We all know who Kim Kardashian is, but do any of you know what she did for a living before her notorious sex tape with, then boyfriend, Ray J, made her a household name? Yeah, neither did I (she ran a boutique called Dash, at the time, little known outside of the Los Angeles area). Before her tabloid cover days, Ms. Kardashian was likely more well known for the men in mother, Kris Jenner's life (father, the late Robert Kardashian was a part of OJ Simpson's defense team and stepdad Bruce Jenner was a gold-medal winning decathlete) than the men in her own.
As her Twitter followers exceed five million, there is no question that Kardashian has become the poster child for the new celebrity, a breed of famemongers who are more known for something they did rather than what they do, who, to paraphase Ricky Gervais, 'wear their fame like an open wound'. It's easy to lump the everyday people who make it onto reality shows into this category. Their brush with fame, like a shooting star, is brief, but fabulous…sometimes. The rise is fast and the attention, addictive. Many find themselves unable to go back to regular life and they try anything from posing for Playboy to selling stories of depravity to anyone willing to listen just for another chance at the limelight. Some have had surprising success sequeing into legitimacy (Elisabeth Hasslebeck's rise from fourth place finisher on Survivor to co-host of the View is the gold standard) and others have found new ways to beat and stretch their fifteen minutes into submission (Omarosa, so infamous she doesn't need a last name, appeared on the Apprentice back in 2004 and just had her own show, the Ultimate Merger air on TV One this year.
The rise of reality television as a form of entertainment has allowed for the democratization of fame; now, you don't have to be rich, talented or connected to have the world at your feet (albeit temporarily). So now, everyone can have it, but not everyone has 'it'. Case in point, the aforementioned Kardashian. I can't question her business savvy; it takes smarts to develop what could have been a career killing faux pas into a multi-million dollar empire, but what exactly does she do? For the most part, her money comes from endorsements, which are due largely to the fact that she is attractive. There is no professional expertise or experience that comes with her name being on a label. The sad part is that no one would really have batted an eyelash at her if not for that sex tape. Her mother had been trying for years to get the show off the ground, but no go until Kim caved and dropped her lawsuit against Vivid (the company distributing the sex tape)and settled for $5 million, essentially putting a price on her body and self-respect, but ultimately the move gave her and her family a future and a fortune.
Now young women like Montana Fishburne, Devon James (Tiger Woods' alleged porn star mistress), Jaimee Grubbs (Tiger Woods…again), Michelle McGee (Jesse James) and recently, Brittney Jones (Ashton Kutcher) all look to sell their sex tapes or stories for a chance to make a name for themselves. The key is sell yourself (and others) at a cost. While the Kardashian clan exemplifies this new model for fame, they didn't invent it. That title goes to none other than Paris Hilton. Back in 2003, Hilton was more known for her recognizable last name than anything else. But then came THE sex tape, 1 Night in Paris, which bolted her from the society pages to the front pages. Her show the Simple Life (with pal Nicole Richie) became a hit and Paris, a star. Soon books, TV appearances, endorsements and fragrances followed. Paris' uber-successful model has become the way to gain access into the upper echelons of fame once reserved for the impressively talented, but what does her and those like her success say about us?
Is it any surprise that youngsters put all their business on front street without regard for the affect it might have on family or loved ones, much less their reputations, when they know that it could lead to more friends, more fans or a larger following? Exploitative fame has whet our appetites for the kind of notoriety which celebrates exposure over decency and self-control and wields lack of discretion as honorable truth-telling. But truth at what cost? What’s off limits? In today's culture, 'friends' are people who have access to your profile not people who you have fostered a close bond with over a period of time. A social network, more often than not, refers to interaction online rather than face to face. When bonds are so vast and indistinct, is it any wonder that they are disposable?
What makes reality celebrity disturbing is that it suggests that what you're seeing is normal, that this is what real and regular people do. And more often than not, what these 'real' people do is coarse and rude. It reinforces the idea that the most interesting people are the ones that are harsh, that show little restraint or respect for other people. Initially, such behavior was marginal, a freak show that we watched out of horror and awe, but now, it's just awe. And don't think it's just women; Simon Cowell, Gordon Ramsay and Perez Hilton have built their houses with their acidic tongues.
The rise of those whose public actions betray the core values we claim to hold dear is more a statement of our character as a nation than it is on theirs. Maybe deep down inside we wish we could be as outgoing and as outrageous; maybe we believe that such behavior is more exciting than our 'hum-drum' lives, but what kind of world will we create if that kind of behavior becomes the norm? The majority of people aren't like those who you see on reality TV because most of us will never be in a situation where our actions are broadcast and scrutinized by millions and most of us wouldn't want to be, but our viewership casts the vote. How can we invite someone into our house through our television that we wouldn't waste a minute of our time with in person?
I don't hold myself to a different standard; I'm addicted to the Real Housewives... and some of the women featured on these series are the most annoying, cringe worthy people EVER. So what to do? If you share my dilemma here are the solutions that I have brainstormed for myself: one, get a life. To clarify, I have a life, but if I have the free time to watch people living life in a way that I find deplorable then I need to find something else to do with my free time; two, choose to believe that most 'reality' is scripted, meaning that these aren't real people but second rate actors loaning their name and likenesses to a show, so in fact, I'm not endorsing bad behavior; I'm simply watching fiction, people playing out a plot. This choice alleviated me from the guilt of watching, but reality's success thrives on the suspension of disbelief. The fun comes from thinking that there are people out there that are this crazy. So in good conscience, I can't play that card; third, I can choose to only watch reality shows that showcase talent and are in place to help people reach their dreams (Project Runway, Top Chef, etc) or shows that are played as exciting games (Survivor, the Amazing Race, even Big Brother) because I can accept that people will behave differently in a competitive setup. I don't believe that because I am ruthless playing Monopoly that somehow that translates to who I am on a regular day.
I know that because we watch people on TV that that doesn't mean that we will emulate them or admire them or that they're even liked, but I no longer want to reward people with my time for selling themselves in the absence of talent.