Is fame, in and of itself, newsworthy? The Associated Press decided — albeit temporarily — that it wasn’t. For one week in February, the Associated Press embarked on an odd experiment. They would boycott reporting on the shenanigans of party brat Paris Hilton. They did so out of a genuine curiosity as to whether or not anyone would notice — or care. The response to the wire service’s attempt at facilitating a Paris-less world was overwhelmingly positive.
However, perhaps Paris-watchers, those consummate consumers of pop effluvia, were busily gorging themselves on the exploits of other all too familiar names. During that same time, Anna Nicole Smith went to the big PR shindig in the sky and Britney Spears continued her depilated meltdown.
The amount of media attention to both these tragedies would have been laughable if it wasn’t so pathetic. For a few days, it was as if the Iraq War was over, the environment had miraculously recovered from Global Warming and that violent crime had ceased in North America. What should have been, at best, entertainment stories designed to satisfy prurient interest, were appearing top of the hour on network television newscasts.
It was embarrassing seeing a reporter, microphone in hand, standing outside the hotel where Smith died trying to make something out of nothing, promising late breaking details over what even initially appeared to be a standard overdose. As he stood staring into the camera with a concerned look on his face was he revisiting all the other career options he’d entertained during high school?
Speaking of high school, Spears has been legitimately famous long before she walked away with a sheepskin. While she is currently renowned for her rapid, revolving stints in rehab and taking her Telly Savalas tribute north of her nether regions, she actually earned her fame. She took a perky smile and a modicum of talent and allowed it to be cleverly exploited by the Mad Mouse Machine. Like fellow Mouseketeers Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake, she took that nascent training and spring-boarded into a nice little solo career. Simply put, Spears is famous for a reason: she is a pop star with the album sales to prove it.
Hilton, like the late Smith, is merely famous for being famous. Hilton was born into her fame, the perfect representative for a civilization on the brink of decline, building a career based on mocking working stiffs with the reality show, The Simple Life .
Smith came into the public eye as a Guess Jeans model at a time when people knew the names of models. She gained even more fame by peeling off the jeans and posing for Playboy . Along the way, she made some money and gained some status, even appearing in a fairly good movie ( The Hudsucker Proxy ).
However, marrying a geriatric, invalid, filthy rich oilman moved her from the category of celebutante to creepy curiosity — the punch line of a hoary joke. And that’s when she became really famous.
In 2002, she received the ultimate Burbank accolade: her own reality series named, naturally, The Anna Nicole Smith Show .
And, we all know that repeated appearances on TV are a solid indicator of fame. So, by ripping open her strangely compelling life, she gave North America what it wanted — front row tickets to a train wreck. In exchange, she got covers of The National Inquirer , a few paragraphs here and there in People and the occasional segment on Entertainment Tonight — solid evidence of fame.
On the audition episodes for the latest round of American Idol the prospective contestants did not talk about their dreams of singing at the Grand Ol’ Opry, selling a million copies of an album’s worth of ’80s power ballad covers or crooning a duet with Tony Bennett. No, instead they talked about wanting to be famous. As if fame, in and of itself, was a goal worth attaining.
The lucky few with the pipes made it through the audition process and have embarked on a path which will guarantee some level of fame — possibly one day superceding Britney herself as a bopper icon. The unlucky, assuming they are not the offspring of fantastic wealthy hoteliers, will have to look at other ways of attracting the attention necessary to become famous.
While we cannot control who does or does not become famous and whether or not fame is the result of talent or circumstance, we can choose how we respond. Viewing self-congratulatory awards shows, watching Barbara Walters make another celebrity burst into sobs or perusing the headlines on the tabloid rack at the supermarket all supports what singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell called “the star maker machinery.” It’s quite simple, to make this cultural insanity stop we have to cease being cogs in the machinery. And one day, if we’re lucky, we won’t have Paris.