Yes, that's right. One easy step. In modern-day America (as opposed to, say, ancient Mesopotamia, or on an episode of "1900 House") there is one single thing that people can easily and quickly become famous for.
Yes, that's also right. Famous for being famous. It's cheap, it's easy, and it's self-perpetuating. All you have to do is be well-known, whereupon you start getting invited to charity functions... and seeing your name in captions of photos of charity functions... and getting invited to more charity functions because someone somewhere putting together a guest list has seen your name in a caption of a photo of a charity function. It's that simple.
And why? Let's digress.
Every culture needs celebrities. And who your celebrities are tells you a whole heck of a lot about the culture.
Who, in America, do we love? Actors, rock stars, athletes.
Who don't we love? College professors, garbagemen, landlords of retiree condos in Myrtle Beach.
Clarification: I'm not talking about these professions in a general sense. Let's talk about lawyers, for example. I don't think it's out of line to say America has a general opinion about lawyers, a shared concept that it's okay to consider lawyers unlikeable. There are things "the culture" tacitly agrees on. For example: lawyers are mean; Ishtar sucked; Dan Quayle couldn't spell potato. None of these things are necessarily true. But because perception is reality, they're agreed upon as true.
So yes. We fear and revere lawyers at the same time. But they aren't celebrities. Lawyers are not superstars. Yes, an individual lawyer may be, briefly, famous. But let's face it: would you know Johnnie Cochran if you saw him on the street? Or would you be more likely to recognize the actor who played the Johnnie Cochran parody character "Jackie Chiles" on "Seinfeld"? You can bandy about names like Marcia Clark and Kenneth Starr but you wouldn't ask either of them for an autograph.
But damn if you wouldn't rush right up to Michael Jordan and beg for it.
That sentence may have sounded derogatory. Maybe it was. Because I'm conflicted. On one hand, I have the snob's heavenward-pointing nose angle as far as celebrities, particularly athletes, are concerned. These people are only people; why treat them as if they're more? On the other hand, I've stood in crowds and craned my neck for the briefest glance at Hillary Clinton and Kevin Spacey. I proudly announce to friends that Kurt Warner once bagged my mom's groceries. (Which sounds absolutely filthy, and may or may not be true, but he did indeed work at the Cedar Falls Hy-Vee at which she shops. It makes a great story.)
And, of course, I milk the Alex Trebek angle for all it's worth. There's a picture on my desk. I am ashamed on some level but the picture's there nonetheless. Like I said. Conflicted.
Because, really, what's the difference between famous people and regular joes? [Author's note: No offense, Joe.] Nothing, but everything. These people, somehow, become more than people. Actors, rock stars, athletes. The definition of celebrity, perhaps, is when people begin to brag that they've made physical contact with you. (To quote Eric Cartman, dispenser of pop culture wisdom, "Yes, that's right, I saw the Terence and Philip movie. Now who wants to touch me?") Whether this is good or bad is irrelevant. It's true. And it's something that sets ordinary people apart from other ordinary people.
But, returning to one of the points I'm trying to make, the interesting part of the examination comes from which ordinary people we choose to set apart.
In some of my internet meandering I've come across mentions of an upcoming movie called "The God of Cookery," which takes place in a hypothetical America where the celebrities are ... chefs. Not a bad idea, that. After all, why do we revere professional athletes? Mainly, because they do things we can't do. They run faster, jump higher, hit harder. Could most of us do what a chef at a four-star restaurant does? Not bloody likely. But in the non-hypothetical America in which we live, chefs are free to walk down the street without being recognized or hounded. Their names are not whispered in that reverent tone reserved for speaking two luscious syllables: "Brad Pitt." (Well, either shrieking or whispering, anyway, depending on the situation.) It's only an interesting possibility, the idea that the fame of a chef might sweep the country. But no. The country remains unswept.
Actors. Rock stars. Athletes. And now: people who are famous only for being famous. To wit: "Survivor."
(You knew it, didn't you? That I was getting around to it eventually? That this was what I intended all along?)
America's new obsession is with regular people. It's all part of the painful juggernaut that is reality TV. (Let me only say that I hate reality TV and leave it at that, and if the strike happens I may be forced to ... but I said I'd leave it, and I will.) We have always loved those who appear on TV or movie screens, larger than life. Now we love people who are exactly the same size as life. Gervase. Jenna. Colleen. Greg. Rich. Rudy. I have never in my life watched the show but I know their names and I bet you I could pick them out of a crowd. I would feel a wave of revulsion while pointing, but still, I probably would. Point.
We like to think, most of us, that we too could be famous if we were only in the right place at the right time. Because it seems that's a lot of what fame is about: luck. Many of us can act just as well or better than, say, Keanu Reeves or Sandra Bullock or Sharon Stone. (Don't get me started on Sharon Stone.) In reading "Entertainment Weekly" recently I found I am not the only writer who thinks that the ultimate gratification would be to appear in the "50 Most Beautiful" issue of People.
To be in the right place at the right time, then, is the key. I'm not implying that talent is completely unrelated to fame or success; I'm only saying that there are lots of talented people who aren't famous and lots of famous people who aren't talented. And maybe that, too, says something about modern-day America.
What it says is a matter of opinion.
But then again, isn't everything?
Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
10.5.00 @ 10:13a
A) Emeril Lagase. (sp?) B) I think the point is that those people who are "famous" entertain us. Actors, rock stars, athletes. It's all about our being able to watch them and forget our own problems. No barber has ever done that for me.
10.5.00 @ 10:34a
It's fascinating that I have only gotten two types of responses to this column:
a) "I liked it."
b) "Here's the name of a famous chef you overlooked."
Yes, Emeril Lagasse is his own force of nature (Bam!) and there are certain parts of the country where everyone has heard of Wolfgang Puck. Still, 90% of America is not watching the Food Network because they're too busy flipping back and forth between "WWF Smackdown!" and NASCAR on ESPN.
lee anne ramsey
10.5.00 @ 5:51p
Actually, not only do I think Jacques Pepin is famous, but also one of the sexiest things on PBS. I even buy the same kitchen equipment he has (the OXO salad spinner with the brake.) I'm positive I'm scaring you right now, but it's true.
But to give you an original response, have you been to a Guster show lately? I used to go say hi to the guys after the show, but now I can't imagine standing in a line with 200 screaming teens to do so. How wierd must it be for them to go from average college students to famous rock stars?
10.6.00 @ 9:12a
"Sexiest thing on PBS"? In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
Re: Guster -- I'm still reeling from the shock of, a couple years ago, seeing their CD at the house of someone who had nothing whatsoever to do with Tufts. Similarly, the guy in the office next to mine was listening to cool music one day. I complimented his choice. He replied, "Oh, this is Papas Fritas." I replied, "Hey!!! Shiv beat me out for Homecoming Queen!!!"
I imagine becoming famous, even mid-level famous, is a mixed bag.
10.6.00 @ 10:55a
I was actually taken by a friend of mine to see Guster play the Summer Stage in Central Park this past August. That was pretty cool. It was basically teeny-boppers, which both gave me hope that maybe these guys would become A-list famous and also gave me something to look at. I just like the fact that a band I saw at Sig Ep for $5 is now playing in Central Park (and getting paid for it).
10.6.00 @ 12:13p
You saw them at Sig Ep for $5? I saw them in Dewick/MacPhie free of charge!
10.10.00 @ 10:04a
Yeah, but there were nights when I would have paid $5 just to not go to Dewick. Besides, you're older than me.
10.10.00 @ 7:10p
Adam, as of today, you are exactly one year younger than me. Which makes me only one year older than you.
Which means "Happy Birthday," by the way. As it is now 7pm I assume you're already at Happy Hour, but reading this may bring it all back... which I hope will be pleasant.
Really I just had to point out to everyone that I'm not that old. Since you brought it up.
lee anne ramsey
10.11.00 @ 3:34a
Note to those who don't feel the least bit sorry for me: business takes me away from the Bay Area for the week, thereby making me miss the BNL/Guster concert on wednesday night. For which I had actually bought advance tix.
And I never knew Jael ran for homecoming queen, and I now think we are even on the "scary" thing. Jacques Pepin vs. Tufts Homecoming Queen?? Come on.
10.11.00 @ 2:45p
Um, yeah. I ran. I lost. I had my photo in the Daily election spread and everything. My quote was "Because I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me." Apparently, they didn't like me quite enough.
And Lee Anne, I definitely feel at least a little bit sorry for you for missing BNL, if not for missing Guster.
10.12.00 @ 10:53a
I seem to recall voting for Nader in that one.... Wait, no. I voted for JL.