Vanity Fake

In the pantheon of American mythology, no one has so high a place as the self-made man or woman. And for every hero who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps is a gaggle of hangers-on whose only claim to fame is that they know someone more famous than you.

The archetypes of these "celebrities by association" are themselves legendary: the spoiled child, the embarrassing sibling, the gold-digging wife, the kept man, the handbag-designing trophy girlfriend, the sex-tape special guest. All of them want their 15 minutes; they just don't want to do any of the legwork.

Why we care so much about the comings and goings of celebrities -- why we spend so much time worried about what they're wearing on the red carpet and not wearing when stepping out of cars -- has been attributed to everything from the 24-hour news cycle, to the proliferation of the Internet, to post-9/11 depression, and our lack of a royal family.

Why we care at all about their boorish children and social-climbing girlfriends, remains, alas, a total mystery.

We care, says Lisa Timmons, editor of the witty celebrity blog "A Socialite's Life," because their lack of hard work offends our American sensibilities. We love to hate them for being spoiled and lazy, and as a result, we love to see them fall from that little bit of grace they didn't even deserve in the first place.

"We pride ourselves that there is no caste system in America," Timmons said, "that you can come to this country and become self-made ... I want to feel that someone making more money than me deserves it -- it justifies the hierarchy of the capitalist system."

And that, she said, is why we "like knowing Jewel slept in her car before becoming famous and Halle Berry was homeless when she was 21." It's also why when it comes to Brandon Davis, known only for being the grandson of billionaire oil tycoon Marvin Davis and making lewd comments about the actress Lindsay Lohan, "you don't just want him to fall, you want him completely destroyed."

The rich and famous have always had to contend with wastrel children and greedy friends and lovers. Brandon Davis and his ilk could easily stand in for Tom Rakewell, the subject of William Hogarth's "A Rake's Progress." The eight-part series of paintings completed in 1733 follows Rakewell as he receives his inheritance and then blows it on friends, gambling, and an orgy. The series ends with Rakewell in a "madhouse." Substitute bedlam for rehab and the paintings converge with the photo spreads found in any tabloid.

In what was perhaps the most elegiac piece written following the death of Anna Nicole Smith, Washington Post writer Philip Kennicott called Smith "the most famous gold digger in America." He also described her as a "courtesan" who used her beauty and charms to marry J. Howard Marshall, a billionaire oil tycoon, and a man of considerable power.

The irony of Smith, of course, is that through a deserved career in modeling, she became a legitimate celebrity. That celebrity led to her acquiring an entourage -- helmed by lawyer Howard K. Stern -- of hangers-on so desperate and ludicrous that E! network made a television show out of it.

Kennicott called Smith a courtesan with good reason. In the 18th and 19th centuries, courtesans were the social-climbing trophy girlfriends of their day, using their femininity and wits to acquire wealth, power and influence.

Today, bloggers would have us believe, celebrities by association are not looking for a direct handout. Instead, they want entrée into the corporate and commercial institutions that not only make Americans rich, but keep them rich. By associating with real celebrities, they want both star power and brand power to rub off on them.

Women seem to be far better at this than men. The one-time husbands of Elizabeth Taylor, Halley Berry and Cher had their photos in the tabloids for a while, but have otherwise been lost to history. If they are remembered for anything, it is for being kept men. And, of course, there is Kevin Federline, the prince of kept men, who has tried, unsuccessfully, to parlay his marriage to pop singer Britney Spears into a singing and acting career. The country watched as Federline slowly got his just desserts.

But as Federline pouts, Ivana Trump has parlayed her name -- a brand synonymous with wealth -- into a home shopping empire. Soon after her divorce to real-estate mogul Donald Trump in the early 1990s, the former Czech olympian signed a deal with the William Morris Agency to develop a line of fashion accessories and cosmetics she hawks on television.

But if there is one line of work social climbers love, it's designing handbags.

Georgina Chapman, girlfriend of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, got a job designing purses for Marchesa. Lance Armstrong was so taken by a Vanity Fair profile of handbag designer Tory Burch, that he called her for a date. Burch, a wealthy divorcee who comes from a middle class Jewish family, has raised the ire of many bloggers for what they feel is rank social climbing.

Even Monica Lewinsky, the most infamous example of a celebrity by association, and a courtesan by any definition, has her own line of handbags.

No one says "courtesan" anymore, and if it were up to David Patrick Columbia, founder of New York Social Diary, no one would say "social climber," either.

"Social climber," he said, "is an outdated word. It's a cheap word thrown at people you don't like."

More to the point, he says, just because the blogosphere has recently realized there is a relationship between commerce and high society, doesn't mean it is anything new.

"Women of society," he said, "have always been used to sell commercial products. In the 1930s, they promoted Pond's hand cream and Chesterfield cigarettes. It's only now that they can really strike out on their own."

All this talk of mooching, social climbing and dating in an effort to franchise your boyfriend's name into a pocketbook line is, of course, totally cynical. The one element the celebrity press rarely talks about is real, honest-to-goodness, true love.

J. Courtney Sullivan, author of "Dating Up: Dump the Schlump and Find a Quality Man," says it has to start with love.

"In general," she said, "a relationship is about finding love, support and understanding in your life ... There can't be some crafty element as to why you're really there ... When women do marry for the name or the prestige, it just doesn't work."