How the Famous and Flawed Captivate Us

Fans are tightly packed on 125th Street outside the Apollo Theater in New York to pay tribute to Michael Jackson. CBS

What is it about superstar celebrities? When Elvis Presley died, nearly 80,000 fans lined the streets of Memphis for his funeral. About 100,000 did the same in New York in 1926 for Rudolph Valentino. And an estimated 2.5 billion watched Princess Diana's funeral on TV.

This week thousands waited in line for as much as an hour and a half for a chance to write their thoughts about Michael Jackson and sign their names on a memorial wall outside the Staples Center, as CBS News correspondent Jeff Greenfield reports.

But what explains the lines a half mile long? The spontaneous memorials? The explosion of online tributes? Why the outpouring of attention for someone whose life was, in every way, so distant from ours?

For many, it was the outsize nature of his talent:

Rodrick Thornton, signing a t-shirt and hanging it on a tribute wall, said he had to be among the thousands who came to New York's Apollo Theatre last week to say good bye.

"I remember growing up as a kid I used to go up in my room, I had a big afro and I used to sing like Michael Jackson - do my tapes and everything," Thornton said.

"I've had a lot of family problems since I was born. He was always the one I would resort to," said another fan, Krystal Perez.

Perez says Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" - especially the lyrics - struck the deepest chord for her.

"The best line in that song would have to be the um, the chorus," she said, singing, "I'm looking at the man in the mirror / I'm asking him to change his ways / and no message could have been any clearer / if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change."

But fame and talent - or genius - only take us so far. They cannot fully explain the size and scope of what has happened in the wake of Jackson's death. As with other icons, there were also sorrows, troubles, death at an early age.

"James Dean had it, clearly Elvis Presley had it, Marilyn Monroe had it and I think it's something to do with this combination of extravagant talent and vulnerability they had," said Margo Jefferson, author of "On Michael Jackson."

And that vulnerability - the whispers about his looks, his health, his private life - only fed the fascination.

"He paid a big price for that, but he's a huge part of the global cultural landscape," Jefferson said. "He may be the most famous person in the world."

And finally, there is us. The avalanche of coverage has a message beyond the story; it tells the world that this is a matter of enormous weight - and for millions that creates a powerful impulse to be part of an event so large.

"Michael Jackson has an indelible effect on my life and I feel like I had to be here and experience with everyone else," said one fan, Lori Watzman.

That may be the only real answer, when we ask "Why all this?"
  • Jeff Greenfield

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