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In the 1880s, a British newspaper editor named WT Stead scandalised the masses with a series of articles in the Pall Mall Gazette called “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,” a wild piece of yellow journalism, but one with a purpose. At the time, it was common practice for the rich to buy children from poor families as prostitutes. Stead set out to expose the horrors of this system, going through the process of purchasing a teen sex slave for £5 and even implying he may have raped the child, though he in fact didn’t.
The story caused a sensation, with some newsagents blacklisting the obscene, ethically outrageous article, while others sold a combined million copies in one week. The scandal surrounding the series simultaneously raked in pounds and helped convince Parliament to raise the age of consent to 16, both outcomes Stead was hoping for.
All that is to say, scandal, money-making, and genuine public purpose have been hopelessly intertwined for as long as the popular press has existed. Modern times have taken this mess to new heights, with media coverage playing a role in impacting the lives of people like Amy Winehouse, Britney Spears and Princess Diana. But the suicide of legendary food writer and TV travel host Anthony Bourdain in 2018 exposed a new version of this vexing paradigm.
In an ethically questionable move, filmmaker Morgan Neville used artificial intelligence software to secretly reconstruct Bourdain’s voice for his 2021 documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain. Neville did so without permission from Bourdain’s family and didn’t initially disclose this fact to his audience. A new biography, Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain, by journalist Charles Leerhsen, which arrives this month, goes even further.
It uses leaked text messages and data from Bourdain’s computer hard drive. The book’s author even stays in the hotel room in the village of Kaysersberg, France, where Bourdain died. A century and a half after WT Stead, has the popular media learned anything about the right way to tell a sensational story? Does a right way even exist?
More than just a chef-turned-CNN TV personality, Anthony Bourdain was a legend, a rock star in every sense but making rock music.
There were some critics, like Nigerian chef and writer Tunde Wey, who argued Bourdain was selling a repackaged version of colonial rapacity, “the expansive firmament of White Americanness,” just disguised through eating.
Legions of Bourdain fans, however, in and outside the food world admired his literary New York swagger, pan-cultural curiosity, and acid critiques of inequality and imperialism, like when in 2002 he famously wrote in A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventure in Extreme Cuisines, “Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands.”
The new book from Mr Leerhsen, a former top editor at magazines Sports Illustrated and People, looks beyond the legend of Bourdain and sees the much more flawed and fascinating man underneath. The biography reports the host using steroids and blackout drinking, Googling himself constantly and maintaining his tan in UV beds, visiting prostitutes and being largely absent from his 11-year-old daughter’s life.
Members of Bourdain’s family and friends, like chef Eric Ripert, have said the book isn’t accurate. Mr Leerhsen argues Ottavia Busia-Bourdain, Bourdain’s ex-wife, who controls his estate. has not objected to the material it contains. The author has declined to comment on whether he interviewed Ms Busia-Bourdain for the book, though she is quoted.
The most highly charged passages concern the end of Bourdain’s life.
At the time, he was going through a tumultuous relationship with Italian actor and director Asia Argento. The pair weathered ups and downs. They were embroiled in tensions with Bourdain’s tight-knit film crew and there were tabloid reports of Ms Argento dancing with French reporter Hugo Clément in a Rome hotel where she had previously stayed with Bourdain.
Most controversially, the book details, Bourdain helped arrange a $380,000 payoff to Jimmy Bennet, a musician and actor who said Ms Argento had sex with him when he was 17, still a minor. The two met years before, when Mr Bennet played Ms Argento’s son as a 7-year-old child actor.
The scandal complicated the public image of Ms Argento and Bourdain, who both became outspoken advocates for the #MeToo movement in 2018 after the Italian actress accused disgraced producer Harvey Weinsten of raping her. (Ms Argento declined to participate in the biography, and denied ever having a sexual relationship with Mr Bennet, saying the payoff was Bourdain’s idea).
Fan’s imagined the Parts Unknown host living a life of international glamour and adventure, but constantly being in the public eye was starting to weigh on Bourdain.
“I hate my fans, too. I hate being famous. I hate my job,” the host wrote to Ms Busia-Bourdain in a text message, the new book reports. “I am lonely and living in constant uncertainty.”
The book opens with the final messages, which won’t be reprinted here, that Bourdain sent Argento before he killed himself.
“I think at the very end, in the last days and hours, he realized what he had become,” Mr. Leerhsen told New York Times. “I don’t respect him killing himself, but he did realize and he did ultimately know he didn’t want to be that person he had become.”
The Independent contacted Mr Leerhsen’s publisher for an interview with the author about the book and its reporting principles.
All told, there’s now an exhaustive, some may say invasive, record of Mr Bourdain’s life and death. Since Bourdain’s death, in addition to the forthcoming Down and Out in Paradise, fans have gotten Roadrunner, a book offering an oral history of Bourdain’s life from friends and collaborators, a posthumously completed travel guide, and a book from Bourdain’s longtime director that promises to take readers “Around the World and Behind the Scenes with Anthony Bourdain.”
Assessing the worthiness of these stories is complicated, according to media experts. Public figures make their living and their impact on the world through a sustained interaction with the masses, so it’s no surprise that conversation continues even after their deaths.
It’s a dialogue that can have great meaning and purpose and even help process grief, says Andrea McDonnell, a media professor at Providence College and co-author with Susan Douglas of 2019’s Celebrity: A History of Fame, even if it’s built on a complicated foundation.
“Most of us have never met him personally, but feel that we know him in some way. That idea of a parasocial relationship, that one-sided media relationship,” she told The Independent. “On the plus side, there’s a genuine desire from fans to engage and a sense of friendship and of admiration and to enjoy or celebrate the positives in his work and his life.”
The attachment of fans to their heroes can be so great, and lucrative, it yields bizarre results. A notable example is the hologram of Tupac who performed with the flesh-and-blood Snoop Dogg at Coachella in 2012.
Dr Bethany Usher, a senior lecturer in journalism at Newcastle University and former tabloid journalist who wrote 2021’s Journalism and Celebrity, said the extensive reporting on Bourdain is valid insofar as it might shine a light on wrongdoing, or mental health and the private lives of even the most successful and aspirational.
“Showing that people, all people can be impacted by mental illness, not just our rock ‘n’ roll stars, people who really seem to have their sh** together, that’s a good thing for society to see,” she said. “I think it can debunk some of the kinds of myths and biases about mental illness if done well.”
This balancing act becomes ethically complicated when reporting on public figures who are struggling with their mental health because of the media. Ms McDonnell raised the example of Princess Diana, who was hounded mercilessly by the press in her life, and who died in a car crash while being chased by paparazzi. In the case of Bourdain, the intense media attention that troubled him is continuing even after death.
“Why do we need to go back? Yes there can be that genuine grief, but it does raise the question, at what point does that kind of revisitiation represent taking advantage of a kind of voyerism to some extent maybe large or a bit predatory versus a kind of genuine desire to reflect on the life of someone that we care about?” she added. “That’s a fine line.”
Further turning the moral kaleidoscope, unlike Princess Diana, who was featured in the media but not a part of it herself, Bourdain was a willing and highly paid participant in the entertainment industry. He made more than enough money to walk away from the hall of mirrors of being an “authentic” TV personality; he chose to stay.
To Dr Usher, the deluge of stories about Bourdain raises another troubling dynamic. The sort of exhaustive excavation of his private life is a sort of press attention usually reserved for female celebrities. That it’s now being trained on a male celebrity is a reminder of how narrow the public range of stories about women the media portrays is, and how often complicated men get a pass, Dr Usher said.
“Now, what we have with the growth of reality TV and the growth of hyper consumerism and the growth of social media is this increasingly narrow version of female success, in terms of the dominant visions of male versus female success,” she said. “It does create distinctions between events of tragedy…If you’re an achieved celebrity, it is unexpected, but not if you’re a reality TV star or a social media star because they dine out on their private lives and terrible things happening.”
The culture at large seems, she argued, seemed to be metabolising Anthony Bourdain with echoes of how it understands the Kardashians—both as aspirational figures and drama-filled lives to consume for entertainment—though that’s not meant as a dig.
“I’m not binary. There are reasons to tell certain stories and celebrity culture can be a force for good and a force for bad in a way that anything else can,” she concluded. “I don’t believe that there has ever been separation of public and commercial interest. We create active mythologies. Or we sustain mythologies that have been around since the beginning.”
Of course, it’s impossible to know what Anthony Bourdain would’ve thought of all this.
Though because this is an article about him, it is by nature reanimating his words and thoughts for the writer’s purpose, even if no AI is involved.
Speaking with TIME in 2015, Bourdain complained about the trend of restaurants and cooks claiming their food is “authentic” as a marketing tool.
“The word authentic has become a completely ridiculous, snobbish term,” Bourdain told the magazine.
It’s a sentiment that one could imagine him feeling about his own life on TV, too. He made his name and his fortune as a frank, anti-establishment global vagabond, mediated by the editing suite, American network television, and the bottomless, aspirational hunger of the public. It’s not hard to imagine him looking at the situation with his signature gallows humour, swigging back a beer, and plotting his next exhaustively recorded attempt to get away and find something real.
If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, The Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch. If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Helpline is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you are in another country, you can go to www.befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.