By Ruth Marcus
Call me No. 1,279,090.
That would be my place among the ranks of Twitter followers amassed by public meltdown artist Charlie Sheen in little more than 24 hours.
If there is a better illustration of the decline of American culture, the triumph of technology over privacy, and the end of shame as a motivating force, I can’t think of one.
The spectacle of the celebrity in drug-fueled, alcohol-induced, sycophant-enabled collapse is so familiar it has become a lucrative industry of relentless paparazzi and voyeuristic websites. We have been treated to Lindsay Lohan’s gallery of mug shots; Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic tirade upon being arrested for drunk driving; Alec Baldwin’s voice mail raging to his 11-year-old daughter that she is a “thoughtless little pig.”
And, of course, Sheen, in serial meltdowns involving cocaine, prostitutes and assault charges.
Sheen’s latest unraveling, though, is remarkable for his unabashed, come-on-down approach: This star is not fleeing the press but inviting it to watch in real time.
I have—at least I had—zero interest in Charlie Sheen. I could not tell you what the television show he gets paid a reported $1.8 million per episode for is about. But I am fascinated by the phenomenon of popular fascination with Sheen.
We know the man is deeply troubled, self-absorbed to the point of being grandiose. We in the press know we are exploiting his obvious mania and egotism.
“I’m tired of pretending like I’m not special,” Sheen told NBC. “I’m tired of pretending like I’m not a total bitchin’ rock star from Mars.” As to what he wants his daughters to think about the incident last year in which Sheen, allegedly accompanied by a prostitute and high on cocaine, trashed his Plaza Hotel room while the girls slept next door, Sheen told ABC’s “20/20”: “They’ll wake up one day and realize how cool Dad is. And you know, he signs all the checks on the front, not the back.”
The decent thing to do would be to avert our eyes and hope he gets help.
But human nature is what it is. Everyone slows down to see the car crash. And this time, the car’s driver is giving interviews—endless interviews. He has invited the networks—except the one that just suspended him—to get a glimpse of his life with the live-in girlfriends he calls the “goddesses,” a porn star and a marijuana magazine cover model.
And, until they were mercifully removed from his custody Tuesday night, there were Sheen’s nearly 2-year-old twin boys. On Wednesday morning, Sheen was back on the air for a predawn interview with NBC: “It’s not about ego. It’s not about emotion. It’s just about getting very focused and getting very much in touch about what I have to do to complete the task of bringing these two beautiful young men back home to the home they deserve to be raised in, with more love, compassion, support, child care and everything else you could possibly want for a child.”
Well, a stable father and stable family would be nice.
And now, perhaps inevitably, we have Sheen tweeting the breakdown, complete with pictures of him, one of the goddesses and a bottle of chocolate milk. “Pardon my absence…. My first concern is my kids,” Sheen tweeted Wednesday. Three hours later? “Ready for my next fastball, world? PLAN BETTER. Applies to everything where an excuse now sits. Try it. U won’t be wrong. Ever.”
By the time I finished writing this, Sheen’s number of followers was up to 1,328,407.
Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)washpost.com.
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group