Cel­e­brat­ing fame: Amer­ica hooked on mer­it­less new stars

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Gabriella Bos­ton

Merit-based fame seems to have fallen out of fash­ion. Just look at the num­ber of re­al­ity-television stars a la San­jaya Malakar of “Amer­i­can Idol” or the ubiq­ui­tous Paris Hil­ton. They’re ev­ery­where — in mag­a­zines, on the In­ter­net, on television and even in main­stream news­pa­pers — and what ex­actly is their tal­ent or spe­cial skill?

“It doesn’t mat­ter any­more. We don’t care about what peo­ple are fa­mous for,” says Jake Halpern, au­thor of “Fame Junkies: The Hid­den Truths Be­hind Amer­ica’s Fa­vorite Ad­dic­tion.”

In­stead, we’re in­ter­ested in celebrity life­styles and the idea that fame and celebrity are open to ev­ery­one, Mr. Halpern says.

That’s where some­one like San­jaya comes in.

“His tal­ent was ob­vi­ously de­bat­able,” says J.D. Hey­man, se­nior ed­i­tor of Peo­ple mag­a­zine, “but there was a harm­less and en­dear­ing qual­ity about him that ap­pealed to peo­ple who vote for ‘Amer­i­can Idol.’ ”

He also per­son­i­fied the ev­ery­man who mo­men­tar­ily is cat­a­pulted into the celebrity strato­sphere, Mr. Hey­man adds. We like that. It cap­tures our imag­i­na­tion, he says. If San­jaya can do it, maybe we can, too.

Af­ter be­ing voted off the show, San­jaya was at the White House Cor­re­spon­dents Din­ner, where he signed an au­to­graph for Gov. Eliot Spitzer, New York Demo­crat, and he ap­peared on dozens of television shows, in­clud­ing “To­day” and “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”

Other — even less tal­ented — par­tic­i­pants on “Amer­i­can Idol” went on to make ap­pear­ances on ABC’s “Jimmy Kim­mel Live” et al. Re­mem­ber Ken­neth “Bush Baby” Briggs? He was ridiculed by “Idol” judge Si­mon Cow­ell for hav­ing pe­cu­liar fa­cial fea­tures and for his singing (in)abil­ity but later got plenty of ink and air­time to talk about his “Idol” ex­pe­ri­ence.

“In some of th­ese venues, there is a quid pro quo. You get some kind of pos­i­tive fame in the end,” Mr. Halpern says.

Hu­mil­i­a­tion ap­par­ently is a small price to pay.

The venues? There are many more than there used to be, which helps bol­ster the idea that any­one can be­come fa­mous. Aside from re­al­ity television (where, let’s be hon­est, rel­a­tively few get face time) there is, for ex­am­ple, the In­ter­net’s YouTube — a video-shar­ing Web site — home to many a celebrity wannabe.

“New me­dia tech­nol­ogy has be­come a fame-seek­ing de­vice,” says Jean Twenge, au­thor of “Gen­er­a­tion Me,” a book about the ubernar­cis­sism that rules in younger gen­er­a­tions. “Now, al­most ev­ery­one can have one minute of fame.”

This is par­tic­u­larly ap­peal­ing to the latest crop of young­sters, who, ac­cord­ing to Ms. Twenge’s re­search, are much more at­ten­tion-seek­ing than gen­er­a­tions be­fore them.

“Be­ing able to get the at­ten­tion from so many peo­ple — peo­ple you don’t even know — feeds your nar- cis­sism,” says Ms. Twenge, who holds a doc­tor­ate in psy­chol­ogy and teaches at San Diego State Univer­sity.

And the al­lure — merit-based or not — of fame?

“I think it’s got to do with the [fact that] the re­wards that go with fame in this coun­try are very se­duc­tive,” says pop-cul­ture guru Bob Thompson, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Television and Pop­u­lar Cul­ture at Syra­cuse Univer­sity. “Good ho­tels, first in line and the slob­ber­ing at­ten­tion. [. . . ] A lot of hu­man be­ings crave this slob­ber­ing.”

Even some­one like Miss Hil­ton wouldn’t have reached the strato­sphere of fame with­out the In­ter­net, where her 2003 sex video was viewed widely, Mr. Thompson says.

“Be­fore cable and the In­ter­net, the sex tape wouldn’t have had a place to play,” Mr. Thompson says, “but the In­ter­net gave it in­ter­na­tional play.”

Mer­it­less fame, though, doesn’t seem to have longevity for most.

“Take Tina Wes­son,” Mr. Thompson says. Tina who? She was the win­ner of the sec­ond sea­son of then-wildly pop­u­lar “Sur­vivor.” That sea­son pre­miere set a record for re­al­ity-show view­er­ship.

“The num­ber of peo­ple who have en­dur­ing fame is alarm­ingly small,” Mr. Thompson says.

This doesn’t jibe well with peo­ple’s view of their chances at fame — par­tic­u­larly young peo­ple’s out­look.

“The de­press­ing thing is, most peo­ple say they want to be fa­mous, but chances are one-hun­dredth of one per­cent,” Mr. Thompson says. “The math just doesn’t come out.”

The idea of be­com­ing fa­mous is alive and well par­tic­u­larly among teenagers. Mr. Halpern sur­veyed sev­eral hun­dred teens in Rochester, N.Y., and found that most girls, given the op­tion of be­com­ing stronger, smarter, fa­mous or more beau­ti­ful, picked — you guessed it — fa­mous. Television-watch­ing teens are the most fame-hun­gry.

“The prob­lem with fame is that it’s exclusive,” Mr. Thompson says. “In re­al­ity TV, maybe 500 peo­ple get face time [ev­ery year]. They would never have got­ten a chance be­fore re­al­ity TV. But it’s still 500 out of 300 mil­lion peo­ple. That’s noth­ing.”

While new me­dia has in­creased the num­ber of venues for achiev­ing fame — or in­famy — the idea of tal­ent­less fame is noth­ing new, Mr. Thompson says. Take the Cherry Sis­ters, a vaudeville act in the late 1800s.

“They sounded like cats in a bag, but they were top-liner acts,” Mr. Thompson says. “They were fa­mous for be­ing bad, es­sen­tially.”

He says there al­ways have been va­can­cies at the fringe of celebrity for nov­elty acts and train wrecks, such as the late Anna Ni­cole Smith.

“She was a freak show, a par­ody of Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe, a ‘Satur­day Night Live’ act of Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe,” he says, adding that we like hav­ing celebri­ties like that around so we can “mock them and feel su­pe­rior to them.”

Re­al­ity shows on which Joe Schmoe eats worms and Jane Doe gets drunk and naked also are part of this fringe freak-show celebrity.

How­ever, for sev­eral decades — 1920 to 1970 — the main­stream me­dia was very pu­ri­tan­i­cal, Mr. Thompson says, and there were few venues for freak and fringe celebri­ties.

“Some of it started to re-emerge be­cause of cable,” he says. “It was more of a re­turn to nor­mal than any­thing else.”

This “nor­malcy” will pre­vail for the fore­see­able fu­ture, Ms. Twenge pre­dicts. She thinks the feed­back loop or fu­sion of nar­cis­sism and new me­dia tech­nol­ogy will con­tinue. The draw­back is that fame-seek­ing teens likely will get a rude awak­en­ing.

“When the rest of the world doesn’t treat you like roy­alty, you get dis­ap­pointed, de­pressed,” Ms. Twenge says.

Mr. Halpern calls our ob­ses­sion with fame trou­bling. Mr. Thompson says he, too, is trou­bled by it, but not sur­prised.

But enough gloom and doom. How about San­jaya? Will he make it? Does his fame have any longevity?

“He has a 50,000-watt smile. He was a pretty kid; he had an ef­fem­i­nate voice,” Mr. Thompson says. “And it’s not like he was a bad singer. He re­ally had some pre­teen charisma that the oth­ers didn’t have. He had the weak­est voice in the fi­nals, but the judges still put him in the top 24.”

Mr. Thompson pre­dicts that San­jaya will need a vo­cal coach, but so did Madonna, and for her, su­per­star­dom fol­lowed.

“ ‘Amer­i­can Idol’ ac­tu­ally pro­duces stars. Be­ing able to win ‘Big Brother’ has very lit­tle to do with be­ing on a sit­com,” Mr. Thompson says.

True. Hav­ing a bad tem­per or be­ing able eat a bowl of spi­ders on “Fear Fac­tor” might be con­sid­ered any­thing but an as­set on the set of a sit­com.

Un­war­ranted at­ten­tion: Paris Hil­ton has no dis­cernible tal­ent what­so­ever, yet mil­lions of Amer­i­cans fol­low her ev­ery move.

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