Fame is being treated like it's a solid commodity, like gold, or pork bellies, and we have sprouted a generation of children who, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, just say: "Famous."
However, fame is a not all that concrete. It's more like a no-name gelatine desert with too much water in the mix, it's mushy, it's wobbly, it can fall apart at any second, and it comes in many flavours. All those flavours can seem sweet at the start, but many have a bitter aftertaste, and a lot can go totally sour very early.
So let's look at some of these flavours...
1. HYSTERICAL FAME
This kind of fame tends to hit when both the celebrity and their target audience is very young. It's super intense, causing floods of money, hype, and the adoration of millions of young people, usually girls.
However, there's a catch.
This screaming, histrionic, and mindless adoration can turn to revulsion as quickly as flipping a switch. Also since the people who have this sort of fame tend to be very young and at the mercy of managers, agents, parents, media executives, and accountants, they usually end up following a set series of stages…
A. Breakout. The young artist, usually a pop-star explodes onto the zeitgeist, seemingly out of nowhere, and kids, usually girls, are raving insane for them.
B. Tattoos. The pressure of maintaining a kid friendly image begins to weigh down on the performer. They want to be taken seriously and seen as an original and a rebel. To do that they end up doing what every wannabe original-rebel did before them, they start getting tattoos, making weirder and weirder fashion choices, and acting like a spoiled entitled jerk.
C. Drugs. When the tattoos fail to get them taken seriously the hysterically famous celebrity take it to the next level: dope. First some marijuana, and some experiments with the ever-changing pharmacopeia found on the more upscale dance floors, and then onto the harder stuff.
D. Meltdown. The drugs, the pressure, and the questionable fashion choices all come to head. Next thing you know the idol of millions is fighting paparazzi, shaving their head, and otherwise acting like they've completely went off their nut.
E. Reality TV. After the intervention, the rehab, the possible stays in some sort of psychiatric or penal institution the once hysterically famous celebrity tries to recapture some of their past glory, and hopefully pay some debts. The easiest, but usually least successful route is to sign onto some sort of reality show. They can either be some sort of staged documentary meant to feed the audience's hunger for schadenfreude, performing challenges with other ex-celebrities (possibly including rehab), or a short stint judging on a talent show.
F. Do You Want Fries With That? Self explanatory.
2. MEDIA FAME
This kind of fame occurs when you're the darling of other famous people. If you have this sort of fame you may find yourself in the middle of a great schism between the amount of attention/adoration you get from the media, and your ability to generate revenue from the paying audience.
George Clooney is the classic example of this. To be considered a commercially viable movie star you have to show an ability to get people in the general audience to pay money to see you in movies to the tune of at least $100 million on average. Now if you go only by the coverage Clooney gets in the media you would assume that his movies rake in the big money.
Clooney's actual box office record is pretty weak, showing that over the past ten years he's been unable to crack the $100 million target without a large group of big name actors backing him up, like in the Ocean's 11 movies. Even then, those films got so expensive to make, due to cast salaries, they became economically untenable.
Another example of media is the actress and writer Tina Fey. She is probably most famous for her time as head writer and performer on Saturday Night Live. She also wrote and co-starred in the successful Lindsay Lohan teen comedy Mean Girls. After that she starred and was head writer of her own TV sitcom 30 Rock on NBC, which is most famous for having a seven year run and a massive parade of celebrity guest stars while never getting far from the bottom ten in the network ratings. PBS documentaries about topsoil probably got more viewers than 30 Rock did at its peak, yet if you listened to the media it was the biggest thing since sliced bread and was the most influential show in American history.
A modified analogy for 30 Rock and its influence is a notorious show by the punk rock pioneers The Sex Pistols at a university in Manchester. Legend states that only a hundred people attended that show, but every member of the audience went on to form a band that was more successful than the Sex Pistols. 30 Rock was like a concert where only a hundred people attended, but every one of those hundred people were already in successful bands.
Do you understand that?
30 Rock was a show about showbiz, and its audience was showbiz. They showered the show and its cast with praise, prizes and enough hullabaloo to make it seem like it was huge. Tina Fey also enjoyed some notoriety for an impression of 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. It had become so big, at least in the media, that Palin often found herself being asked to explain things said by Fey as if they had been said by her.
Fey would often muse aloud if her Palin impression had kept her show from finding a wider audience. Probably not, but it probably didn’t hurt its chances for staying on the air despite its low ratings because of the hyper-partisan nature of American politics, and Hollywood’s revulsion at anything and anyone associated with the Republican Party.
As 30 Rock scraped the bottom of the ratings barrel, Fey also starred in several movies, none of Fey's "successful" starring vehicles cracked the $100 million barrier at the box office, and several bombed horribly. None of that underperformance has slowed her career one bit.
Another example is Ricky Gervais, a British comedian and writer, exploded onto the scene with an actually popular hit TV show in his native Britain called The Office. The show developed a strong cult following in the USA and Gervais, and partner Stephen Merchant sold a US version of the show to NBC, and later to networks around the world. He thought he could parlay it into a movie career.
Feature films designed as vehicles for Gervais bombed with a consistency not seen since Curtis LeMay. Audiences were left cold at Gervais and his very public, and often vitriolic dislike of people who don’t think and believe exactly the way he does. His post office shows, have also seen a decline in their general popularity and influence, though it doesn't stop the media from continuing to praise him.
A more recent and extreme example of media fame is with the actress and filmmaker Lena Dunham. Now if you're not the type to follow the media's coverage of itself you're probably asking "Lena who?" The short version is that Lena Dunham is the twenty-something, trendily-tattooed, daughter of prominent New York art-scene socialites who wrote, directed, and starred in twee little indie films that nobody outside of Hollywood really saw. Her indie film work landed her a partnership with more-mainstream multi-hyphenate Judd Apatow that has resulted in the media branding her the "voice of her generation."
What really qualifies her as the voice of her generation?
Well, she has a TV show on HBO called Girls, which is one of the lowest rated shows HBO runs, but has no problem being renewed because it gets HBO’s New York management invites to the swankier cocktail parties. She also landed a multi-million dollar advance from a major publisher to write a combination memoir of growing up in New York's elite art/media scene and advice tome for "average girls," when most agree that it's an impossibility for that book to earn back such a huge advance. Too few average girls even know who she is let alone care about her comparatively insular life and advice. Even if you discount the book's weird and unsettling sexual revelations, and a constantly morphing rape accusation against a most likely mythical "college Republican," those outside of media are left feeling cold because her attempts to sound like “an average girl” sounds like the young female equivalent of Thurston Howell III trying to make friends in a working class bar after being stranded by a broken down limousine in Akron, Ohio.
Why did she get her own series, and such a huge book deal if her audience is so small?
Because in the eyes of people in the media, it's not about the quantity of the audience, it's about the quality. Few people watch her, but a lot of those who do have TV shows of their own, or write magazine/newspaper columns and/or entertainment websites. So it's okay for the companies to lose money on her projects because for two reasons:
A. Their massive parent companies can swallow those losses. It's not their money, it belongs to their investors who mostly don't have a say in the matter.
B. Those losses are the cost of getting the media-folks to tell the world just how cool the executives spending other people's money on her really are.
Media fame can go really great for a while, with TV/movie deals, big money book deals, and the adoration of the critics and award voters, but it's a double edged sword. When you have that sort of fame, and are subject to fawning coverage almost every day, the audience can get sick of the sight of you without seeing anything you've done, and one of the fundamental truths of the world is that you will eventually run out of other people’s money.
(Stay tuned for part two tomorrow.)
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