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Almost Famous

A Generation Raised to Seek Stardom

by Karla Dial

"Fame is the thirst of youth.” —Lord Byron

"Fame is like a VIP pass wherever you want to go.” —Leonardo DiCaprio

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Call it the Paris Hilton effect. We all know her name, as well as the fact that she was born into a family so rich that she'll never be required to work a day of her life. For the last several years, her beautiful face and figure have been plastered everywhere, from magazines to perfume boxes.

We also know why Paris is so well known. She's dabbled in just about every form of media known to man: She's modeled for major fashion designers on the catwalk; she starred in her own reality TV show and more than a dozen movies—the most well-known of which will always be her infamous sex tape; and last year, she decided to try pop music, releasing a self-titled CD featuring the debut single "Stars Are Blind.” After a listen, critics basically said that we can only hope the stars are deaf as well. Despite all her wealth and opportunity, Paris Hilton has yet to reveal any discernible talent for anything besides attracting attention.

But Paris Hilton, apparently, is the person most young people want to be.

A Pew Research Center poll of 579 18 to 25-year-olds released in January revealed that to 81 percent of them, getting rich is their generation's first or second most important life goal, and 51 percent said the same about being famous. A similar poll of junior high students, conducted a few months later, showed that when asked what they want to be when they grow up, the majority said they want to be famous. Not necessarily for contributing anything meaningful to society, mind you, just famous—perhaps in the same vacuous way as Hilton or the late Anna Nicole Smith, who was famous for many things as well: being a beautiful Playboy Playmate, then a fat former Playmate who married a man 63 years her senior and inherited his millions before starring in her own reality TV show, where she slurred her words and appeared to be generally incapacitated most of the time.

Of course, that was a few years ago, before she (also famously) got back into shape, got pregnant, gave birth to a daughter three days before losing her 20-year-old son to a drug overdose, and then succumbed to one herself a few months later.

"I won't be happy 'til I'm as famous as God.” —Madonna

"Don't confuse fame with success. Madonna is one; Helen Keller is the other.”
—Erma Bombeck

You don't exactly need a poll to tell you these things, though. We are surrounded by anecdotal evidence of it. Ever see an entire stadium full of people waiting outdoors for three days for a chance to audition for American Idol? It happens about a half dozen times a year and all over the country.

And what about all the people willing to let cameras chronicle their every move—no matter how potentially embarrassing, or how tasteless—on reality television? You can watch them get skinny (The Biggest Loser), get scheming (Survivor), or just get downright skanky (Flavor of Love). But one thing they all have in common is that the winner gets a huge pot of cash and at least ten or twelve—if not all fifteen—minutes in the pop culture spotlight.

It's human nature to covet the things we see. Reality television and internet developments like MySpace and YouTube are the equivalent of one giant cultural department-store window—and an entire generation is now shopping.

"I used to really want to be famous, and now everyone is doing it. YouTube is everywhere. There's a plumber right now who's mining a fortune from his butt crack, I'm sure.” —Jim Carrey

Fame is no longer the sole property of the beautiful, the talented, or the rich. And if you don't believe me, I have three words for you: Star Wars Kid (see related sidebar).

According to the Pew poll, 54 percent of respondents have used social networking sites like MySpace or Facebook, and 44 percent of those have created personal profiles featuring their photos, hobbies, or interests.

On its home page, MySpace says it's a place where users can "create private communities.” Once upon a time in the real world, those were called country clubs, and they were populated solely by the well-connected and well-to-do.

But in our technology-aided, ever-shrinking world, where we've been led to believe that any one of us—just given the right opportunity—can be a star, that's no longer good enough. The masses are rebelling, seeking to create their own version of fame, measured in the number of "friends” they can list on their pages or the number of times their video is played on YouTube.

"It is strange to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely.”
—Albert Einstein

"What is fame? The advantage of being known by people of whom you yourself know nothing, and for whom you care as little.” —Lord Byron

Technology might be making it easier for more people to seek fame, but it's not enough by itself to explain what drives people to seek it. For that, you have to look a little deeper.

Once upon a time, fame might have been viewed as a form of immortality: Accomplish something great, and people will remember your name forever. It was worth the time and effort it took to build a lasting legacy, to contribute something meaningful to society or the arts, to change the course of history.

Now, however, it appears more people see fame as a form of love.

In the digital age of 24-hour news cycles where things change every second, you're only as good as your last piece of publicity. Of the 18 to 25-year-olds surveyed by the Pew Forum, approximately half of their would-be peers were aborted before birth. Most come from broken or latchkey homes. Add to that our newfound ability to create "designer babies,” and it's easy to see how anyone can feel more inherently worthless now than in previous generations. We are seeking fame and wealth more than ever before to fill the void.

Ryan Dobson is one person who has tasted fame. He's the thirtysomething son of Dr. James Dobson, founder, chairman, and controversial leader (at least to Democrats) of Focus on the Family. He says he first realized in sixth grade how famous his dad was when a teacher asked him if his last name was "Dobson, like Dr. Dobson on the radio.” When Ryan replied, "Yeah, he's my dad,” the teacher said, "Yes, I know you wish he was, honey.”

Ryan Dobson has his own vantage point on fame now, though. He speaks to teens and twentysomethings through a weekly podcast called Kor, and for the last several years, he has spoken to tens of thousands of them in person, traveling the country as a motivational speaker. And the hunger for fame is something he sees at every stop he makes.

"Fame is a substitute for all the things we lack in our lives,” he says. "We lack substance. We lack family. But you can't ever get enough money or fame not to go through hard times. Just look at Britney Spears; she has literally made more money than she can ever spend and is as famous as a person can get. But she seems desperate for some kind of meaning.”

"Fame and riches are fleeting. Stupidity is eternal.” —Don Williams, Jr.

"The highest form of vanity is the love of fame.” —George Santayana

The one thing famous people and wannabe famous people all seem to have in common is a deep-seated hurt.

Professor Cary Cooper of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in Britain has written several books about what makes people seek fame.

"Famous people have usually experienced a negative event during childhood—often it's the loss of a parent, or rejection from a key figure in their life at a younger age,” he told BBC News in 2003.

Because of their lack of self-confidence, they're driven to achieve something—or to step outside of themselves and pretend to be someone else. Most tend to have shallow relationships with other people and feel lonely when they're not performing for a crowd.

Sounds like a collective diagnosis for our culture these days. In the same way that girls who don't receive attention from their fathers as children seek it from strange men later in life, so an entire generation is now prostituting itself on TV and the internet. And just like those real-life girls seeking validation, what we most often find is exploitation.

"Indeed, wretched is the man whose fame makes his misfortunes famous.” —Lucius Accius Telephus

Dusty Bottoms: What does that mean, in-famous?
Ned Nederlander: Oh, Dusty. In-famous is when you're MORE than famous. This man El Guapo: he's not just famous; he's IN-famous. —Three Amigos, 1986

Speaking of prostitution . . .

"At least real prostitutes are actually getting money, but these women [going on bachelorette reality shows] are getting nothing but fifteen minutes of fame and telling the world that they're whores,” Dobson notes. He then describes an episode of the TV show Flavor of Love in which "a girl drinks so much that she craps her pants”:

For the rest of her life, millions of people will have seen her do that on TV. Was it worth it? What's crazy is I bet she'd say it is. That's the price we've put on fame. It's worth our dignity, our self-respect, our reputation. When you figure how much the government is going to tax your winnings, it makes even less sense. And the people who don't win get nothing.

As of this writing, Paris Hilton has just been released from her very public 23-day stint in jail for getting caught violating her probation in March. She had been ordered not to drive after being pulled over for driving drunk last September. (No answer to the question of why she was even driving herself in the first place when she can afford a personal chauffeur.) Before accepting her fate, she appealed to everyone, from her fans to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, to help her stay out of jail—and for once, to no avail. Bloggers celebrated, saying that she finally got a taste of the not-so-simple life.

But once again, wealth and fame insulated her from the consequences most people would have had to suffer under these circumstances: Upon her release, Paris was greeted by a swarm of paparazzi, then whisked off to do a full-hour interview with Larry King. Days later, entertainment shows and fluff magazines featured stories on how to acquire her new "free and fast” look.

Did Paris Hilton learn anything from this experience? She says she did, but time will tell. And what about you? Were you one of the millions to watch Hilton on Larry King? Now that just might be the most revealing question of them all. 



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