It used to be talent that garnered someone fame.
I think back to the walls of my bedroom back when I was in high school. I didn't have a mother who refused to let me tape things to the paint, something I appreciated like crazy, so my room was plastered with images. There was a huge staggered collage of photos of my friends. It was back before cell phones, when you couldn't flip through a photo gallery with a distracted thumb. Photos back then were kept in frames or placed neatly into albums, protected by a plastic cover that made a Velcro sound when it was pulled back. I had albums too, but I liked to see my pictures constantly so I kept them on my wall.
Surrounding the people I knew were people I didn't know, but I loved them also. I had the cover of a magazine – I think it was Time – where Jodie Foster sat looking intent and serious, the bluish light from a projector washing across her face, her hair lit from the back. "A Director Is Born," said the headline, and I fell asleep every night with that proclamation above my head. I had pictures of other people too: River Phoenix, whom I'd once met and still mourned; Bruce Springsteen when he still had a beard; Jon Bon Jovi, back when I coveted his hair, highlights and lowlights and all; Luke Perry (it was 1992, motherfucker – cut me some slack); and that cover of Vogue where all of the supermodels of the moment wore Gap tees and jeans instead of couture and posed around a ladder.
The room was a cornucopia of my interests splayed across carnation pink walls.
The people I’ve liked have always been somewhat eclectic, but the commonality that tied it all together was that there was some kind of talent that each person possessed. I responded to good- looking people, sure. But I responded equally to their artistry. And it seemed that back then, when the world made more sense, people who were on television had landed there because they could act. People were on stage because they could sing or play an instrument – and some could even do both.
It was a simpler time.
Evolution of entertainment – of what is now considered entertainment – has morphed, almost beyond comprehension. Back in the Talent Days, reality television had not yet taken over our airwaves. The Real World had just started, and I watched it faithfully, but producers and networks didn’t know then that reality was a genre all its own, that it could be produced on a dime, and that the general public would turn nobodies into temporary superstars. It was a time when people didn’t think they could and should be famous simply because their personal lives were interesting, especially after they were hammered.
Like everyone, I move with the times, and I was somewhat fascinated by the boom of reality television and how quickly, once it started, that it took hold of the public consciousness. The first show I remember tuning in for religiously was Survivor. I watched that first finale with my sister and her husband. It was event programming; we even made snacks. And as I consumed spinach and artichoke dip – I make the best spinach and artichoke dip – I remember thinking that this show and this concept were kind of remarkable.
What I didn’t know was that the participants would become temporary stars, that the entire country would quickly end up knowing Richard Hatch by name.
The first time I saw Newlyweds, I had no idea who Jessica Simpson was and I might have heard of 98 Degrees, but I couldn’t identify one of their songs if the entire thing played during a round of Name That Tune and I wouldn’t have recognized Nick Lachey if he fell from the sky and landed smack on top of me. But I’ve got those days when I don’t feel like leaving the house, and when I saw the show, I settled in.
Jessica Simpson was beautiful, golden and glowing, but like everybody else who tuned in, what made the greatest impression was that she came off as incredibly stupid and spoiled. I can recall turning to my boyfriend and saying, “I don’t know what kind of career this girl has, but this show is going to destroy it. She’s coming off as an idiot. People are not going to buy a single thing she puts out now.”
I was wrong. I was so wrong.
It turns out I had read the cultural climate incorrectly, so much so that if I had been a weatherman, I would have been fired. Seemed people liked idiots. Her willingness to have no intelligence or to feign a lack of intelligence is what turned her into a bona fide star.
As soon as it became evident that being outrageous or being provocative would bring shards of fame, people jumped on that bandwagon and never gave a single thought as to who was driving it. Most of the fame the participants of reality television have received has been negative or fleeing. The contracts they must sign to appear on any of these shows go on for pages and exclude the network and the producers – and basically God – for any calamity, emotional or physical, that could befall whoever signs it. It is often flatly stated that your name and your likeness can be employed in any way those in control see fit.
I’m stunned at how many reality programs grace our airwaves. There’s always a new one that pops up that I’ve never heard of, but suffice it to say that if you have any sort of interest in the following, there’s a program out there for you to watch:
· Families with 19 children who wear chastity belts
· Little people who live in LA
· The ex-Amish
· The brothers of a star
· The sisters of a star
· F-list celebrities suffering from marital discord
· Insufferable rich people
· Insufferable poor people
· A mentally unstable dance instructor
· A verbally abusive chef
· Pawn shop employees
· Toni Braxton
These shows come and these shows go and the participants receive a semblance of fame in the process and they show up on generic red carpets and they pose like they matter and they pretend that, in the eyes and the mind of the public, that they will always matter. The attention that comes with having a camera pointed at your face and having a microphone pack strapped to your jeans has led to a new form of validation – and when the show ends, when the camera leaves, when some off-screen producer is not asking you your every thought on every mundane event in your life, you have to chase that feeling, reclaim that validation.
And for some, it seems nothing is off-limits in the quest to stay relevant.
The variable about reality television that is startling to me these days in the new trend to choose to put utter heartbreak out into the world for every person to witness. It is betrayal as a career move, and engaging in it and being compensated for it is so odd a choice that I am being completely serious when I say that those involved should be studied by a team of experts not on the network’s payroll and that I have no doubt that at some point in the very near future, psychologists will add a new disorder to the DSM guide that delineates the ailments suffered by people who were once in the shadows of the limelight before it disappeared to shine dimly on somebody else.
The new formula for reality that's at work these days is like a fucked up math equation:
One or two celebrities teetering on the edge of public oblivion + a cheating scandal x confused, wide-eyed children who are more familiar with a boom mic than a Lego - any and all personal boundaries = a reality show.
Look! I've learned how to do math!
Earlier this year, this insane equation was brought to high-definition life courtesy of Tori Spelling in a horrific, cringe-worthy series called True Tori. The breakdown of her marriage was the crux of the show. She cried deep racking sobs that rattled her thin frame so badly I could almost hear the rumble of her bones reverberate throughout my house. She'd look into the camera during interviews and give what she probably thought was a brave smile, but the smile never reached her eyes and the corners of her lips would quiver, and it would make me so uncomfortable that I'd pick up my phone and go to The New York Times website and read about something less horrible than what I was watching, like an article about terrorism or hate crimes or the collapse of our environment.
She’s back in a few weeks for a second season. She’s willing to do this show again, even as her children are getting older and can see what it is she is putting them through, even though the show was skewered by every critic on the planet. And just to make sure people will tune in, she teased on the new commercial for the show that she might be pregnant.
My male friends have a better chance of being pregnant than this ninety-pound woman does, but logic doesn’t really matter in the quest for viewership. Neither, apparently, does self-respect.
One of the things I find so crazy about Spelling’s show is that she continues to talk about how she wants to be a successful actress. She had some sitcom on ABC Family last year that has already been cancelled, which is not surprising since I think more people have watched me brush my teeth than watched her show, but I wonder if she realizes that it’s her reality shows that are contributing tremendously to her lack of success in acting. How, after she has put her entire life on the airwaves for consumption, could any viewer buy her as a character on a fictional program? How can anyone possibly separate her real life from a fictional persona?
Ever realize that the most successful actors around are people who guard their personal lives? There might be a wedding picture that gets released or a photo of a new baby that appears on a magazine cover – the payment for which will go to charity – but that’s it. You might know that Leonardo DiCaprio exclusively dates gorgeous models, but that’s kind of all we know about his private life, and he will only do press when he has a project to promote, and even then his comments are guarded. That he remains somewhat of an enigma is exactly why we buy him as all of the characters he plays. We don’t see him walk onscreen and think, “It’s really too bad that his girlfriend cheated on him and he cried in his kitchen and I love the sofa that he has in his foyer.” We don’t know that shit about him. If I had to bet, I’d say we will never know those things about him, and it’s precisely why he will remain a successful, constantly working actor.
After the Spelling horror came the show about Leann Rimes and her husband, Eddie Cibrian. They got together just like Tori Spelling and her husband did: both married to other people, they met on the set of a bullshit TV movie, fell massively in love, cheated on their spouses, left their spouses, and promoted their new relationship with more vigor than they have ever promoted another project. And now here they appeared on VH1, a channel still famous for helping Flavor Flav find true love.
I watched their show twice. It was shot at a house that wasn’t really their home. Their banter seemed tinged with resignation on his side and fear on hers. They made nasty comments about the ex-wife he had left, a woman who has also capitalized on being cheated on by nabbing herself a prime spot on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and churning out two books. I think that Rimes and Cibrian were partially hoping that the show would make them seem relatable to those who had judged them, but I can’t help thinking that their main motivation was a paycheck, which they were getting by forfeiting all privacy, and the tremendous need for more attention. They got a wave of notoriety for their affair, but then other people had affairs and got pregnant and had mental breakdowns on city street corners and eventually the reporters from US Weekly stopped paying daily attention to these two philanders and I think that they couldn’t fully live without that attention – so they got themselves a show that highlighted their lives, not their talent.
Just last week, another betrayed woman wept her way onto the airwaves. Kendra Wilkinson first rose to reality fame as an eighteen-year-old who was one of Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends. Her show, The Girls Next Door, was actually one of my favorites. I have mentally beaten myself up for liking a program that showed an eight-year-old purse his shriveled lips to kiss a child the same age as my students, but I did find the rest of the show fizzy fun. I never missed an episode.
Though there was glaring subtext that wasn’t hard to read that illustrated how much Holly, Hefner’s main girlfriend, hated Kendra, for the most part, everyone got along on that show. There were never brawls. It was – gulp – classy, at least as far as realty television goes.
When Kendra got her own spinoff, I didn’t watch. I never found her all that interesting. Her show was initially on E!, the network that aired The Girls Next Door, and then it moved to the WE network. It was there that I saw commercials for the new season, a season that would revolve around her being cheated on. By her husband. With a transsexual. While she was eight months pregnant.
You can almost see the producers dancing a jubilant jig upon hearing about Kendra’s world crashing in on her. Perversely, I get that reaction; they’re producers of a reality show. What I don’t get is that Kendra has given interview after interview to various news outlets talking about her pain. She agreed to let it all be filmed. She actually said that she felt better having the cameras around. It is all something that baffles and frightens me.
Do none of these people crave privacy? Do they not realize that you can’t, after inviting the public into your bedroom and your bathroom, turn around and ever say “No Comment” again and expect that wish to be respected? Do they not think it’s beyond fucked up that I know what their beddinglooks like? Do they not believe that they can exist and prosper and find themselves without a lens pointing directly at their tear ducts?
This is a formula that will not end anytime soon. There are financial gains for all involved that momentarily outweigh making choices that won’t land an entire family in therapy for decades. There are more celebrity news outlets than ever, and every person roaming the streets has a phone with a camera built in. More and more cheating scandals will be exposed. More and more people who had a fleeting brush with reality fame will be betrayed. And I’m willing to bet my box sets of Twin Peaks and Lost and The Wire – real shows that star real actors who have real careers who have maintained a real sense of privacy – that almost all of these emotionally-destroyed semi-stars will reach out the hand that does not have a wad of tear-stained Kleenex clenched inside of it and grab a contract for a new show.
Attention, after all, has become our society’s greatest commodity.