Last week, Michele and Tareq Salahi left their Virginia home dressed to the nines and successfully evaded security to attend an official White House dinner. When the smoke cleared from the scandal of their blatant gatecrashing, it came to light that Mr. and Mrs. Salahi are vying for a spot on Bravo’s upcoming reality series The Real Housewives of DC.
Of course they are. As Thomas de Zengotita wrote in Harper’s five years ago, people in our time refuse to be spectators, and go to any lengths to seek the recognition they believe they deserve. “Being famous,” he wrote, “is not what it used to be.”
Between the upsurge in gossip blogs, which are not beholden to many of the same libel standards as print tabloids, and the rise of reality TV, this decade has created a pantheon of monsters. The aughts gave us the highly-visible minor celebrity, and we let it happen.
This is a new breed we’re dealing with, a most unpredictable sort born out of memes, reality shows, internet gossip, and friendships with bona fide celebrities. Their fame may sprout from an “accidentally” leaked sex tape—Paris Hilton set the example; Kim Kardashian and others followed. Others come into fame (or infamy) from dating starlets or having too many artificially inseminated babies. Whatever the reason their spark ignited, there is a tremendous infrastructure—blogs, tabloids, even mainstream news programs—in place to fan the flames of celebrity.
Zone One: The Reality Stars
Since no sane person could pick cast members of MTV’s The Real World out of a lineup, it wasn’t until Survivor premiered in 2000 that minor celebrities were created out of the budding genre of reality television. Seemingly overnight, competition-based shows cropped up on every network, providing cheap programming and pulling high ratings. A far cry from old school game shows, competition-based reality shows let the audience play favorites and bond with contestants week after week. Most of the cast members and contestants of these shows were destined to return to obscurity after failing to become Top Models, American Idols, or engaged Bachelorettes, but more than a few got used to the taste of the limelight and refused to be forgotten.
Often, they did so by using one reality show to propel them to the next one. America’s Next Top Model cycle one winner Adrienne Curry failed to live up to her title and quickly started dating Christopher Knight, better known as non-reality TV’s Peter Brady. Together they launched My Fair Brady, a tedious portrait of their absurd relationship. Omarosa, a woman for whom no last name is needed, failed miserably at the Apprentice, but it propelled her into a series of other shows, including—most appropriately—The Surreal Life. Their careers, like dozens if not hundreds of others, are based entirely on inertia; they just need to keep moving on to the next thing to keep from disappearing.
Perhaps no one learned how to turn reality exposure into a lucrative career better than the cast members of MTV’s spectacularly successful franchise The Real Orange County. After three spin-offs and countless seasons, Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County—originator of The Hills, The City and Newport Harbor: The Real Orange County—has spawned more lasting pseudo-celebs than many other more commercially viable reality hits, like American Idol or Big Brother.
With golden everygirl Lauren Conrad at their center, Laguna Beach and The Hills have created a flock of tanned, independently wealthy twentysomethings that have self-branded themselves as if they did something for a living. Rather than condemning the false reality of these cliquey, spoiled beach girls, they’ve been fully embraced by viewers and integrated into the zeitgeist in ways previously thought unimaginable for people who don’t act, sing, or do anything that previously once distinguished teen idols. Their scripted show—it’s common knowledge that producers stage all the so-called “drama”—masquerades as reality because the audience demands it. When they fight, laugh, shop, or cry, it’s planned out to give viewers an orchestrated but supposedly representative glimpse of what it means to be young, rich and real. With clothing lines and endorsement deals and lasting fame, the cast ended up with mundane televised lives and outsized real lives.
Zone Two: The Memes
Last month, a little boy in Fort Collins, Colorado, supposedly went up in a homemade air balloon, and before it fell to the ground to reveal a hoax, he had a name: Balloon Boy. Balloon Boy (and his mentally unstable father) became fodder for tweeters and commenters more than half a day before the family could lie through their teeth to Meredith Vieira in the morning. There have always been toddlers who fall down wells and babies eaten by dingos, but fame comes much more immediately in the Aughts (and, thanks to the Internet, usually involves a nickname).
The Internet has created memes from sources in which the mainstream media does not see value or interest. When William Hung was briefly featured on an early episode of American Idol, belting out a cringe-inducing rendition of Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs,” a couple set up a fan site and uploaded a video of his performance. Within a week, the site recorded over four million hits. Since then, Hung has released four albums, guest starred on several TV shows, and served as a spokesman for Ask.com and Cingular Wireless. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who could tell you the Season Three winner of American Idol without looking it up, but even five years later, Hung is still a reference most people remember.
Cable news loves them for the endless clips they can show, morning and late night news love them for their sensationalism. We love them because they are bizarre and baffling and plucked from communities like our own. We love them for the conversations they will spawn with people we don’t know how to talk to, and for how they transcend niches and subcultures. Everyone knows Balloon Boy, and everyone loves a meme.
Zone Three: Famous on the Internet
By 2006, there was a simple way of finding out what blogs people read: ask them if they know who Julia Allison is. Allison, a sex columnist and blogger, became a regular feature of several blogs, most notably Gawker, where she was given the nickname “Internet fameball” for dating new media moguls and oversharing her exploits. She ran with it, embracing her reputation and pioneering “lifecasting,” which as the name implies, involves continually broadcasting one’s life to an eager and waiting internet audience. She became a poster child for networking, a hated figure among blog commenters and a mainstream success through her self-indulgent tumbles and tweets, as well as a frequent talking head on mainstream news shows. Allison turned the internet into a game and dedicated her life to winning it.
She wasn’t alone. Millions of people sought to self-brand themselves on the internet: writing blogs, singing on MySpace, tweeting recipes and all following a few key success stories. The world became a more confessional place, where young girls poured their hearts out to strangers on YouTube and people blogged things they wouldn’t tell their closest friends. It was as if the Internet became the next frontier in reality television, as a world ungoverned by networks and unstaged by producers.
People also became unwitting celebrities, pulled out of the darkest depths of the internet to be laughed at for swinging a mock light saber or for making wildly popular Facebook groups with names like “8th grade girls should stay away from 9th grade boys especially other ppls bfs.” Halfway through the decade we learned that the Internet is part mean girl, part kingmaker. For those lucky enough to be anointed by the masses or picked by those in power, the fame could be lasting and the benefits tremendous. But for every million girls posing provocatively in a profile picture, there can only be one Tila Tequila.
* * *
If the Aughts didn’t invent celebrity coverage, the past ten years have definitely tweaked it to a fine art. The way in which we learn about celebrities—their breakups, makeups, how “just like US!” they are—changed immeasurably, as well as the types of people who can sell magazines, make headlines, and get the most YouTube hits.
Our predilection for the “real” has left us finding celebrities in the most unlikely of places: on profile pages and twitter accounts, competitive reality shows, and news segments.
As Rich Juzwiak, a pop culture blogger for Vh1.com, told the Independent in an email, “the A-list will always be the A-list; it’s just stardom now has a long tail. The parameters of celebrity have widened.”
We’re left with the genuine People covergirls and a vast array of people famous for so many different and odd things it’s a wonder people can keep track of them. Fame really doesn’t mean what it used to, because it doesn’t really mean anything at all.
Marisa Calleja B’10 is just like US!