to a celebrity, but to a little girl, grown up. “Goodnight, my angel, sleep tight,’’ he said. “Mummy and Daddy love you ever so much.’’

He also said he is creating an Amy Winehouse Foundation, to help people battle with addiction. That will be his daughter’s legacy now - fitting, and tragic, and more realistic than we’d like to admit.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.