I learned about the latest in celebrity suicide the way I always seem to these days: through a Hollywood Reporter headline popping up in my email. It was 5:30am in Los Angeles.
My eyes scanned the headline about Anthony Bourdain dying at 61. I did acknowledge it. Then I looked down at my next email before doubling back to read it again, as if my brain wasn’t ready to accept what my eyes had seen.
The news hit hard. We like Tony. We love Tony. Tony is one of us. A resistance fighter, a romantic, a reader, a writer, a traveller, a gourmand and a pirate. More importantly, he is someone we badly need in these times: the rare truth-teller in an epoch of deceit.
It’s difficult to swallow that he could be gone so soon. Our battle is yet to be won. It’s like losing a dragon while the Night King cackles.
It was this craving for veracity that propelled Bourdain beyond the mantle of your typical food celebrity. He seemed to have a preternaturally honed bullshit detector paired with a complete inability to speak anything but the truth.
Materializing with Kitchen Confidential like a 6’4” skeleton from the restaurant industry’s closet, he scathed the polished image of the professional restaurant to disclose what was actually in that Sunday morning buffet and what the line cooks were really up to in the walk-in. Scandalizing the industry and titillating readers with his exposé, Bourdain wasn’t afraid to turn his brutal honesty back on himself, revealing the addictions and darkness that often consumed him.
Even recent episodes of his CNN show, Parts Unknown, including a tight-focus on psychiatry in Argentina, revealed a lingering despair in a voice so many looked up to and dreamed of embodying. He was not one to clown for the cameras if he wasn’t feeling it. What you got was seemingly always the real thing.
But while Bourdain was never afraid to bear it all, often getting visibly drunk, professing a lifelong love of cannabis and freely admitting he wanted to make love to Angelina Jolie, all on TV, his honest expressions in recent years became ever more vital and selfless.
In his role as a reporter, Bourdain increasingly felt like a crucial figure in the resistance against corporate domination, greed, authoritarianism and general douche-dom.
No mere food show, Bourdain transcended many of the lies inherent in tourism pamphlets and resort websites. Rather than sneer and swagger for the cameras while scarfing down tacos, he used his celebrity and CNN platform to give voice to the unseen and under-represented.
His episode on Jamaica forwent attempts to pinpoint the island’s best jerk chicken to concentrate on the not-as-sexy, not-expected issue of how reduced beach access affects locals. His latest episode on Puerto Rico dealt with the economic strife and devastation riddling the island, while a memorable episode on Iran sought to crush the stereotypes fueling bellicose talk at home.
We didn't love Tony because he was some food guy. We loved Tony because he was human and resembled us in all our aims and faults and refused to ignore the plight of other people to boost his celebrity or ego.
With humor and poetic insight, Bourdain sought to stamp out the bullshit we’ve been sold and undermine the power and propaganda of Big Brother. For this, he was, to me, and untold others, a hero more than a TV or food personality. With his cutting honesty and gonzo-laced wariness, he was a hero uniquely suited to our times.
The pop culture landscape of the last 30 years is starting to resemble a sepulcher. It feels like that twist in the movie where the hero dies and the bad guys escape unpunished. Most of my heroes have died of drug overdoses or killed themselves.
Even so, there’s no getting used to this twist of the knife. And ultimately, it’s hard to really know what to say about losing Anthony Bourdain.
Except we’re really going to miss him, now more than ever, as we continue to face anyone attempting to grind us down.