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Is David Beckham the New Princess Di?

Originally Published 09 August 2004

New research from the University of Warwick reveals that in the wake of Diana, Princess of Wales's premature death, David Beckham has stepped into a public role on a par with her place in the celebrity constellation, and that their appeal is strikingly similar. The analysis also reveals that it is Beckham's ability to represent various roles and values that has enabled his celebrity status to weather the recent media storms of allegations about extra-marital affairs and a performance, deemed by some, as lacklustre at the European championships.

Since the death of Diana, Beckham has stepped into a similar celebrity status and reached dizzying heights of fame. As with Diana, the languages of the sacred are attached to Beckham, who has been described as gilded as a 'Joan of Arc figure', embodying 'manly sainthood' and as in a 'state of grace'.

Diana and Beckham both won the hearts of nations by showing an unexpected humility and genuine ability to recognise and value others over and above themselves, despite the social and economic circumstances that have defined their lives as privileged, almost beyond imagination. Diana's concern for those suffering various forms of social exclusion and deprivation was legion. Beckham demonstrates a level of interest and tolerance towards his hordes of adoring fans which others in such a position may prefer to avoid.

Similar to Diana, Beckham is fascinating for his ambiguities, particularly in relation to gender and sexuality issues, and is capable of bridging racial, national and social divides. Both have been credited with a driving work ethic deeply invested in the values of love, devotion and loyalty, yet both are glamorous figures, supremely beautiful, and have unashamedly invested in the pleasures of the body and consumption.

Beckham and Diana seem to play out, at least in the media, the popular 'dream-come-true' narrative of a relatively ordinary person becoming a star, despite the fact that Diana came from one of Britain's most powerful aristocratic families and that Beckham was considered a prodigy from childhood.

Like Diana, Beckham is a proclaimed forerunner of social change, particularly in terms of recent shifts in masculinity and heterosexuality. As the epitome of 'metrosexuality', Beckham represents the way male identity is being reworked, and has preceded the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy phenomenon, where a queer gaze is taken up by regular guys, shattering traditional gender conventions.

Another similarity between the two global icons is an ability to purchase and capture popular cultural kudos, leverage and significance, perhaps beyond what they have actually done. Certainly, Beckham is free to play with the traditional 'rules' of masculinity and happily attract a gay gaze, as it is clearly understood that his gaze is straight, directed at Victoria (and perhaps other women).

Ultimately, the survival of Beckham's celebrity status is dependent on the portrayal of many contradictory qualities and roles - available but mysterious, revealed but hidden, hardworking but into pleasure, glamorous but 'authentic'. It is Beckham's ability to be all things to all people that has been the key to achieving the celebrity space he now occupies.

Dr Andrew Parker, from the University of Warwick, said: "Like Princess Diana, Beckham is constantly in the glare of the media. Both have been labelled as part of Britain's 'Golden Couple', and have stirred up massive tabloid frenzies. So, what catapults someone into the status of global icon? What sustains this position?

"Beckham has been described in many ways. Master craftsman, global phenomenon, chosen-one, sporting messiah - quintessential sporting icon. Beckham's status arises from his ability to simultaneously represent conflicting qualities, including popular masculinity, sporting excellence, colossal economic capital, physical glamour and emotions."

For more information or to arrange interviews with Dr Parker contact: Jenny Murray, Press Officer, University of Warwick, Tel: 02476 574 255, Mobile: 07876217740 "The Transfigural and the Totemic: David Beckham, Sexuality and Popular Culture" (by Dr Deborah steinberg and Dr Andrew Parker) was delivered at "Pleasure and Danger Revisited: Sexualities in the 21st Century", Cardiff University, July 2004.