Local hero to fallen idol

2009-04-10 00:00

If you are a rock star you can get away with almost anything. You can do drugs, trash hotel rooms, beat up the press, use foul and abusive language, and nick other people’s wives, girlfriends and groupies. If you are a rock star’s wife, girlfriend or groupie this stuff comes with the territory and there is not much mileage to be had squealing to the media about how hard done by you are. Rock-star wives are a pretty tough lot who get used to seeing off the competition, and their kids, well, their kids just learn to cope. If you’re called Zowie or Moon Unit you’re going to have it tough from day one. Dad’s indiscretions are probably the least of your worries. If on the other hand you are Joost van der Westhuizen, ex-Springbok rugby captain and local hero in the way only ex-Springbok rugby captains can be heroes, you occupy a rarified position and your pedestal is very high indeed. It’s a long way to fall. Van der Westhuizen ticked all the right boxes. He’s good-looking, successful and charismatic. He has a beautiful, talented wife, a happy marriage and two picture-book children. Van der Westhuizen’s heart belongs to the Lord. But when your celebrity is built on integrity you had better make sure your private life can withstand media scrutiny. It’s a dangerous house of cards you build if you are not squeaky clean. A sex and drugs video in which you are allegedly the main performer and your partner is a CAT-snorting lap dancer is not something the media is likely to overlook.

The sad fact is that when you are who you are because people respect you and share your high principles, they will feel betrayed if you are anything less than perfect. The media and the public will tear you down. It’s cruel, it’s ruthless but it’s inevitable. Even if Van der Westhuizen is guilty of cheating on his wife or doing coke, he doesn’t deserve the kind of rabid feeding frenzy that has escalated into a full-blown character assassination, but that is what the populist media does. I’m surprised that Van der Westhuizen thinks he can wave an imperious hand and declare that he’s finished with the media. Despite what he thinks they are bigger than he is and they haven’t finished with him. Not by a long way.

You do have to baulk though, at some of the nonsensical motives the various players in this sordid drama have trotted out to validate their sanctimonious self-interest. The media say it’s their responsibility to report the story because the public have “a right to know”. Assuming, of course, he’s guilty. But he might as well be put into the medieval ducking chair; if he’s innocent he drowns anyway.

An unnamed mystery woman who claims she has been having an on-off affair with Van der Westhuizen says she is exposing him to save his marriage. To me, that sounds more like mischief-making than a marriage-saving strategy. The girl in the sex video says she is speaking out because she has reformed now that she’s become a mother. It’s hard to defend this kind of twisted logic. Then there are the masterminds behind the video who claim they did it to show people the type of person Van der Westhuizen really is. The opportunity for a little blackmail was just a happy fringe benefit. Happy, that is, until they got a nasty beating for their troubles.

Of course Van der Westhuizen is not the first celebrity to have to answer to the media but he is a particularly juicy catch given that he is such a paragon of virtue. If he were one of the genuine bad boys of rugby, the media attention would have been short and sweet. Options on the after-dinner speaking circuit might close down but there are other ways to make money once your rugby days are over. Open a couple of nightclubs with some dodgy mates and a coke habit is not necessarily a deal-breaker. Allegations of a bit of sneaking around with other women can’t hurt the real bad boys but now that Van der Westhuizen has a shadow cast over his integrity he’s out in the wilderness.

It’s a tragic story but not a new one. It’s just the same narrative with a different cast of characters which shows up the age-old truth that there are different rules for different fools.

• Tracy Stark holds a PhD in Media and Communication from Wits University. She lectured in the media and communication programme at UKZN, specialising in the field of New Media in everyday life.

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