Why are we so obsessed with dead celebrities? Let them rest in peace

(Picture: Getty Images)

At the Met Gala this week, Kim Kardashian donned one of the most iconic dresses in history to walk the red carpet.

It was the dress that Marilyn Monroe wore to a fundraiser for John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in 1962, where Monroe famously sang Happy Birthday to the president.

Kim is famous – and infamous – for creating iconic fashion moments, but it wasn’t just Marilyn’s $4.8million dress that Kim had borrowed for the event, she was also given a jar containing the late actress’ hair.

When picking up the dress from memorabilia and curio museum Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, Kim was presented with a silver box that contained a lock of Marilyn Monroe’s blonde hair.

While some in the fashion industry argued over the ethics of Kardashian’s Met Gala rental, with one fashion historian stating, ‘such an iconic piece of American history should not be put at risk of damage just for an ego-boost and a photo-op’ – the big ethical dilemma for me wasn’t the dress, but the hair.

Definitely the hair.

After she was presented with the jar, Kim joked that she was ‘Going to do some crazy voodoo s**t to channel [Monroe]’ adding that the jar would be ‘sleeping with [her] every night’.

I’m not here to Kim-bash – there are plenty of column inches on the internet already dedicated to that – but this story had me questioning where exactly the line is between healthy admiration for a late public figure and creepy obsession with the dead.

Cherishing a lock of hair from a loved-one is understandable, but when it’s a person you’ve never even met, a person who died almost 60 years ago, I can’t help but think that you’re treating that person like a product rather than a human being.

Museums are filled with immoral exhibits; stolen items from a colonial past, mummified skulls of people who didn’t expect their final resting place to be in a glass cabinet for all to see.

The commodification of personal belongings and body parts of the dead is normalised in the name of preserving history, but that doesn’t always mean it’s ethical.

We can only hope that the hair was either taken with Monroe’s permission or picked up from a salon floor. The alternative is unthinkable.

What right do we have to view or even own private aspects of the lives of celebrities?

Just because they opted for a life in the public eye doesn’t necessarily mean they should have an afterlife in the limelight too.

In 2013, Galaxy chocolate released an advert that centred on a computer-generated recreation of Audrey Hepburn.

They used models as body doubles for the deceased icon, then pored over the actress’ back catalogue of film roles to generate a CGI version of her face that could be digitally puppeteered for the commercial.

Decisions to release or sell the image rights of a person are left to those in charge of their estate. In Hepburn’s case, it was her two sons who allowed their mother to be brought to life again on screen – and I assume they were paid handsomely in return.

Marilyn herself was also brought back to life in an equally creepy 2013 advert for Dior perfume.

Of course there might be an element of personal sentiment in allowing a loved one to be brought back in living colour, but Marilyn’s estate wasn’t owned by any family member or friend at the time.

In fact, it was owned by people she had never met.

Upon her death, the actress left a 75% stake of her estate – including rights to her image and intellectual property – to her acting coach Lee Strasberg.

When he passed away in 1982 it was passed on to his third wife, Anna who sold it in 2011 to global entertainment brand company Authentic Brands Group LLC.

Having a loved one give consent to resurrect a celebrity’s image is one thing, but when permission is given by a faceless company for profit, it feels different.

Kim is no stranger to the phenomenon of bringing people back to life in digital form. Her ex-husband, Kanye West, commissioned a hologram of her late father, Robert for her 40th birthday.

Not only did he move, but he talked and reminisced about old times shared between the two. It was no doubt a deeply personal moment for the family, with Kim saying it was ‘a special surprise from heaven’.

Kim’s connection to her dad is undeniable and it’s no one’s place but hers to comment on how she chooses to remember him, but I don’t think that sleeping with a jar of hair is the best way to honour and respect a person you admire.

A huge cornerstone of celebrity culture is feeling a personal connection to someone you have never met, someone who has been brought to you by photographs and videos.

So perhaps once someone enters into the celebrity sphere, they accept that their public image will live on long after they’re gone.

It was often thought that some cultures believe a photograph captures part of your soul that can never be returned, and in a way I suppose there’s merit to that belief.

As this week’s controversy showed, whether fragments of celebrities’ souls are used respectfully or exploited commercially is beyond their, or anyone’s, control.

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing jess.austin@metro.co.uk.

Share your views in the comments below.

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