One Man’s Trash…

Selling something scrounged from a trashcan may not be everyone’s idea of recycling, but online auction houses have been reporting a surge in demand for celebrity debris. Ground zero for such litter is the website, Hollywood StarTrash (“if it’s not StarTrash, it’s just Trash”), where a piece of Paris Hilton’s used dental floss was recently auctioned off for $1,000.

Other scraps from the starlet’s garbage included fan mail, a grocery list, a handful of platinum blonde hair extensions, used make-up, a pillowcase, and used toothbrush. A discarded dog food can (whose contents, presumably, were fed to accessory dog Tinkerbell) fetched $305, which would surely keep most Chihuahuas in kibble for a year. In another bold coup, after Justin Timberlake had appeared at a radio station, the singer’s unfinished breakfast (a half-eaten piece of French toast) was rescued from the trash by an enterprising intern, then sold on eBay to a 19-year-old fan for a whopping $1,025.

However unseemly and excessive this market may seem, the fact is that ever since there have been celebrities, there have been people rooting through their rubbish. In 1975, for example, the National Enquirer published a famous article exposing the contents of Henry Kissinger’s trashcan. The reporter who rifled through the famous bigwig’s waste came up with an empty vichyssoise can, some used packets of antacids, a couple of empty yogurt containers, two unread copies of the New York Times, a lot of empty cigarette boxes, and a prescription for Seconal.

Kissinger should have taken a tip from Joan Crawford, who, during a sanitation strike (according to her daughter), had all her trash put in Bergdorf Goodman boxes and wrapped with big purple bows before it was taken out. Of course, celebrities these days have no cause to disguise potentially embarrassing refuse; they can simply put it through a shredder.

Nevertheless, Crawford’s gift-wrapped trash would have make a beautiful photograph to display on the Flickr photo-sharing site, Celebrity Detritus, which shows pictures of items, usually bought at auctions or estate sales, that once belonged to famous people. Currently on view are snaps of Salvador Dali’s jacket, Dolly Parton’s wig and dress, a chair the Pope once sat in, and a pair of Cher’s socks.

While it’s easy to see why somebody would want to buy to pay good money for Marilyn Monroe’s dress or Liberace’s cape, it might be more difficult to understand what somebody would want with Justin Timberlake’s discarded breakfast or Cher’s old socks.

But is the impulse really so different? Fans scour eBay for souvenirs in the hope of coming closer to the lives of their idols, and the more quotidian those artifacts appear, the more similar to ours those lives seem to be. It’s often said that we worship celebrities just as fervently as we once worshipped the gods, and relics are as important to the religion of celebrity as they were to the followers of medieval saints; only, instead of offering you Christ’s bones in a bottle, today’s peddlers sell the discarded accessories of fame they’ve found by foraging through celebrity trash.

The analogy between the discarded and the deified is made explicit in the art of Barton Lidice Benes, whose best-known installations, “Reliquaries” and “Celebrity”, memorialized in his book Curiosa (2002), are a pair of Curiosity Cabinets in which Benes displays his collection of artifacts from famous lives. His fastidiously arranged inventory includes Roy Rogers’s nasal douche, staples from Larry Hagman’s gallstone surgery, Frank Sinatra’s fingernail clippings, a small vial of Sylvester Stallone’s urine, a heel from one of Elizabeth Taylor’s shoes, Nancy Regan’s chocolate-stained table napkin, and Bill Clinton’s half-sucked throat lozenge.

Benes keeps and catalogues letters accompanying the objects sent to him, generally by intermediaries (his wide network of fans, friends and acquaintances), which act as certificates of their “genuineness”, just like the signatures on Papal indulgences, or letters accompanying swatches from the shrouds of saints. Like genuine holy relics, these sacred gleanings are elevated to the status of art once they’ve been framed, enclosed in glass-fronted cabinets, and exhibited in a gallery.

To really appreciate their power, then, you have to believe in two different systems of magic: that of celebrity and that of art. The equation becomes even more complex when the relics displayed are those of celebrity artists, like the swatch from Mark Rothko’s tie, or his leftover medication.

These inanimate artifacts, like saints’ relics or fragments of Christ’s true cross, enable supplicants like us to savor the proximity of our idols. Perhaps the word “trashy” is derogatory only to those don’t understand the true value of trash, to which meaning accrues only after it has been discarded. “There are many things that we would throw away” Oscar Wilde observed, if we were not afraid that others might pick them up.”