There was a poetic justice in the recent charging of Melrose Place star Heather Locklear on one misdemeanor count of driving under the influence of drugs (the legal sort, but the law is rightfully blind when it comes to operating a motor vehicle). The traffic stop, which happened nearly a year ago, was generated by a tip to the California Highway Patrol from a "former US Weekly reporter." It seems cringingly appropriate that someone from the magazine that brought us "Stars, They're Just Like Us!" should have brought a celebrity down to earthly mug-shot justice—and is it just me, or does the work of the Santa Barbara PD in-house photographer have a rather ethereal beauty?
Heather's misfortune brought to light, yet again, the curious cultural construct of the "celebrity driver." Granted, things have slowed a bit since the tumultuous Year of the Celebrity DUI—2006—when it seemed as if any starlet worth her salt was found operating under the influence and driving on a suspended license. And the world is still gasping at the moving violations of Britney Spears—whose most creative act of 2006 was to cruise around with her infant son on her lap. Yet the questions are still with us: Why has celebrity driver become such a meaningful pair of words? And what does our fascination with bad celebrity drivers reveal about ourselves?
Mere logistics explain a lot. Most celebrities live in Southern California, a region that has brought us everything from drive-in churches to drive-up voting, and they naturally spend an inordinate amount of time in their cars. Research has shown that the more miles one travels, the higher one's "exposure" to risk becomes. There are simply more chances to get into trouble. Exposure is an interesting word in the celebrity context, for in driving, celebrities not only expose themselves to risk but expose themselves to the general public and the paparazzi—who stake out driveways, the threshold to public life in Los Angeles. At the destination, the vulnerability comes in the parking lot, so it's no surprise that valet parkers supplement their income with tips … to photographers.
Traffic is a ruthlessly democratic environment; you can drive a $300,000 Maybach with high-luster leather seats and still sit in the same congestion, still get cut off by a 1983 Corolla with a "Visualize Whirled Peas" bumper sticker, still hit the same pothole, and still fall prey to the speed gun. Driving is one of the central areas of life in whichcelebrities, inescapably, are "like us," and, not surprisingly, the vérité photographs are often taken in traffic: waiting at a light on Melrose, pumping gas on Wilshire, pulled over for speeding on Sunset. (There was a curious denouement in this respect recently when David Beckham, flagged in his black Porsche for driving too fast, was let off with a warning by an LAPD officer, who seemingly wanted to prevent the assembling paparazzi —who themselves can provoke bad celebrity driving with their own bad driving—from causing any more traffic chaos themselves.)
One wonders, given the incomes involved, why more celebrities don't simply hire drivers for their mileage-intensive nights of parties and premieres. Perhaps it's the privacy issue. (There are rumors of limo services installing cameras.) Perhaps it's because Hollywood driving itself, with its similarly motorized press corps, becomes a platform for image-making. "They don't want to spend the money to pay for a car service because they want to be photographed in their fancy cars," one "image consultant" told the Associated Press. Even arrests can be photo ops. "Paris Hilton being arrested just makes her more famous," publicist Michael Levine said after her DUI. Her agent, meanwhile, told MSNBC: "She's been known to have a drink or two."
Conversely, driving offers celebrities some illusion of normalcy. My wife, writer Jancee Dunn, once interviewed the Olsen twins. The "contrived activity" for the interview was to go shopping at a vintage clothing store. "I drove with Ashley, who could barely see over the dash of her enormous Range Rover," she recounts in her book But Enough About Me. "Ashley kept phoning her sister in her corresponding Range Rover, because the two of them weren't sure of how to get to the store." All the while, their discreet bodyguards trailed in yet another vehicle. Rather than carpool in a limo, a virtual motorcade was required. It's as if being driven by a chauffer is some relic of old Hollywood—cue the images of haughty Gloria Swanson carted around by the faithful Max (played by Erich Von Stroheim, who actuallycouldn't drive).