Sunday, June 28, 2009

When is a celebrity not a celebrity?

News broke earlier today that Billy Mays, who I only know as "that guy who sells Oxyclean who looks a little like that guy from 'Home Improvement'", died. Apparently, Mays sold other products in infomercial form and even starred in a reality series on television.

Normally, I wouldn't blog about such a death. He seems to have been a good person, so it's a tragedy that he died, but his death alone wouldn't be enough to provoke the pen of someone wholly unconnected with his life and family. I bring up his death primarily in relation to the rule of 3.

For whatever reason, there's a widespread myth that deaths of celebrities tend to occur in threes. I've heard about this for more than a decade. Whenever two famous people die in close proximity, I have often heard friends discuss who might be the unfortunate conclusion to the trilogy.

In this case, the juxtaposed deaths of Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, and Ed McMahon provided the background for an argument. The argument was whether or not Billy Mays counts as a celebrity, in light of three people of higher renown having died already. Was he "celeb" enough to violate the law of three?

It's all ridiculous. For whatever reason, we as a species REALLY like threes. Triune gods, three wishes in fairy tales, three branches of government: you name it, we can find threes in it. Know what else we're REALLY good at, with our highly-evolved mamalian brains? Finding perceived patterns in randomness.

And the problem of "scale" of celebrities is also nonsense. I have no doubt if Farrah Fawcett were still alive, nobody would quibble about the stardom of Billy Mays. They'd consider the set of three finished.

Come to that, there are renowned heads of state who die with less fanfare that Michael Jackson. In his heyday, he was probably the most famous man in the world, with the possible exception of the Pope. And the pontiff didn't have 13 hit singles!

A quick look at Wikipedia's compiled list of notable deaths for 2009 should put to rest any perception of groupings of deaths.

But it won't.

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