Nelson Mandela: Superstar

The South African leader, perhaps the best-known person on the planet at the time of his death Thursday, earned his fame.

A slew of top actors portrayed Nelson Mandela over the years. But none – not even Sidney Poitier and Morgan Freeman – approached the stardom earned and exuded by the former South African leader.

Mandela might have been the best-known person on Earth at the time of his death Thursday at age 95. He almost certainly was among the most beloved.

In an age when notions of celebrity too often mutate into mindless celebrations of nonsense, Mandela's dignified, momentous life serves as a sobering and inspiring reminder of the true meaning and potential impact of fame.

His long, arduous journey from activist to prisoner to president of his torn homeland is the stuff of epic poems. Only unlike the tales of ancient times, Mandela's story played out before the world.

There was no CNN when Mandela was arrested in 1962 and eventually damned to Robben Island. He emerged a free man 27 years later to a more connected planet with a mass media that chronicled his path to the Nobel Peace Prize and the South African presidency in near-real time – sealing his status as an international icon.

For many, Mandela lived up to the legend that built during his long imprisonment in deed as well as in person. Those of us lucky enough to get a glimpse of him during his triumphant 1990 visit to New York can never forget the energy Mandela radiated through the throngs as he rode up the Canyon of Heroes. He later toured Harlem and packed Yankee Stadium, where he declared, “I am a Yankee” to thunderous cheers.

A similar, if virtual, energy surged online Thursday as Facebook posts and tweets heralded the sad news of his passing and gave voice to a flood of tributes spanning nations and generations. Still, the #RIPNelsonMandela and #Madiba hashtags couldn’t knock the silly hoopla over a tasteless tweet supposedly posted by Paris Hilton off Twitter’s trending topics list Thursday night.

It’s worth noting during this reality TV era, when fame and infamy are sometimes sadly indistinguishable, Mandela lived through real hardship that he overcame to help change the bitter reality in the land of apartheid.

Still, he knew he needed to wield the power afforded by his renown carefully, cognizant that unbridled popularity could backfire.

"That was one of the things that worried me – to be raised to the position of a semi-god – because then you are no longer a human being,” he once said. “I wanted to be known as Mandela, a man with weaknesses, some of which are fundamental, and a man who is committed."

Those are wise, unscripted words from a man who wasn’t an actor but became the star of his own story – and became famous for all the right reasons. 

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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