Cory Monteith: the Glee star's death is an all-too familiar teen idol plotline | Hadley Freeman

Every generation has its death and for many teenagers the death of a celebrity is how they learn about mortality

The night before it was announced that Cory Monteith, the 31-year-old star of the hugely popular and very fun TV show Glee, was found alone and dead in a hotel room in Vancouver, I was thinking about River Phoenix. This October, it will be 20 years since Phoenix, then 23, died on a sidewalk in LA while his sister Rainbow and girlfriend Samantha Mathis stood helplessly by and his little brother frantically called 911. Those of a younger generation may need reminding that River was Joaquin's older brother. Those of my generation and older will doubtless be reeling at the realisation it has been two decades since Phoenix went from being one of the world's most famously promising actors to one of its infamously dead.

Hollywood loves recycling plotlines, and one plotline that never goes away is that of the tragic teenage pin-up. That this story has become such a cliche only adds to the tragedy and sense of waste when it returns, again and again. The autopsy on Monteith has not yet been released but if drugs did play a part in his death – and that is not unthinkable, as he had struggled with substance abuse since his teens and recently left rehab for the second time – this would place him in a tragically popular pantheon. Off the top of my head, four teen icons have died from substance abuse in the past five years: Brad Renfro, Heath Ledger, Corey Haim, Brittany Murphy and one can include Amy Winehouse in there, too, already calcified into the status of a legend.

For millions of teenagers, the announcement of Monteith's death was as shocking as Phoenix's and Kurt Cobain's were for the now 30 and 40somethings, as Ledger's was for today's 20somethings. Every generation has its death and, for many teenagers, the death of a teen icon is how they learn about mortality. While it is true that social media can encourage the fetishisation of collective grief, equally, just because it is expressed in 140 characters, does not mean it isn't truly felt.

Looking at that list of teen icons, and then including some of the others who have died brutally and prematurely in the past 20 years, such as Phoenix and Cobain, it's interesting to note how many are male. The media have always been and are increasingly fascinated with self-destructive women in the public eye, with the National Enquirer once keeping a "death watch" on Lindsay Lohan. Self-destructive young men generally slip past the media's salacious radar unless they actively court the tabloids, Pete Doherty style. One can only imagine the paparazzi harassment Monteith's co-star and long-term girlfriend, Lea Michele, would have suffered had she been the one coming out of rehab. Monteith, by contrast, barely made an imprint on even TMZ.com. This not only makes the deaths of the young men more of a surprise to the public but also underlines how the media treats young women as objects of voyeuristic prey and young men as a backdrop.

Part of what makes Monteith's death so sad is that he always came across as a thoughtful, nice guy. This is not something one can say about many teen idols who die young. He spoke out against bullying, homophobia and talked often about how he hoped his recent stint in rehab from addiction would inspire others.

Most celebrities struggle with the disjunct between their public image and their private selves. This is exacerbated for teen icons, who are often selling a vision of life to young fans that is far from the speeded-up lives they live. By all accounts, Phoenix tussled with the contrast between the "whacked-out hippy" side of his life that preached veganism and the side that took heroin in nightclubs. Others, like poor Brad Renfro and Corey Haim, are dumped when their personal chaos is deemed to overshadow and undermine their professional work.

Monteith, unusually, tried to tie the two sides of his life together, refusing to deny or be defined by either Glee's clean-cut image or his problems with drugs: "You see this young, all-American quarterback-looking dude on the show … but I felt I had to step in at some point and relate to people my truth," he said in a recent TV interview, looking the picture of apple-pie good health, which he knew was a distracting cover.

When young entertainers die, it is tempting to look back and see eerie premonitions. Probably the most well-known is James Dean's public service announcement advocating safe driving, made just 13 days before he was killed in a car crash: "Take it easy driving! One of those lives you might save might be mine," Dean says jocularly as he walks off camera for the last time.

For Monteith, there's Glee's defining musical moment: the cast's performance of Don't Stop Believing in the pilot episode. The show makes the common mistake of thinking this is an optimistic song because of the title, whereas it is really the opposite: the story of lonely people desperately flinging themselves towards success in the belief it will save them, making it an apt song for aspiring teen icons. "Some will win!" belts out Michele during one of their duets. The camera swings round to Monteith, close-up: "Some will lose," he replies, grinning like the naughty little boy he once was.

There will never be a shortage of beautiful young people who crave fame. Whether it's the need for fame that bespeaks an inner emptiness that courts risk, or something about the fame itself that creates an unhappiness, which in turn necessitates oblivion, cannot be fully known. As Monteith's fans tearfully await the results of his autopsy, another slew of pretty young boys are grappling to take his place in the spotlight. Some will win, and some will lose.

Contributor

Hadley Freeman

The GuardianTramp

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