Thursday, January 17, 2008

Further reflections on the meaning of celebrity.

What I find most intriguing about the California Psychology Board's looming inquiry into Dr. Phil's hospital visit with Britney Spears is the degree to which it epitomizes the slipperiness of the SHAMscape as a whole. For those who hadn't heard: Someone, presumably a practitioner holding an actual California license to practice—which Dr. Phil happens not to have—complained about McGraw's off-the-cuff approach to therapy as well as his public disclosures about Britney later. I don't expect much to come of the inquiry itself. Maybe Dr. Phil will get his hand slapped. Again. If you've read SHAM, you know that McGraw had a bit of trouble back in Texas, once, when that state's Board of Examiners reprimanded him for improper behavior involving a female hire.

The larger point is that the Spears/McGraw debacle underscores the way in which SHAMmers play fast and loose with the rules and orthodoxies of the fields in which they dabble. In self-help, you can get away with just kinda "wingin' it," as Dr. Laura also has shown us for years: You can get away with telling people after 78 seconds of telephone interplay that they should leave their husbands or stop talking to their mothers or kick their kids out of the house for good this time. If there's money to be made, or mere buzz to be generated, it doesn't matter if you're cutting corners or breaking rules. Most gurus, after all, don't have the credentials to be doing what they're doing in the first place, so why should they worry about following procedure to the letter? To paraphrase Wendy Kaminer's classic line, the only thing distinguishing the average advice-giving guru from the average advice-giving aunt or auto mechanic is that the guru can write well enough to land a book deal. And in many cases, even that much isn't true: The raw idea may be salable, but the guru needs to have somebody ghostwrite the particulars.

Recently we talked about exploitation and manipulation, and though one hates to be cynical all the time, it's hard to escape such feelings here. Amid the hoopla over Britney Spears—her sanity and her weight and her poor kids and those spy shots of her naughty bits and that disastrous marriage to Federline and her rumored impending marriage to a member of the paparazzi—it's all too easy to forget that Spears isn't the only celebrity in this soap opera. Dr. Phil is a "name" in his own right. Celebrities who minister to other celebrities achieve a multiplier effect, and I'm sure it wasn't lost on McGraw that if he came to Britney's rescue, an awful lot of PR would accrue to him. Not just that, but he'd penetrate a demographic (i.e. teenyboppers) who normally don't give that much thought to a stodgy old bald-headed coot like Dr. Phil. So it could be said that McGraw's white-knight routine, no matter how well-intended, was also a helluva marketing move and, perhaps, a calculated risk/reward business decision; he could've figured that any censure that might result would be outweighed by the PR benefits of having his name linked to Brit's.

The bottom line for all the major players in SHAMland is to keep your name out there. Nowadays, that alone will ensure the continued flow of money, regardless of the intrinsic merit of what you're pitching or whether people have a genuine need for it. Get yourself on TV somehow and a reasonable percentage of people will buy whatever you're selling, just by virtue of the fact that they saw you on TV. That is the culture in which we live, wherein celebrity is its own reward. You think it's coincidence that the first thing ordinary people do when they're thrust into the public eye is begin shopping a book deal? Used to be that in order to become a successful author, you had to have something to say. No more. Fame, today, is circular and often self-sustaining: If you become a celebrity, America ipso facto considers you worthy of being a celebrity.

Even if you have nothing new to say and someone else is writing the very words with which you say it!

....which actually brings us back to the land of Simon, Randy and Paula...

I don't know how many of you saw this year's American Idol premiere Tuesday, but one of the highlights (clearly Idol's producers thought so) was the post-rejection meltdown of Alexis Cohen, a contestant who hails from Allentown, just a few miles east of where I sit as I write this. Today's Morning Call contains a story about Cohen, and how her edgy, over-the-top performance and profanity-laced histrionics not only won her invites to popular talk shows (she's already done Live with Regis and Kelly and The View), but prompted a spate of feelers from "talent agents," as the Call charitably identifies them. So you see? Let's sum up: You don't really have the pipes or the stage presence to make it past the first cut on Idol. You come damn close to going postal in front of millions of viewers. Yet somehow all that becomes the makings of a mini-career in its own right, providing you access to plum shows like Regis and The View, where countless singers with decent voices and docile personalities have no chance of ever being booked. You're a celebrity with a portfolio built on a third-rate voice and a first-strike mentality. You're a freakin' freak show. But you're a bankable freak show. Why, with any luck, you could be the next William Hung!

Ahh, don'tcha just love it!


Heather said...

Is Dr. Laura still around? And by "around" I mean in the public eye.

Steve Salerno said...

She's taken a pretty big hit in the number of stations that carry her radio show. But her books still sell, in no small part thanks to her being a favorite of, among other people, Larry King. She just did his show last week, pimping her book, The Proper Care and Feeding of Marriages.

As long as you maintain a core/captive audience of a few million people, you can keep yourself profitable.

RevRon's Rants said...

I'm sure her pictures on the Internet helped considerably. Imagine where Paris Hilton would be if she hadn't "leaked" her sex tape online. Paris who?

Anonymous said...

Where has this California psychologist been? Dr. Phil got slapped in his adopted state of Texas. Dr. Phil's reputation has been murky for awhile. Why is anyone surprised by him?