Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Fame as a career path

This week's "I Want to Be Famous" Hall of Shame winners are (so far) White House party crashers Michaele and Tareq Salahi.

The Salahis claim to have been invited to last Tuesday's State Dinner. Media reports are that the couple are aspiring socialites and serial celebrity-chasers who want to land a TV deal with Bravo. (The buzz is that they're lobbying to be on
Real Housewives of D.C.) Click here to see photo after photo of the Salahis nuzzling up to celebrities ranging from Oprah to Star Jones to Bill Clinton to Willard Scott to John McCain.

I covered celebrities when I worked at People and LIFE magazines and the only souvenir snapshot I have is a Polaroid test shot of me with Tom Brokaw's dog. I considered it unprofessional to ask a "star" to pose for a picture with me. Silly me.

The Salahis' tale of audacity and self-promotion has made me think:

1) If it's that easy to get into a White House party, I should go to one. I live in the Washington D.C. area, I'm a supporter of the president, and I could wear the gown I wore to an inaugural ball last January. (I'm a D.C. nobody, so it's not like anyone would even notice me wearing the same dress twice.)

2) If it's that easy to get so close to the president (see the photo with the Salahis, above), I'm concerned for Barack Obama's safety.

3) If adults like the fortysomething Salahis are so eager for fame and proximity to celebrity, what are the chances our children will be satisfied living normal, unglamorous, workaday lives?

That last scenario may sound like I'm jumping from A to Z, but the question has been bugging me for some time, long before the Salahis, long before the "balloon boy" scam by the TV-show-desirous Heene family of Colorado.

I flip through television channels today and think it's a miracle that every teenage girl and boy doesn't grow up wanting to be a reality show star or involved in some sort of attention-grabbing scandal. Too often, fame and fortune for doing nothing (or nothing good) seems a viable career path.

Before, during and after my brief tenure as an editor at People, I cringed whenever a celebrity made a magazine cover because he/she ... [pick one] was involved in a sex, drug and/or alcohol-related escapade ... revealed a secret past ... acted out ... said something outlandish.

Foibles = Fame (and, to fallen stars, Foibles = Renewed Fame)

I was employed at
People on September 11. At the time, my colleagues and I were gearing up to work on the annual "Sexiest Man Alive" issue. After the events of that day, I was convinced that Americans would shun such frivolity. I thought we would become smarter, more concerned, more insistent on substance, more aware of the real life issues of our world. I was astonishingly wrong. Reality shows and D-List celebrity erupted. Instead of living in the real world, the masses (and the media?) craved the escapism of star-gazing and the grand promises of fame.

So much of daily life is now spent making ourselves known. Through Facebook, through Twitter, through LinkedIn, through blogs. (Like this one, which I created for my book. I'm guilty, too.)
In an age when most every celebrity gets a book deal just because they're a celebrity, I'm still amazed and appreciative that a real publisher paid any attention to me. And in case anyone actually doesn't know, most celebrities don't write their own books—or create their own perfumes, or design the clothing lines that flaunt their name and fill their coffers.

So many celebrities are now famous simply for being famous, and they're wealthy because of it. Many people are rewarded (with fame, money, influence) for saying and doing outrageous or inappropriate things. In contrast, many "regular" people who do
good, meaningful, useful work, aren't fully satisfied by uncelebrated toils. They, too, want their name in the paper, their face on TV. They want the "success" of fame.

Post script, December 20: Syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman makes similar observations in her December 17 column, "Hooked on Shame," which was inspired in part by the characters who have emerged courtesy of the Tiger Woods "situation." (Alas, Tiger's tales unceremoniously bumped the Salahis from the spotlight.) Newsweek's December 12 cover story also addresses the topic.

Photo Credit: The White House

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