If you're the one into Madonna's knickers, keep them to yourself
Admiring a high-skilled individual is one thing - but Sophie Donaldson asks why do we feel the need to own a piece of them?
It's not often we sympathise with celebrities. The hardships they endure are usually unrelatable while the trappings of fame and fortune seem more than enough compensation for their woes.
However, every so often something happens to a celebrity that reminds us that despite the luxurious lifestyles there are some circumstances no sane person would swap their plebeian existence for.
For the past few months pop mega-star Madonna has been embroiled in a court case with her former personal assistant, Darlene Lutz. Even regular folk must endure high- profile legal cases, but it's the subject of the case that makes you feel a twinge of sympathy for this multi-millionaire.
Last year Lutz attempted to auction off a number of Madonna's personal items including a hairbrush with strands of hair attached, a pair of underwear and a love letter from her ex-boyfriend, the now-deceased rapper Tupac.
Madonna alleges she had no idea Lutz had the items and was only aware of them when she heard of the online auction last year. She filed an injunction to prevent the sale of the items and asserted that her celebrity "does not obviate my right to maintain my privacy, including with regard to any personal items".
Last week Judge Gerald Lebovits dismissed the case, and the auction is set to resume this summer.
Bidding on the hairy brush last July apparently reached nearly $100,000, so Mags won't even be able to console herself with the thought that nobody would pay actual money for a used hairbrush.
Unfortunately for Madonna and her peers, plenty of people are willing to shell out exorbitant amounts of money for their old stuff. A quick scroll through the colourful world of online celebrity auctions and there's no limit to the uncomfortably personal items for sale. If you have a few hundred euros to spare, you could be the proud owner of Babe Ruth's spoon, a strand of Elvis's hair, Marlene Dietrich's egg cups, Sammy Davis Junior's well-thumbed cookbook or Pope Francis's calotte.
Admiring a highly-skilled individual is one thing, but why do we feel the need to own a piece of them? The marketplace for celebrity memorabilia has always appeared buoyant; indeed, our continuing obsession with celebrity culture indicates that the demand for celebrity-owned items is only set to grow.
This fixation on celebrities has been amplified by social media. It fosters a false sense of connection between 'us' and 'them', leading some people to feel they're closer to their idols than ever before. Canny celebrities use social media to court their fans by welcoming them into their homes, via Instagram and Snapchat, or even personally engaging with them with comments and likes.
Humans have always been privy to idolatry. This predilection is compounded by our preoccupation with class, privilege, status and notoriety. Celebrity obsessives are simply modern-day equivalents of zealots from centuries ago who dedicated themselves to royal or religious leaders.
It must be unsettling to know that someone, somewhere, could be running your old hairbrush lovingly through their own locks. Or worse, slipping into your old knickers. Buying the personal effects of a living person is one thing, but is it any different if the person is deceased? Is it less weird for someone to wear Cher's old corset than it is to wear Sylvia Plath's old college skirt?
This is exactly what Ann Devers, a London-based writer and book dealer, has been doing. Last month Plath's daughter Frieda Hughes auctioned off a swathe of her parents' possessions at Bonhams auction house in London. As far as celebrity items go, this was a gold mine. Among the lot was Sylvia Plath's thesaurus, fishing rod, jewellery, that skirt, a signed copy of The Bell Jar and, the creme de la creme for some Plath fans, the typewriter on which she wrote the novel.
Devers has uploaded a photo of herself wearing the skirt to her Instagram and told The New York Times: "My mom had that skirt. It was worn by an entire generation of women who had to present as perfect all the time.
"Plath was miserable, but she created art, and the skirt is a representation of that struggle."
The thought of Plath's daughter auctioning off these deeply personal items, rather than donating them to a public body like a museum, seems completely negligent, like a feckless heir pillaging the family jewels.
That is, until you hear her reason for doing so. In an introduction for the auction's catalogue, Hughes explained the predicament she was in when it came to deciding which items should stay, and which should go: "It recently occurred to me that this chair would vanish into the mass of other furniture I own, and become invisible, as would the jewellery, when one day I was in no position to explain their provenance.
"If I wished to sell some items, then others would have to go too, because presented together, they made up a snapshot of a mutual history."
Depending on who's talking, the same could be said of Lutz's bounty.
There are certainly many people who would fervently believe Madonna's knickers are of equal or even greater historical value then Plath's typewriter.
Let's just hope whoever buys them doesn't follow Devers's lead with an Instagram self-portrait proudly wearing their new (old) underwear.