The Death of a Minor Celebrity

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It was reported this week that a young Canadian by the name of Rick Genest killed himself (although some of his friends and associates have claimed his death was an accident).

Rick Genest wanted to be a freak.

He set out to achieve this distinction by covering himself with tattoos of bones and insects. The top of his head was shaved and tattooed with exposed brains. His eye sockets and tip of his nose was black (whether this was tattooed or aided by cosmetics is uncertain). Around his mouth and over his lips were tattoos of teeth. Over his torso were tattoos of ribs with fragments of skin tissue hanging between the bones, and insects scuttling around the illusion of a cavity. Metal piercings in his nose and ears completed the image of a living Frankenstein’s monster.

Genest wanted to look as if he were in a partial state of decomposition like a zombie. Indeed, his nickname was “zombie boy”, an title he gladly adopted as part of his public signature. To say that he succeeded in his aim to look horrific is an understatement. The tattoos are repellent. Yet the New York Times reported that Genest had been proud of his appearance. “Please do stare,” he was quoted, “I like it.”

Unsurprisingly, the Guardian reported that Genest had a long history of depression. In May of this year, for example, he posted a photograph of himself in a hospital bed wearing a shirt emblazoned with the words “Kill Me” and a tongue depressor hanging from his mouth. The article mentioned that he frequently wore this shirt for media interviews. The shirt was referred to with the definite article – “the Kill Me shirt” – since it had appeared so often in photographic shoots. The use of the definite article accords the shirt an iconic status, although it never seemed to occur to the Guardian writer that a shirt that invites people to murder the wearer – even if worn only for shock value – points to the real source of Genest’s problems and does not at all deserve a celebrated status.

Genest made both money and fame from his appearance. He displayed uncanny instinct in generating an income from his repugnant appearance. Even the sympathetic eulogising of the left-wing press cannot disguise Genest’s evident eye for career development and industry shrewdness.

For example, the New York Times mentions that he was named in the Guinness World Records in 2011 for having the most insects tattooed on a human body. Setting aside the complete lack of merit inherent in such a title, it is noteworthy that to get a mention in the Guinness World Records would require Genest to apply for a record title.

The Guinness process is exhaustive, requiring several witnesses, authenticated evidence, and detailed photographs. Genest could only have received his title by being an initiator and driver of the process. Depending on how much personal effort he was willing to invest in his application, it may have cost him a large amount of money. An official Guinness consultant – marketed by the Guinness organisation to people who wish to obtain notoriety; in other words, people exactly like Genest – would have cost thousands of dollars and still required him to be painstakingly photographed from head to foot.

Genest was also aware of the value of victimhood. He ascribed forms of victimhood to himself publicly on several occasions. He claimed to have run afoul (among other things) of school bullying and religious parents. Both of these alleged forms of “oppression” are quite commonplace, and most people successfully move past the memory of difficult childhood experiences when they reach maturity. But with a horrific visage to illustrate the supposed depth of his angst, Genest was able to weave a narrative fabric out of humdrum teenage experiences and thereby elicit the needed pathos for forging fame. Victimhood is the coin that makes the coffer sing in the 21st century.

When asked about other people’s reaction to his appearance, Genest expertly coloured his life with a sparkling beatific quality worthy of a Greek Orthodox iconostasis. His self-appraisal is highly suggestive of a self-indulgent and narcissistic personality.

What changed was the masses’ reaction to me. Prior, I had my place amongst those who understood me and had the luxury of privacy. Now I often feel that every walk of life either has a question or an opinion about the way I breathe air – although I do seize this opportunity to raise awareness for tolerance, acceptance and embracing our differences.

Here, other people are merely “the masses” who did not understand him. For Genest, the ignorance of “the masses” was both an indictment against them – for they lacked broadness of vision – and evident proof of the enlightened complexity of his existence. To be unconventional is a sign of moral superiority. This is the internal narrative of the entertainment world in which he swum. Aberration is sophistication. Revolution is evolution. Normality is boring.

Genest also hinted at his frustration that the people around him had the temerity to hold an opinion on the repellent tattoos he chose to inflict on the world at large. But fortunately for everyone, their narrow-mindedness only produced more virtue in his beneficent heart. It gave him an opportunity to “raise awareness” for the liberal shibboleths of “tolerance”, “acceptance” and “embracing differences”. By this he meant that, contrary to all appearances, his tattoos performed a public service. By making himself so horrendous and ghastly to look at, other people must (and ought) to accept and tolerate him. This caused them to grow to be as broadminded as he was.

At times his hypocrisy was staggering, yet no interviewer ever pressured him to explain the incongruity between his words and his life choices. For example when asked “what is the philosophy behind your tattoos”, he answered:

The zombie concept is also often used as a metaphor for runaway consumerism. Rebelling from this notion is the very meaning of punk. The origins of the zombie creature came about from stories of people being buried alive in times of plagues and such crises; that would come out the other side ‘transformed’. Zombies, to many, represent a pervasive xenophobia. As in my life, I was often out-casted, hated or misunderstood.

Genest answered by pointed out that within his subculture, his tattoos serve as a metaphor for “runaway consumerism”. It is surprising that Genest was not perspiring from the sheer effort to sound deep and meaningful at this point in the interview.

Despite his concern about “runway consumerism”, Genest’s most publicised employment involved working as a model for the fashion label Rocawear and performing in high end fashion shows in Berlin and Paris. He also appeared in a music video with Lady Gaga (the stage name adopted by Stefani Germanotta) in the performance of her song Born This Way. Typical of the zeitgeist, the song begins with a long, disturbing prologue followed by an uptempo song in which Germanotta sings in her underwear.

Surely, in all the pages of history, there have been few industries which better exemplify rank consumerism than the pop music and fashion industries of the 21st century. Over and over, Genest appeared in slick photographic presentations wearing designer gear. In one photograph, he is turning somersaults on red leather couch positioned against an expertly arranged tapestry, set against a mottled wooden floor. The image appears to be extensively photoshopped, light-filtered, and edited until it is more artificial than real. In another marketing photograph he huddles in a bed glaring up from underneath his labelled attire.

After insinuating to his interviewer that his tattoos were a cry against runaway consumerism, Genest is asked for more details about being “the face” of the fashion label Rocawear. One cannot help wondering whether the interviewer was asking tongue-in-cheek because it is such a naked inconsistency.

To this Genest replies with an burst of enthusiasm:

Growing up in the city as a teenager, I have always embraced urban culture and style. It is a great honor to represent what I live, breathe, and bleed for as long as I have. I’m excited to be involved with Rocawear’s re-launch across Europe for Spring Summer ’13.

Urban style and urban culture, says Genest, is what he lives, breathes and bleeds for. What, then, is urban style and culture? This is not defined by Genest, but presumably Rocawear’s designer hoodies, oversized caps, and ridiculously baggy trousers permits us some insight into what Genest believed urban style to be. In short, it “urban style” is a carefully cultivated shtick that permits the safe and comfortable middle-classes to ape some of the grittiness of the city, so that they might feel a little more “authentic”.

Elaborately torn and disfigured garments are essential to this image. One line of jeans features imitation paint splotches down the front of the legs while others are purposefully cut and ripped. Others billow around the wearer’s limbs like prison garments, utilising fabric far in excess of what is necessary to cover the person sensibly. Apparently this is what Genest meant when he spoke of “urban style”. In other words, “urban style” is ghetto chic for people who will almost certainly be safely insulated from ever experiencing the horrors of poverty in an urban slum.

Genest also had roles in a few films and was busily working on a music album. The entertainment industry, like the fashion industry, are not exactly bywords for frugality and material restraint. To the contrary. One can think of few industries that symbolise the “runaway consumerism” against which Genest submitted his tattoos as a living protest, than the very industries he sought to make a career within.

Rick Genest was a man who spent his life living in an unreal bubble. Most of his tattoos were completed before his was out of his teenage years. For nearly half of his life he drew people’s gaze and riveted their attention. Whether walking down a street or attending a party, his visage was blatant. His tattoos extruded into the world around him and gave him the limelight he so evidently wanted. The desire to be noticed, to catch people’s gaze, to gain notoriety, to be the most obvious person in a room are all symptomatic of a person who is either profoundly insecure or profoundly narcissistic.

But something of the person is always lost by such self-seeking. Thus, it is impossible for anyone to tell what Genest really looked like. The tattoos functioned as a mask, concealing the person beneath. One is left to wonder whether even Genest himself could really peer beneath the inking to see his adult self. In any case, they would have served as a daily reminder as he stood at the bathroom mirror that he had rendered himself different. He had turned himself into a macabre character. The horror they resembled was an inescapable feature of his life and must surely have leaked into his perception of the world around him. How could any person find simple and unadulterated delight in a blue sky or a flower when their life was both swaddled and imprinted with horror?

It shows how full body tattoos can take on a life of their own. For although these morbid tattoos arose initially from Genest’s teenage personality, upon being tattooed, they in turn contributed to forging his character and his career. For instance, few things shape a person quite as much as the company they keep and the social circles in which they move. Genest’s tattoos would surely have alienated him from much of conventional society, forcing him to walk among the bizarre and freakish individuals that inhabit the moral wasteland of the entertainment industry. By tattooing himself in this way, he deliberately isolated himself from the very relationships that might have helped him to surmount his depression and find a meaningful and manly existence.

It is with extreme difficulty, for example, that one could imagine him ever having a settled marriage, being a dedicated father of children, or enjoying the comforting routine of a family life. Yet God has so created human beings that we discover purpose and comfort in fixed and permanent relationships, and in the nurture of children. Genest’s tattoos largely precluded him from the possibility of relating to the sort of woman that might have helped him to discover God’s intention for his creatures.

Even of his self-professed friends, now busily eulogising him in overblown language, there were many who personally profited from his tattoos. He was their marketing gimmick; their gritty freak to bestow their wares with some element of novelty. This makes it uncertain whether his closest associates truly valued him as anything other than a mobile stage fitting. Certainly without his tattoos, would they have given him a second glance?

Whether it was suicide – as has been reported by the press – or an unexpected accident as claimed by his friends and manager, we know only that Genest spoke to his girlfriend, went out onto a balcony for a cigarette, and fell to his death. Nobody witnessed his death. We have only his girlfriend’s word about the lead up to it, although there is no good reason to speculate that she is not being truthful.

Whatever the case, the death of an unbeliever has eternal repercussions, as death does for us all. Our Lord teaches us that there is no hope for souls who part this life without having repented and believed in the salvation of the cross through Christ. The future of the wicked is fixed and no rays of a new dawn will lighten their eternity. For this reason,  the Bible urges men, “Today if you will hear his voice, do not harden your hearts”, for the day of salvation is today. Each day is our opportunity to find our shelter in the Rock from the deluge of judgement that will surely come.

It is bitterly ironic that after Genest’s death, a poem he wrote was posted to Instagram. It has been suggested this post was automatically sent by a posting app. Perhaps Genest had planned for this poem to be his final work before his death? The poem is dark. It references a pagan god and uses the tawdry and boring themes so beloved by those who think the darkness of the goth subculture is “deep”. He writes about flesh being cut, and the cold, the moonlight, and howling under the stars. The image that accompanied the poem featured darkness interrupted only by a circle of light.

In one sense, this is chillingly symbolic of his soul’s trajectory. Having quite literally loved darkness rather than light, Genest’s final word to the world – whether by design or happenstance – is also about the things of the night. Little did he realise that there is a darkness more terrible than that of his subculture and imagination. Our Lord called it “outer darkness”, a lonely wilderness everlastingly submerged in blackness, where the souls who refused to submit to Christ will wander in torment forever.

Genest was a wicked man. He did not commit murder or violent crimes, but he set himself against God and the imago Dei imprinted on his humanity nonetheless. By his own confession he lived a life that purposefully sought to normalise the aberrant and ungodly. He took his body and disfigured it into a grotesque death mask thereby claiming his ownership over it and pretending that it was not God’s. His very flesh which was meant to reflect the glory of God became a canvass upon which he could feature the horror of death, desecration of the sacred, and to turn people’s minds to devilish themes.

The death of this minor celebrity will make no difference to the vast majority of mankind. Like a candle snuffed out, he will be quickly forgotten. As so many before him have done, he has stepped suddenly over the parapet into an eternity he spent little time considering. For him, his short existence here is over; his time is up. Far sooner, perhaps, than he may have ever expected.

We may find little (or more accurately, nothing) to commend in the central, consuming passion of his life, or the empty and frivolous nature of his work. But the death of an unconverted sinner should at least remind us of the urgency of repentance and the hope that exists in Christ Jesus alone. By faith, we can make ourselves ready for eternity.

St. Paul’s words in the Letter to the Romans are apt. They contradict Genest’s glamorisation of darkness, with an unshakeable and towering authority:

The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light… clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not make no provision for the flesh… (Romans 13:11-14)

 

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