Fifteen minutes of infamy

13th November 2015 at 00:00

I love my mobile phone. The thing I love most about it is that it hadn’t been invented when I was a student. Just the thought of all my regrettable debacles being fully documented turns me wobbly. As cameras were not yet a pocket staple, I have very few photos of my teens and twenties that aren’t sensible and work-related. As an actor, the only video I have is of my work.

My short burst of fame came at a time in the 1990s before the explosion of celebrity culture. After drama school and some London theatre, I moved up north for a year to work as a regular character in Coronation Street. At the time, there were only two really big soaps on telly. With only four channels, viewing figures reached 15 million. That sort of exposure three times a week led to fast-tracked fame. And, to my surprise, I hated it.

Back then, celebrity was sourced from a small pool of movie actors, soap stars and Princess Diana. Two of those categories had the means to keep the real world at a distance. I was not in those groups.

Pre-Twitter and pre-email, contact with fans arrived handwritten, direct and unchecked, to the studios. The occasional splattered perv-mail was more than a little unsettling. Those who could not separate fiction from fact would approach me with hostility in the street if my character fulfilled anything less than their every whim.

Supermarket trips were traumatic. People wandered the aisles behind me, offering a running commentary on everything I placed in my trolley as if we were still separated by the glass screen in the corner of their lounge.

As nightmarish as I found my brush with fame to be, I was a minor celebrity. My close friend, a long-term character in the rival soap, was a big star (and still is). Her Hello! magazine wedding offered a real insight into the most uncomfortable side of the celebrity-press relationship. As she got out of the car in her wedding dress and approached the small London church where the ceremony was taking place, there was a scuffle as a paparazzo shoved his camera under her ivory gown. Up-skirt photos as she was seconds from walking down the aisle! It felt frightening and violent. I was glad I was no longer in that world.

Now, with social media instead of tabloids, and cheap phones replacing the paparazzo’s lens, we all have the means to be the hunter and the hunted. Everyone’s mistakes could shunt them towards notoriety and unwanted celebrity. Our young people are especially vulnerable, even though this altered media state is normal to them. Their real lives are edited and uploaded to a parallel existence, documenting their best and worst in a second, eternal life online.

Temporary misjudgements, fixed in time digitally, could affect our students for the whole of their lives. We have a responsibility to remind them of this modern-day danger – one that many of us have never really experienced.

Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands. She tweets at @MrsSarahSimons

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