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Is Marilyn Monroe the New Jesus?
Sabrina Maddeaux on the big business of dead celebrities

Marilyn Monroe died for our sins. The sins of a manipulative Hollywood machine, a dehumanizing sex-obsessed culture, and, many would say, the sins of a president who couldn’t keep it in his pants.

But Marilyn Monroe is anything but dead. Her estate, in conjunction with clever brand managers and undying fans, have resurrected the pretty pop-culture princess from her pill-ridden deathbed and immortalized her as something more–an all-American deity who hangs, giggling and dress billowing, over a New York subway grate for all eternity. This may not be the real Marilyn Monroe, but it’s the Marilyn Monroe we believe in.

Our growing culture of celebrity worship is no secret. In a world where ‘traditional’ religions have fallen more and more out of touch, people are looking for something else, someone else to believe in. Celebrities, with their bigger-than-life personas, have stepped in to fill the void. Tabloids as the new Good Books, fan pages the new congregations, carefully crafted quotes the new gospel. Pre-pubescent fangirls wait outside concerts with signs that vow Bieber Forever! and Have my baby! as if praying for an immaculate conception of their very own.

Living, breathing celebrities are one thing. But the real power — and the real money — lies with the dead. A new crop of Hollywood power players is making its fortune buying up, managing, and selling the names and likenesses of deceased celebs. Forbes even publishes an annual “Top-Earning Dead Celebrities” list. Monroe was seventh in 2012, but stands to move up the rankings with a new gig as the face of Chanel No. 5 and, locally, a new chain of Marilyn Monroeâ„¢ Cafés–the first of which opened in Oakville earlier this month.

A press release describes the new café as “not a shrine,” but “a place Marilyn would be comfortable in.” It seems an experiment in turning blind worship into a more holistic experience, a communion of sorts. Patrons can break the same bread (in the form of a French Flaked Croissant) that might’ve been Monroe’s last breakfast. Instead of a collection basket, there’s the opportunity to purchase “a wide array of merchandise” on the way out.

Toronto native Jamie Salter, CEO and chairman of Authentic Brands Group LLC, owns Marilyn Monroe’s estate and has been dubbed a “dead-celebrity dealmaker” by reporters. But he’s not the only Canadian making dead celebs his niche. Mississauga-based Jesse Decosta specializes in rebranding, managing, and licensing the likes of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G.

Dead celebrities make great clients because they’re frozen in time; they can’t publicly shame themselves, grow older and irrelevant, or quit the biz to start a family. “When we’re dealing with celebrities who aren’t alive anymore, we can take some more risk because they’re not looking to move into a different area of their career, like say, from music to film,” says Decosta. “We’re working with an existing brand and carving our own path.”

He won’t answer when I ask if, from a brand management standpoint, it’s better for his celebrity clients to die young, at the height of their careers. But it must be. Keeping a celebrity in the spotlight, continuing to market a young beautiful face, is easier than turning back the clock on one who has lived to lose their sex appeal and be replaced by a new generation of starlets. 

Untimely death is the stuff myths are made of. And in the cult of celebrity, as in religion, myth is the real almighty power. The historical Jesus ain’t got nothing on the mythical Christ– and suicidal, lonely, manipulated Norma Jean can’t lay a finger on glamorous sexpot Marilyn. Possible paranoid schizophrenia and broken hearts be damned when crème brulee lattes and expensive perfume that Monroe famously told a reporter was the only thing she wore to bed (but not dead in bed, that wouldn’t be marketable) are poised to make untold amounts of money.

“We typically test ideas with our audiences. So one of the first things we do is take over audience management through social media… they tell us in real time if they hate something or if they love something,” says Decosta.

A crowd-sourced faith community is a tempting alternative in an evermore democratized world, where religious institutions obsessed with controlling the masses struggle to thrive. Dead celebrities as modern-day messiahs; big business controlling the strings.

Salter told Bloomberg Business Week that to properly market a dead celeb, “Everything we do must have authentic DNA.” The quote eerily reminds me of Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral when [SPOILER ALERT] clinics continue to harvest the DNA of superstar Hannah Geist, organs kept alive by a machine, long after her death for biological communion by fans. Except, while Hannah’s fans pay for diseases and imperfections rooted in her humanity, we pay for sweet masking agents that cover up stars’ true identities and turn them into whatever we want them to be. It’s tough to decide which is more disturbing. 

In both cases, it’s about devotion, profit, and prolonging the life and influence of celebrity. Fifteen minutes be damned, how does eternity sound?


Sabrina Maddeaux is Toronto Standard’s managing editor. Follow her on Twitter at @sabrinamaddeaux.

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