Harry Mount

Muhammad Ali invented celebrity culture - and the selfie

Muhammad Ali invented celebrity culture - and the selfie
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It’s no coincidence that everyone – from Elvis to George W. Bush to Barack Obama – managed to get a selfie with Muhammad Ali.

Ali invented celebrity culture - and the selfie. He was the first global figure to throw aside the early 20th-century cults of self-deprecation and privacy, and fully embrace the modern gods of fame, brazen self-promotion and rampant publicity.

You can see it right at the beginning of his career, in 1960, when Cassius Clay supposedly hurled his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River after he was refused service in a segregated restaurant.

Ali later admitted to his biographer, Thomas Hauser, that the story was untrue: the medal was either lost or stolen, he confessed. But it doesn’t really matter whether it’s true or not – it’s the perfect story to illustrate the genuine plight of the world's greatest boxer in a divided country.

Again and again, Ali was a master of the story. He didn’t need a spin doctor to keep him on the front pages. From his cheerful, whip-smart poems, to the Ali Shuffle, to his noble stance against Vietnam, to his three titles, he dominated the news from 1960 until his disastrous, final fight with Trevor Berbick in 1981.

Ali clearly had an innate lust for fame, which wasn’t sated in accumulating more of the stuff than pretty much anyone before or since.

That’s why it didn’t seem depressing to see him on the celebrity circuit after Parkinson’s Disease struck in the early eighties. By the time I met him – in 1991 – his fixed facial mask had already set in, and he was unable to meet the eye of the camera lens for my selfie. At 49, he remained extremely handsome and was able to get to his feet, walk around and say a few quiet words.

Still, he couldn’t talk or get about easily – and so it was no wonder that he relied more and more, for his fix of fame, on being photographed. Hundreds of fellow undergraduates queued up for a selfie with him that day, in Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford, where he was promoting the biography by Thomas Hauser, ‘Muhammad Ali – His Life and Times’.

Some of his friends have suggested in recent years - and since his death - that it was a shaming spectacle to parade Ali across the world like this, as his physical condition deteriorated.

It didn’t seem like that, on that day in Oxford, when there was a palpable buzz in the queue of fans snaking down Broad Street. There was no element of macabre rubbernecking – and, as far as I remember, there was no mention of his condition at all by any of us in the queue.

Because his Parkinson’s was so well-publicised – because Ali had been so happy to present himself to the world in his diminished state – there was no shock on seeing his stilled body and his semi-frozen face. Instead, there was just an immense thrill and excitement at meeting the most famous man in the world.

Ali’s body may have been cruelly damaged by Parkinson’s; but his mind wasn’t. At the beginning of his boxing career, more than 30 years before, he had been very keen on fame. So he was that day in Oxford.

And so he was, shortly before he died. This week, his daughter, Laila Ali, said, “My father wanted [his funeral] in an arena, so everyone can come. Trust me, if 10 million people come, that’s not going to be enough for him. He’s going to be like, ‘That’s it?’”

In death, as in life, Ali was in love with the celebrity culture he created. And, unlike so many of those who now worship the great god of Celebrity, he thoroughly deserved the vast buckets of fame that came his way.

Harry Mount’s ‘Odyssey – Ancient Greece in the Footsteps of Odysseus’ (Bloomsbury) is published in paperback this month