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Archives for Celebrity and Fame

The Real Deal


Americans act like they love to get access to the real thing. Not the fake plastic manufactured version, but the real deal. Reality shows, gossip blogs that rip the lid off Hollywood, autobiographies of former drug addicts: we eat it up even though much of it is positioned, scripted and about as “real” as the special effects in your average blockbuster. Still, sometimes it seems the worst charge you can hurl at some famous people is that they’re a “phony.”

Why does this charge seem to stick some times and other times doesn’t even come up?

In part because we assume that the more “authentic” view is the better one. Rapper Vanilla Ice was unmasked as a mere wannabe gangsta, while 50 Cent survived getting shot nine times. Compare the lyrics of their respective hit singles “Ice Ice Baby” and “Candy Shop” and then try to figure out which is the more thoughtful lyric.

Of course, our focus on authenticity in our popular culture is flawed. Gangsta rap and punk are supposed to be authentic, but bubble gum pop and teeny boppers are fake. There are music fans that don’t care, listening to whatever strikes their fancy, and I suppose you could charge that they are lacking in artistic values. But you could just as easily charge certain discriminating hipsters and intellectuals as being snobs.

This quest for authenticity – which provides the framework for arguing that a novel about gang life is not as compelling as an autobiographical account of rising up from the street – leads to cases like James Frey and Margaret B. Jones (a.k.a. Margaret Seltzer), authors who mixed personal facts, accounts from others and a heavy dose of artistic license. The crime was being caught lying, but why did they feel that an autobiography was superior to an acknowledged work of fiction?

The world of politics isn’t immune from this tendency.

I’m thinking of Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. Once Gore got the “phony” tag slapped on him, and that label stuck, then everything he did and said got viewed through that prism. He was supposedly a congenital liar, who claimed he invented the Internet and was the inspiration for Love Story. He was a fake, who relied on consultants who relied on consultants to dress him and help him be an Alpha male. He was an opportunist, who manufactured a ridiculous crusade around unproven facts about the environment. It was the same for Kerry, far beyond the successful Swift Boat project that turned a war record against a military veteran. Kerry also had the windsurfing, Lambeau Field and Swiss cheese on his Philly cheesesteak. Both fakes, phonies and opportunists.

You may recall that part of George W. Bush’s campaign strategy in 2000 was that he was authentic. Love him or hate him, what you see is what you get. He doesn’t put on airs. He doesn’t pretend to be what he isn’t. Or so the theory goes. But again, it’s much like raw gangsta versus bubbly boy bands: Is the “fake” artist worse than the “real” one? If so, why? I believe that the charges against Gore were false, sometimes manufactured and sometimes overblown. And Bush, of course, is the son of a wealthy family of New England WASPs who happened to have settled in Texas to do business – not as he’d have us believe a true Texan, through and through.

In this election cycle, you can see the “phony” charge bubbling under the surface. Were Hillary Clinton’s tears in New Hampshire real or fake? Is Barack Obama a visionary or an empty suit? Did John Edwards’ $400 haircut show he wasn’t sincere about fighting poverty? Mind you, John McCain gets to reverse course on most of his stands from eight years ago, but that’s okay, since he’s no phony. He’s the real deal, the captain of the Straight Talk Express, right? Or so the theory goes.

The “phony” charge can be incredibly insidious. Once you get stuck with it, everything proves you’re a phony. It reminds me of the work of Dr. John Gottman, whose studies of marital stability and divorce prediction was profiled in Malcolm Gladwell’s best-seller Blink. Gottman says in that book that people are typically in one of two states in a relationship. In “positive sentiment override,” positive emotion acts as a buffer. One spouse will do something potentially irritating and the other spouse will let it slide. In “negative sentiment override,” even a relatively neutral act is perceived as negative. In this state, Gottman says, “[if a] spouse does something positive, it’s a selfish person doing a positive thing.”

Perhaps this reminds you of some events in the current Democratic contest for the presidential nominee. It’s a contest that is partly for who can be more real and authentic. One side is convinced that their person is the genuine article, while the other candidate is a charlatan and a fraud. Every word out of their mouth proves it, whether it concerns the sermons of Dr. Jeremiah Wright or peacemaking trips to Bosnia.

As for me, I’m not so convinced that we can ever really know what goes on in a famous person’s head. “Authenticity” is low on my list of qualifications, partly because of the difficulty of judging this state and partly because I’m not sure how much it really matters. With politicians, I tend to judge them like songs. Does it have a good beat and can you dance to it?

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 5:13 AM | Permalink

Days of Wine and Roses


There’s no denying that there’s a relationship between performers and audience, on and off-stage. Performers give us enjoyment, insight, entertainment, enlightenment. We give them financial rewards, adulation, the pleasures of someone who will listen. But what do they owe us and what is our responsibility to them? Is this just quid pro quo or do we owe each other more?

Let us take, for example, British singer Amy Winehouse. In many ways, the last year has been very good for her: best-selling album, hit singles, five Grammys. But she’s become just as well-known for drinking and drug-taking (here and here are just two examples). So do we link these two sides together – the talented musician and the troubled woman – or keep them apart? By supporting the singer, am I enabling the addict?

“Back to Black”
Amy Winehouse

She’s hardly the first musician with what are now politely called “issues”. In the 1950′s, it was an open secret that many talented Jazz musicians abused drugs and alcohol. Some of their followers thought these substances contributed to their art. Nobody seemed to shun them for their failings. The late 1960s and early ’70s saw a parade of rock musicians who burned brightly. Some died and some survived. Again, there were those who thought these personal habits contributed to their music.

But we live with a parade of headlines and video of star-powered train wrecks and celebrity “acting out” on a weekly basis. And it’s natural to feel one’s patience snap at some point (say, when a performer runs offstage to vomit). So, let’s go straight to the bottom line: Does Amy Winehouse deserve to be “rewarded” with awards, critical acclaim, the adoration of audiences, and the financial rewards of music sales and concert tours? Are we complicit in her behavior?

The balancing act is difficult. If someone we know acts in a way that’s harmful – to himself/herself or others – we can argue that we have a responsibility to not support that individual. Otherwise, we have to bear some of the responsibility for their actions. In the case of the addict, the dividing line between gifted and tormented is fuzzy – note this anecdote where Winehouse tells her producer Mark Ronson about the incident that led to the song “Rehab”. He quickly goes from being troubled to noticing that Winehouse has come up with a great idea for a song.

But I can just as easily argue the opposite point of view: It’s a dangerous spiral when you don’t separate art from artist. You can end up assessing everything from music to movies to fashion based on whether you feel that you can support the creator behind those works. Must everything pass an acid test of social responsibility?

Sometimes these choices seem like no-brainers, but it’s a sliding scale from black/white to shades of grey. When Ike Turner died year, the headline in the L.A. Times read: “Rock pioneer was known for abusing wife Tina Turner.” He spent years in bitterness because that sort of headline summed up his long music career. Gary Glitter was charged as a sex offender and his career fell apart. But these are serious crimes against others; it’s easy to agree that O.J. Simpson shouldn’t get our support. Lindsay Lohan is ridiculed for her rehab efforts; Robert Downey Jr. seemed to be supported for his multiple efforts. Amy Winehouse caroused, stumbled and fell. She’s done some time in rehab and we’ll see if she changes her ways.

Suppose you find that the guy behind your favorite pop culture product is a racist or once killed a kid while driving drunk. How can you in good conscience support such a person? Does this mean we have to investigate the background of everybody? And what do we do when we figure out who the bad guys are?

In the end, it seems that we each have to make that decision for ourselves. Does the behavior rise to a sufficient level that I should consider withholding my entertainment dollars? Or do I decide that an actor might be a nutjob, but I love his movies? It seems like a fairly tricky calculation to me and I am loath to offer easy answers. Sometimes, pop culture asks us to pay a price.

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 4:08 PM | Permalink

Tornante, Indeed


Once upon a time – a time not that long ago, one I am old enough to remember – Michael Eisner, the man who ran The Walt Disney Company, was a feared and respected media executive. Arianna Huffington was the wife of a wealthy man spending hard on a run for the U.S. House of Representatives to represent California’s 22nd District.

But, as they say, the Internet changes everything. Last week, I attended the WebbyConnect conference, the first summit organized by the folks behind the Webby Awards. Huffington and Eisner were among the participants and the differences in how they were received by attendees are instructive in what it takes to make it in today’s environment.

Author Marc Prensky has popularized the idea of “digital natives” versus “digital immigrants” to distinguish between those people born into the Digital World, who are completely familiar with its workings, and those who have had to enter into it and learn the geography. There are young people who don’t know a world without color television, remote controls, digital cable, the Internet, high-speed data, personal computers, and so on. Prensky argues that these younger people “think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors,” because they were born into the Digital World and are native speakers of its inherent language. There are also older people who have learned to make the transition into the new world, even though that world may not always be completely natural for them.

In theory, Eisner is the big dog of the two. After stints at ABC and Paramount, he went to Disney, which he ran with an iron fist. He was forced out two years ago and is now playing in the digital space. His investment firm The Tornante Company launched Vuguru, which has had some success with the online series Prom Queen. Arianna Huffington came to public notice as the wife of millionaire Michael Huffington as he ran for Congress as a conservative. After his defeat and their divorce, Huffington got into political commentary, teaming up with the likes of Al Franken and Bill Maher, ran for governor of California (really, a book tour in disguise) and now takes progressive reformist stances. In the Spring of 2005, with backing and support from former Time Warner executive Ken Lerner, she launched The Huffington Post, a website offering news and group blogging, which quickly grew in popularity.

These two are both unlikely independent media moguls of the digital age. They regularly hobnob with the rich & famous. Eisner told a story of biking through steep Italian hills when his company was being launched; “tornante” was on the road signs, indicating hairpin curves. Huffington dropped such establishment names as historian Arthur Schlesinger and Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel (the real world model for the Ari character in the HBO show Entourage). And even though Huffington and Eisner are roughly equal in terms of star power, the response of the crowd was very different. The crowd seemed to like Huffington just fine and there seemed to be respect as well. But the response to Eisner was decidedly cool. Fun was made of the hairpin turns. Some thought Eisner was lecturing them. He came across as old-fashioned.

Huffington talked a good game. She said the Old Media had Attention Deficit Disorder, covering flashy stories and then quickly moving on. She spoke about new forms of journalism that shattered the old model of the men and women covering political campaigns “on the bus,” spouting conventional wisdom while caught in the echo chamber. She suggested that rather than choosing between print and the Internet, we embrace them both in a three-way, what she called “Promiscuity for profit.”

In contrast, Eisner seemed a little lost in the future. He related an incident in which he took a flight on JetBlue; when he landed, he found a blog post, complete with a photo of him from a camera phone, suggesting that he must be in financial trouble for choosing that airline. He said that content providers had an “obligation to exercise good taste” in order to ensure that the government didn’t step in with regulation. He argued that there is a place in the new order for the editor, a place for culture, humor, filtering. My impression is that some audience members took the talk like a lecture from a parent. I took it more like a dad struggling to be cool and responsible at the same time.

I made a note for myself at the end of his remarks: “He knows how to make entertainment. He knows how to make money.” I think both of these factors are important, even in today’s digital environment. I’m glad he’s in the game. I wonder if anyone else cares.

Arianna Huffington spoke to an audience made largely of natives, and she was seen as an immigrant, one who has learned the native tongue. Poor Michael Eisner – the man generally credited with revitalizing almost every aspect of The Walt Disney Company, from its animation business to its broadcast and cable TV offerings – was nothing but a digital tourist.

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 9:28 AM | Permalink

The Scandal Rules


We don’t all like to admit it but we love our celebrities. Examples might be as varied as Princess Diana (We just celebrated the tenth anniversary of her death), Halle Berry (Did you know she was pregnant?) or Lindsay Lohan (After copping a guilty plea that has earned her a day in jail, she has admitted to a drug & alcohol problem).

It’s difficult for me to adequately explain the motivation for the phenomenon, but we sure do seem to get enjoyment out of following the activities of people in the public arena. When things go wrong for these figures, there are factors that determine how we will react. It’s not science but the different treatment that two well-known men, Larry Craig and Owen Wilson, have received may help explain the differences.

Bad news is always newsworthy, but there’s something about a really juicy scandal – as opposed to a merely ugly one – that excites the senses. A scandal may involve the possession of cocaine, the presence of a Hollywood prostitute or driving while intoxicated. These are acts that ordinary citizens may commit at any time, but if you’re at all well known, such acts will catapult you straight to the gossip heights (or ensure your continued presence there). You may be familiar with schadenfreude, a marvelous German word which describes the pleasure obtained from another’s misfortune.

If you’ve somehow missed the case, Senator Craig was arrested this past June for lewd conduct in a Minneapolis airport men’s restroom. The incident became news in August when Craig pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct. I don’t know about you, but I not only enjoyed every moment of his predicament last week, especially when he insisted repeatedly that he was not gay, that it had been mistake to plead guilty (on account of being not gay) and, but the way, did he mention he’s not gay? This scandal might generally not offer the same pleasures of Paris or Britney – keeping in mind Paul Begala’s observation that politics is show business for ugly people – but it does have its delights.

Also recently in the news is actor Owen Wilson. The star of such films as Wedding Crashers and the upcoming The Darjeeling Limited reportedly attempted to commit suicide. Wilson has always had a goofy, affable presence, on and off-screen. He’s not only popular, but very likeable. This is clearly a very personal and painful time for him and his family. There’s no joy to be found in his suffering and the celebrity machine has been taking it very easy on him this past week.

The Craig and Wilson episodes provide some guidelines for scandal-mongering and appreciation. After all, there are rules for almost any sort of human behavior.

The incident should play into our expectations. Charlie Sheen caught with a hooker is a fun story; Tom Hanks caught with a hooker is kind of sad. But there’s also the irony factor. You might not expect a conservative politician to be caught cruising in a men’s room, but if you’re a liberal, you probably suspect that a lot of conservative politicians are secret hypocrites. Sen. Craig had fought against gay rights and had derided President Clinton as a “naughty boy.” From that perspective, Craig’s arrest makes as much sense as the extramarital affairs of Bob Livingston, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, and on and on. Owen Wilson has a breezy nature to him and while he may have a dark side, that’s not how we prefer to see him.

Nobody gets hurt. Britney Spears has been acting out for years, and it was all good, clean fun. But now she has young kids and she’s caught up in a custody battle with her husband Kevin “K-Fed” Federline. The joy has slowly leeched out of Britney gossip. But Craig was simply caught doing some sort of mating ritual dance in a bathroom stall. You might feel bad for his wife, but that’s about it. In contrast, suicide is about as painful as it gets; the Wilson family has withdrawn into private healing and has been afforded that privacy.

Some celebrities are fun to tear down. Celebrities come in all shapes, sizes and flavors. As many fans as Paris Hilton has, she also has a large number of detractors. Seeing her go to jail is like a dream come true. Craig’s cruising antics and possible hidden homosexuality is a two-fer: two sins that he has fought against, but has apparently committed himself. Pro-sin voters can rejoice in his discomfort. Owen Wilson’s public persona is fun personified. We want him to be bubbly and eccentric; it’s integral to his appeal.

Bottom line: Larry Craig = Hilarious! How high can they hang him? Owen Wilson = Very sad. Get well soon, buddy!

Editor’s Note: The Larry Craig scandal has caught the attention of other Spot-on writers. Scott Olin Schmidt’s comments are here. Christopher Brauchli’s are here.

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 2:25 AM | Permalink

Dancing with the Devil


American TV often delivers a less than honest portrait of life and viewers seem pretty comfortable with that state of affairs. But in Britain, it’s another story.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is considered by many to be the embodiment of sophisticated, classy television. So elegant, so irreproachable! But they’ve been accused in recent months (to be blunt) of being filthy, rotten liars.

Before I relate the latest example, let me set some context. Over the last year, there have been a series of incidents surrounding TV quizzes and call-in programs in the U.K. The “You Say, We Pay” quiz on Channel 4′s Richard & Judy show was fined for encouraging viewers to phone in at the cost of ₤1 per call (about $2) to enter after the competition had already closed. The game show Brainteaser on several occasions announced fake names as winners or had production staff pose as winners. The BBC’s venerable children’s show Blue Peter faked a call-in when a producer allowed a child visiting the studio set to pose as a caller after technical difficulties had stopped legitimate calls from getting through.

This past week, the British public was buzzing over another form of deception. The program Born Survivor (broadcast in this country on cable as Man Vs. Wild) is under investigation by British broadcaster Channel 4 for its own trickery. In each episode, host Bear Grylls, a former member of the Special Air Service (SAS) and the youngest Briton to climb Mount Everest and return alive, is dropped somewhere in the wild and has to survive off his wits. He makes a fire with flint; he eats what he can catch, even if it’s maggots; he sleeps under the trees, covered only with branches. But accusations have surfaced that Grylls hasn’t had it all that bad. For example, in an episode where he was supposedly stranded on a desert island, he was actually in Hawaii and spent some time in a hotel. A scene with “wild” horses reportedly turned out to feature tame animals. A raft of bamboo, hibiscus twine and palm leaves was actually pre-built by the film crew.

The thing is, the first time I watched the show, my skeptic alarm went to Code Red. Grylls spends the whole time, as he wanders the wasted landscape alone, looking straight into a camera and talking to the viewers. Clearly, the guy has a big crew with him at all times. A scene where he crosses a ravine using a vine is shot from at least three different angles, so how worried am I actually supposed to be that he’s going to fall to his death? As one technical adviser to the show said, “If you really believe everything happens the way it is shown on TV, you are being a little bit naive.”

The quiz show scandals of the Fifties were a national scandal, but U.S. television viewers seem to routinely accept deception on so-called “reality” shows. Contestants are cast carefully for maximum effect. The shows utilize writers to draft scenarios. Events are shown edited out of sequence or timelines are compressed. Do you think the guy in The Bachelor actually lives in those mansions?

The difference is that in Britain, deception is illegal and British citizens know it. According the news reports, OFCOM, the British regulatory body that is the equivalent of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, is investigating 20 shows for deception. Although Born Survivor isn’t one of them, because of the call-in scandals other reality shows are coming under fire. RDF Media has taken some heat for two shows that ran on Channel 4 – Wife Swap and Masters and Servants – for manipulating events. But the production company really came under fire when a BBC documentary that RDF produced was edited to make it look as if Queen Elizabeth had stormed out of a Vanity Fair photo shoot.

I think the key problem driving all of this deception is that real life presents a real balancing act. On the one hand, people love supposedly real things. Not only is reality television a popular genre on television, one of the strongest advertising phrases that is utilized in the motion pictures is “Based on a true story.” But on the other hand, reality has a pesky habit of not going quite how you would wish. And it’s so tempting to tweak it a little and nudge it into place.

I’m not advocating more regulation in America to address this issue, but I do wonder why Americans – supposedly the savviest consumers in the world – are content to put up with a steady diet of fabrication and manipulation on the tube. Are British viewers more old-fashioned, expecting things on TV to be true? Does that make us more sophisticated or more more cynical?

I don’t know, but I hate to think we’ve made a pact with the devil: Entertain me, but I don’t want to know details.

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 8:24 AM | Permalink

Paris Hilton’s Purpose-Driven Life


Fair warning: If you’ve come here looking for a Paris Hilton beatdown, you’re not going to get it. I come not to bury the fair Ms. Hilton, but to offer some small praise for a young woman that many of us love to hate.

The 26-year-old star of both House of Wax and 1 Night in Paris was released from jail this week and promptly appeared on Larry King Live. While I am normally unable to summon up any enthusiasm whatsoever for the activities of Paris – pro or con – what I saw Wednesday night prompts me to come to her defense.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a fan. I’m not crazy about her activities and I certainly don’t approve of DUIs or driving with a suspended license. But what the hell did she ever do to anybody to earn the scorn that has been flung at her in recent months?

When she received her sentence back in May, the reaction was remarkable. People were very happy she was going to jail – not for the DUI or for driving without a license – but for the crime of being annoying.

I’m not saying I disagree. Paris is part of a crowd of young folks who clog up the gossip pipes on almost a daily basis. (You notice that it’s almost entirely young women?) But if she’s so annoying, why do we keep following her exploits? And as much as members of the media have enjoyed scolding Paris, not just for her behavior, but for her entire life, you can notice they do so while holding their noses and riding the Hilton gravy train.

After Larry King’s clunky exploration of Paris’ soul (conducted in a manner that was part grandfather confessor and part Oprah-as-NY-Jew), fellow CNN-anchor Anderson Cooper looked genuinely pained at having to devote an hour to Paris Hilton although he could have presumably let someone else anchor the program if he was so offended. Cooper’s chief criticism of Hilton was that “someone who has the privilege of being born into a wealthy family and opportunities of great schooling” did not try to make more of her life. Cooper is the son of railroad heiress and designer Gloria Vanderbilt and it’s safe to assume he knows a thing or two about such situations. But then he would also know that New York and Los Angeles have plenty of trust fund babies running around town not doing much more than having a good time. Many are being encouraged not to break out of the pack.

In contrast, Paris has worked. She’s modeled professionally for years, she has acted in movies and TV shows, she’s done multiple seasons of a reality show, recorded an album, is paid lucrative fees for appearing at clubs and events. According to Forbes, she earns $7 million annually.

No, she’s not doing much for the world, other than providing amusement. She doesn’t appear to be smart, but she has long seemed shrewd to me. She knows the game, the ins-and-outs of the celebrity machine, and she’s played it well. In fact, compared to some of her tabloid sisters (I’m thinking of Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears), she seems to have largely sought the spotlight over the last five years as part of a planned career as a professional celebrity, not as some moth hovering self-destructively around the flame. She seems to party, but not to the excessive levels of others and not completely out of line with many women of her age and status in Los Angeles.

Hilton’s image as a shallow party girl and a dim-witted socialite may have finally bitten her in the ass, and I would be pleased if she shifted her life now. She has spoken of doing charity work following in the footsteps of generations of young wealthy women with time on their hands. I was particularly interested to see her speak during the Larry King interview of the issue of recidivism – or as she put it – the way that these young woman leave prison only to fall right back in, due to a lack of a support system.

Who knows what she’ll do? I don’t think she owes us anything, certainly not explanations, nor an obligation to live life the way others think she ought. You don’t like it? I don’t blame you. I find the “OFF” switch does wonders for jangled nerves.

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 12:30 AM | Permalink

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