- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2003

CHICAGO

Joe Cristina is making a pest of himself. “Are you ready yet? Hey, pick me. I’m your man,” he says, grinning at a casting producer who is setting up a video camera in the VIP room of a Chicago bar. It’s 10:30 p.m. on a Friday and Mr. Cristina and several others are crammed in the hallway outside, peering in eagerly as the sliding doors open and close.

Before the night is out, a select few will twirl before the camera to show off their bodies. They will complete an application that includes such questions as “Are you comfortable in a bathing suit?” and “What are your sexual turn-ons and fetishes?”

Some will share those details on camera — all in a bid to make it on to “Elimidate,” a raucous and sometimes ruthless reality dating show that, even those auditioning acknowledge, leaves many participants looking foolish.

So why in the world is Mr. Cristina, 21, so keen to audition?

“I’m not going to lie to you — it’s that 15 minutes of fame,” he says, giving a nod to artist Andy Warhol’s prediction that everyone will be famous, if only briefly.

Now it seems that prophecy has come true or, at least, more people than ever want it to be true.

While chasing fame is a longtime part of the American dream, the quest has turned to frenzy, thanks in part to reality TV, Web cams and “blogging,” first-person diaries posted on the Internet for all the world to see. Today, even cell phones have cameras that allow users to e-mail instant photos of themselves to large groups of perfect strangers.

“For years, teens have been standing in front of the mirror, performing with a hairbrush microphone,” says Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a Washington-based media watchdog. “Now there are multiple industries devoted to showcasing this behavior.”

At least one pop culture analyst says that access to exposure has helped create a generation of young Americans in love with, as he calls it, “pure, slobbering attention.”

“Humans have almost this pathological behavioral characteristic that makes them scream out, ‘Look at me,’” says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television and a professor at Syracuse University. He says that urge has never been greater than in it is in today’s young people.

Time was, he says, when his students were focused on one thing: making money.

“Now,” Mr. Thompson says, “given the choice between becoming fabulously wealthy or fabulously famous, most of them choose famous.”

Adrienne Katzman, 23, of the District knows what he means. She fantasizes about being on “The Amazing Race,” a CBS reality program that features two-member teams racing across the globe. She also is writing a pop fiction book with a friend in hopes of doing something that will put her “on the map.”

“I think fame will give meaning to my life,” says Miss Katzman, who works as a corporate fund-raiser. “I mean, who am I right now? A face in a million. If I become famous, then I really will feel like I am someone, and I will have a sense of accomplishment in my life. I will be known.”

At the Chicago bar audition for “Elimidate,” casting director Brendon Blincoe fires questions at would-be contestants who sit on a couch and talk to him while the camera is running.

“I don’t care how good-looking they are,” Mr. Blincoe says before the auditions begin. Contestants must “show some personality on camera” or they won’t make the show.

He is looking for argumentative. He is looking for sexy. He is looking for someone who will say just about anything.

During her interview, Dina Clemente, 27, who works in a suburban Chicago salon by day, laughs as she tells Mr. Blincoe how she pretends to be a porn-star recruiter when she meets guys in bars.

Mr. Cristina, when asked to describe his dream girl, answers quickly.

“Not blond girls,” he says, continuing with a little bravado: “Older girls don’t scare me off.”

Natividad Rodriguez, 24, shows up for her audition in a sleeveless top that is laced in a way that reveals more than many mothers would like.

“It’s not a matter of how much brains you have. It’s how hot you look,” she says. Laid-off from her job as a flight attendant, she is studying to be a pilot and looking for new ways to earn money for school. “Maybe I could have a big break,” she says, shrugging.

She does have some rules: “No nudity, no tackiness, no stripping,” Miss Rodriguez says. “It’s not my style, not my taste. Everybody wants a little bit of attention. That’s OK — but certainly not to degrade myself.”

Many of those auditioning talk about the thrill of putting themselves out there — something Miss Katzman, the Washingtonian who wants to be on “The Amazing Race,” understands.

Offbeat stories about real lives, she says, help push the envelope.

“No one will pay attention to some humdrum love story or hero-saves-the-day story. We need excitement, adventure, something that will keep us drawn in and clinging to the edge of our seats,” she says. “Drama is life nowadays.”

For this generation of young people, life certainly has been documented almost as if it were their own personal movie, says Mr. Thompson, the Syracuse professor.

“Dad had a camera aimed right at them when they exited the womb,” he said. “Every time they took a first step or blew out the candles on their birthday cake, somebody was videotaping it.”

Taking it the next step — to TV or the Web — is now almost considered the norm, says another analyst of pop culture.

“It’s so publicized and pre-processed that it turns into a kind of anonymity,” says Jerry Herron, a professor of American studies at Wayne State University in Detroit. “It’s like a nude beach, where everybody is naked. Nobody, individually, feels embarrassed.”

In the end, Miss Clemente is chosen for “Elimidate” as one of a few women who vie for the affections of one man in an episode that will air sometime in September.

After the taping, her enthusiasm is noticeably dampened. She says the other women made fun of her. “They called me hairy,” she complains. “It got pretty ugly.”

She says she eventually was eliminated because she didn’t want to make out in a hot tub with one of the other women in the show.

“I wouldn’t do this show again,” she says, then pauses. “But, hey, at least I’ll be on national TV, right?”


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