- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 5, 2007

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 narcissism,” 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.

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