Have you ever wondered why more people watch ‘American Idol’ than the nightly news on the three major networks combined? Or why down to earth, educated people find stories and gossip about Kim Kardashian irresistible? We are about to find out because Jake’s book is about this very topic – why we are so obsessed with celebrities.
To start off, why did you decide to write the book ‘Fame Junkies’?
I kind of stumbled into this accidentally. I had written a story for ‘The New Yorker’ about a young rapper named J-Kwon, who had a hit song out called ‘Tipsy.’ It was one of those stories that as a journalist you dream about. A young kid who was growing up on the streets of St. Louis living in abandoned cars, writing his rap lyrics by the light of a cigarette lighter, and was about to be signed by Arista Records.
So I went there and met him and the story should not be a lot more complicated than that. He actually had run away from his home in the suburbs of St. Louis in order to get street cred living on the streets, and then got kind of adopted by this manager who was supposed to promote his cause, and he never told the manager that he had his mom who was wondering where he was down in the suburbs.
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Anyway, while I was reporting this story, he hit big. It was one of those amazing moments where I actually watched him become famous firsthand. In the course of the time that I was working on the story, he went from obscurity to having the number one song at the top of the Billboard charts. I saw what we often see in the movies or on television, which is all the trappings of fame, relatives coming out of the woodwork for money, kids that wanted to be his assistant.
He would go to shopping malls and be swarmed by people. Fans who were just hoarding him. This idea came into my mind–wouldn’t it be interesting if I looked at the three facets of the story. A) The young guy who wants to become famous and runs away and leaves his family and gives up everything in order to become famous. B) All of these young kids who were trying to make it as his assistant. There was one kid that was great, everyone had a street name. His name was ‘Versatile,’ and halfway through he said, ‘Hey man, can you call me 4?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure, why?’ And he said, ‘Oh because, now he has got an assistant named 3 and J-Kwon has renamed me 4.’ So, there are the assistants.
Then there are the fans. I decided to break ‘Fame Junkies’ into three parts: why do we want to become famous, why do we want to be near the famous and lastly, why do we tend to obsess and worship these people from afar?
Where you somebody who was always interested in celebrities growing up?
Yeah, I would say I was. I grew up very far from the glitz and glamor of Hollywood in Buffalo, New York in the 80s. My favorite television show was ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.’ You know the one with Robin Leach where he goes, ‘These are the wonderful gold-plated bathroom fixtures,’ and he goes through all the diamonds, the goblets that the movie stars drink from. I was totally sucked into the show like millions of other Americans, and I think that was the celebrity fix I got when I was a kid. When I was starting to write this book, the obvious realization dawned on me that, back in 1984 when that show first aired, it was one of a kind, and now there is a whole genre–the celebrity lifestyle. Whether it is ‘Cribs’ or whether it is InStyle magazine, we have this fascination, not just with celebrities, but with everything they use and buy.
You mentioned in your book how magazines like Us Weekly and like InTouch, their circulation has been sky rocketing, but real news magazines are not doing so well.
That is absolutely right. Magazines like Entertainment Weekly, Us, and InStyle have grown. Their circulation is absolutely through the roof, and magazines like Newsweek and Time are totally stagnant. In fact, this is part of an even a larger trend as well. That the conventional, mainstream media follows celebrity stories now in a way they didn’t do 10 years ago. Places like CNN, even the New York Times, that normally would avoid this as being too frivolous or fluffy, have now jumped into it over their heads.
That is why you see this Anna Nicole Smith thing, it is just inescapable. I think part of that is because, particularly television and the expansion of cable news networks, there is a lot of competition. There is a lot more competition than there ever was, and you have a lot of panicky news producers who are worried about their ratings dropping and they see celebrity news stories as a way to stop the hemorrhage of viewers.
Right. I turned on Larry King on CNN last night, and it was another hour of Anna Nicole Smith. It is amazing to me how many people are obsessed, and how it has taken over CNN and then you turn the channel and it is on the next show, and the next show, and the next show, and it is just crazy. I like on your site where you had talked to a lot of kids and most of them think they are going to be famous one day. Why do you think kids now think they are going to be famous, and do you think kids from the generation before would call this insane?
Yeah, I think the reality is that teenagers today are like these kids we often see queuing up in mass to be on ‘American Idol.’ They have this sense that they are going to be famous in a way they did not in the past. I think 31% of teenagers in this one study done by Harvard and the Kaiser Foundation showed that teenagers think they are going to become celebrities in the near future. I think there are a few reasons why this is true. One sense is fame seems accessible in a way it did not in the past. So, if you think about when I was a kid, I was born in 75 and I am only 31.
I remember as a kid there were five TV stations I could watch. There was NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS, and one other station. They did not broadcast around the clock whereas now you turn on the TV and there are 500 channels. Plus there is YouTube and MySpace. Kids today have a very strong sense that fame is not far out of their reach because when you turn on the TV or the internet, it seems like there is so much fame to go around.
That phenomenon coincides with another phenomenon which is that young people today, particularly teenagers, have a greater sense of self-importance than they ever did in the past. There is the one really great statistic that shows this. They have been asking teenagers this question since the 1950s. The question is, am I an important person? Back in the ’50s, only 12% of teenagers answered yes to that question. Whereas today, over 80% answered yes.
Part of it is the way we bring kids up. The vacations to Disney World, when kids say ice cream and the parents slam on the brakes. We build our families around kids and it is also probably the self-esteem curriculum, but the bottom line is, you’ve got a lot of kids out there who feel they deserve the attention and the VIP status that fame promises to offer. On top of that, Fame does not seem like such a reach. I think these forces collide to make people, really young people in particular, feel like fame is within their grasp
I think sometimes a lot of these celebrities, especially young Hollywood, are starved for attention. Like with Paris Hilton, do you think she is just starved for attention, or is it something else? Or even like Britney Spears, who has some talent, do you think when she was younger she had an extreme need for attention or to be recognized?
Yeah, one of the arguments I make in my book is, there is definitely an addictive quality to attention and fame. To a certain extent, it is like money. There is never such thing as too much. I mean it is like the old thing at the blackjack table where you will hear someone say, ‘I am just going to make a 1,000 bucks, and then I am going to quit,’ and then you get to a thousand and you are like, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I had $2,000?’ Or the tycoon on Wall Street that makes 30 million, but is already thinking about how he can make a 100 million.
In this essence, attention is the same way. When we get it we get a rush. Even someone like Britney Spears. You can imagine her first concert, her first TV appearance, her first big commercial endorsement. She was totally pumped; she was totally excited. It was such a thrill. Then it happens the second time and two things happen. One is, it is slightly less exciting so there will be a need for something bigger and better. Also, if everyone does stop looking at you, and heaven forbid you would have to wait on line in a restaurant.
You can see how it would be very crushing. So, I think that is the tricky thing about attention. You can quickly develop a very strong dependency on it. When I was on this book tour, I had a very small taste of all this stuff. My publisher put me up in some really nice hotels and they hired a Lincoln Town Car to drive me all around, and I have been doing the tour for a few days. I was staying at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. I got out to the lobby, and there were always a bunch of town cars lined up front.
I walked out saying my last name thinking one of these drivers was going to be my driver. I said, ‘Halpern.’ My driver is not there, what is going on? So checked my itinerary, pulled it out of my coat pocket and it says, “from Waldorf to bookstore, take a taxi.” Here was this moment where I was totally indignant. I was like, “Taxi?” Then I laughed about it, because I had never done anything but take a taxi or even the subway up until that moment.
But after four days of being driven around in a town car, I felt that a town car should be waiting for me. Then this light bulb went off in the back of my head and I said, “My goodness if this is what is going on at this very small level, I am getting a taste of this.” Can you imagine what it is like at the level of someone like Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan and the thought of the ride stopping, the people stopping watching, and the VIP status not being there? I think would be profoundly disturbing.
That is what’s so interesting about your book. I got the feeling you were a little bit critical of people that follow celebrities and are obsessed with celebrities and even our celebrities a little bit. But then in the course of writing the book, you became a celebrity in a way. You have been on all these TV shows, like 20/20 and The Today Show, and you have been in Entertainment Weekly and USA today, and it is like you have gotten a piece of your own medicine. I wonder if you have changed your views in any way since you finished the book and after all of this publicity.
I think all around I have become more sympathetic, not just to the people who are famous and dealing with aspects of that, but also the fans. When I got back from staying at the Waldorf and The Four Seasons, I ended up back at my ranch house in the middle of the desert in Mexico, where I can literally look out the window and watch tumbleweed blow across the street. And there was this moment where the ride had stopped. I was kind of shocked. So I think in some ways I definitely have understood the predicament of the celebrity who felt disillusioned by the end of that, the end of their fame.
I remember when I was writing the book, one thing led to another and I got to interview – I have always been a huge U2 fan, and I got a chance to interview The Edge who is their guitarist. I got to go to the concert and go backstage; it worked out randomly that I got to do this. It was all well and fine to interview stars I really did not know that much about. I interviewed Rod Stewart like the week before, but I was never a big Rod Stewart fan. So, even when I met him it did not seem like a big deal. But when I met The Edge, it was like I was a ten-year-old kid again. It was weird because I was writing this book that as you point out in many ways looks at all the problems of being celebrity obsessed, and yet I could not deny the fact that when I met this guy, he was a hero of mine. I was overcome with this adolescent desire to be his buddy; I think that if we are being honest with ourselves, we all fall into this from time to time.
I have read the book, which is really good. I suggest everybody on the call go out and get it. But I found myself chuckling because you are in the limo with Rod Stewart and you are at the Hollywood Walk of Fame with Rod Stewart getting his handprint made and you interview celebrities. I am laughing, because you are not making fun, but analyzing all these people. Then I thought, “He is there too.” It is really interesting. So, I wanted to talk about some of my favorite parts of the book, and maybe if you can give a little bit of insight or even talk about some things that you left out of the book or did not include that are interesting.
You start out going to the International Modeling and Talent Association Convention, where parents spend thousands of dollars on their kids. Did you really see any kids there that you thought, one day he might be famous or did it seem like a big joke?
No, I mean there were definitely kids that seemed like, it was reasonable to think they might become famous. But there were plenty of kids I looked at who I took one glance at and knew there was no chance. I talked to a girl who had a really severe facial tick and someone had told these kids, ‘This could happen to you. These kids were paying–I mean their parents were paying $5,000 to $10,000 to be there for this extended weekend, but yeah, it is interesting.
I went to this convention, and one boy particularly I followed around who was bullied a lot at school and saw fame as a way to change his life and keep the bullies at bay. He was in a really tough situation. His father spent $16,000 in about six months to promote his acting career. He was from rural Arizona, and his mother had before he had gone to this convention, put an announcement in the school paper saying, this boy, who I call Eddy, ‘is on his way to becoming a star and is going to the convention. He is going to be the next big star.’ Which is totally premature, he was not by any means going to be the next big star, he was just going to a contest on the hope that he would.
So, the kids in his school were making a huge deal out of this, and they had these expectations he was going to come back famous. So the kid was under all this pressure. Meanwhile, I am following around this one agent who is this kind of very despicable character, but also very insightful about what he is looking for. He has got a very good sense of picking up the kind of kids that will become famous, and he really is despicable, as he would sit in his chair and watch the kids walk by the stage and say, ‘That one there, she is not going to be an actress, she is going to be a nurse. She is more of a medical type. That one there, she’s more literary. She would not be a movie star, but she might be a decent writer. That one there, she is going to be a prostitute.’
These are six and seven year old girls. So, I am following around this agent who – the things that he says about what he is actually looking for are really interesting. He says, ‘I want to find kids where it is all about them; they don’t say yes sir, no sir. They are just like little narcissists. They know their own value.’ And when he finally met the kid who was bullied that I was following around, the first thing Eddy said to him was, ‘Nice to meet you, sir,’ and you could tell this guy was like, ‘No, this is not what I want.’
The kid he found – and I should follow-up and see if he made it big yet – but I do not think he has, was a very cute and incredibly brash 12-year-old. His father was a celebrity personal assistant. When I met him, his father said, ‘Yeah, I have given up my life to come out here and be with my son. I am really just a soldier in the duty of my son.’ The kid without missing a beat said, ‘Dad, drop and give me 20.’
The most interesting thing to me about the whole experience was the single quality that seemed to be the most coveted among the scout’s rhythm of picking up on which kids would make it or not were the kids who had the greatest sense of entitlement, the greatest self-centeredness, and audacity. It is interesting, because we always think, ‘Oh, fame does that to people,’ right? Like they go out to Hollywood being all normal like from Iowa and fame twists them and turns them.
What was so interesting about this was that no, what actually seemed to be the case at least in this situation, was the scouts were looking for the little narcissists, the little self-centered prima donnas to begin with, because they knew that was the kind of personality that would thrive in a situation in which they would have to command other people’s attention.
Right, it is interesting that you say that because I saw a kid at the gym the other day that used to be on The Real World. And the way he was walking around, I was watching him on the treadmill thinking ‘Oh, he is walking around like he was on TV and he was on The Real World, and he thinks he is so special and important and famous now.’ And then I thought, ‘Maybe that is how he got on The Real World.’
There is this air they have that makes people want to watch them. You were talking about personal assistants. You also went to a Learning Annex Class and I was so interested in the statistic you gave, where you said, “Given the choice of becoming the CEO of a Major Corporation, the President of Yale or Harvard, a Navy Seal, a US Senator or the personal assistant to a movie or music star, 43.4% of girls chose the assistant role.” That is almost 50%. Why do you think so many people want to be celebrity assistants–get their coffee and clean their house?
It is crazy. I did the survey with 700 American teenagers and that was the one that really blew me away. That is the one that got the most amount of attention from the book. One is I was working with these statisticians, who were helping me analyze the data from the survey, and I went back to them and I said, ‘Can we find out anything more about what types of girls were likely to pick the assistant over being US Senator, the president of Harvard and Yale, etc.?’ So, they printed out the data and they found that girls who got bad grades, which we define as “Cs” or below — if you look at that pool, 67% of them opted to become an assistant.
They looked at both girls and boys who got bad grades and/or described themselves as not feeling popular among their peers. 80% of them chose the personal assistant. So, it seems to be the sense that for people with lower self-esteem, they did not even think becoming President of Harvard or Yale or US Senator or CEO was on the cards, and becoming an assistant seemed like a reasonable way for them to be close to greatness.
So, I have this data and I thought, ‘Well the other thing you can think of is, these are teenagers, right?” They are going to grow out of this. What kind of adult really goes around thinking about becoming a celebrity personal assistant is an end all be all job. Well, as you point out, there are these classes from the Learning Annex called ‘Becoming a Celebrity Personal Assistant,’ and I went. It is run by the Association of Celebrity Personal Assistants, and this is the part of my book that has excerpts in Entertainment Weekly.
I went out there and the class is packed with adults. One of the guys I profiled had been an executive at a healthcare company pulling down a six-figure salary with a good 401(k). The guy had made it, and he was giving up that job in order to become an assistant. He wants to be part of the celebrity lifestyle.
Again, we talked about this at the beginning about how, when I was a kid, we all watched Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. His sense was, I am 32 years old, and I am not going to become a movie star. This is going to be the best way to get a piece of that lifestyle. But what we found out was, yeah, you do get to ride in the limo and you get to walk the red carpet, but it is only because you are carrying someone’s bag. And he says, ‘No one even ever knew my name.’ He said, ‘You are not a person, you are just someone’s assistant.’ So, there is definitely a high cost for the trade-off.
I think too, another part of it is what you were saying with these TV shows. I remember on the Anna Nicole Show, Kimmy was her assistant. She was on the show every day, and she did everything Anna Nicole did and they had fun together and she was even at the funeral. Then there is Kathy Griffin’s show, ‘My Life on the D-List’ and she is always talking to her assistant Jessica. She is always yelling her name, but she is nice and she invites her to dinner and they go to Vegas together. But I do not think they ever show that there is a dark side to being an assistant. Did you talk to anybody where they told you about this?
Oh yeah, for sure. The dark side is definitely there. If you look at the Entertainment Weekly article, they compiled the craziest requests these people got. One of them involved an actor who told his assistant, ‘My brother is over in Iraq with the army. Please call the President and get him to get my brother back, so he can go to the pre-Oscar parties with me.’ And not with a smile or anything. I mean what can you say to that? There is definitely a crazier side to this position that very much exists.
The other day, when the judge sentenced Naomi Campbell to community service. I was thinking, she has beaten up four assistants, but people keep coming back and applying and are willing to work for her as an assistant. Even though they know she has beaten up four before. So I do not think it will ever end. One of the other things you did is you went to Oakwood Apartments and hung out with kids that wanted to be stars and the parents that were sacrificing so much to help them. I wanted to ask you if you thought the parents were doing this for selfish reasons, like, ‘I am going to have a famous kid,’ or if they are doing it just for the love of their child and wanting to give them everything.
I think both are the truth. At Oakwood, I saw a range. There were some parents out there with the kids that inherently there was something nuts about that whole Oakwood situation with parents splitting up the family. Like dad would stay back in Ohio with one sibling and mom would move out to Los Angeles, would either have to quit her job or take a three-month absence, pay $3,500 a month rent at Oakwood plus living expenses.
And the mom is also losing her salary right because she had to leave her job. And then you are breaking up the family, all so the kids can get an audition for a show. So, to begin with, it is an insane proposition, but that being said, I did see there were some grandparents out there. They were out there with their grandkids. I thought it was a really healthy dynamic. The kids knew they were loved, and it seemed pretty positive to me.
With that being the good case, there were two other not as good cases I saw. One was the classic stage mom scenario, and when I say stage mom, it could be stage dad as well, and that is the situation where I think as you were alluding to. The parents are largely living vicariously through the kid; pushing the kids. The kids have a sense they need to do this, they need to succeed, and it is not really healthy. That I was expecting to see because it is the old Macaulay Culkin thing that has been around forever.
What I was surprised at was the situation. It was more like the little narcissist story that I told from International Modeling Talent Agency, which was kids whose parents I think genuinely loved them and wanted the best for them, but almost could not say no to the kid. The kids were running the show, and the kids have always been the star in their parent’s world. They have been the apple of their parents’ eye and now that was not enough for the kids. They also wanted to be the star of the world at large and the parents not wanting to deprive their kid of any opportunity, wanted to allow them to become the star. That blew my mind as I had not seen or heard about that as much. So, these were the three types that I saw to start with.
I liked how you said kids today, in general, are sort of celebrities in their family and parents have almost become their personal assistants. I thought that was interesting.
Yeah. Throughout the book, I really tried to make a point of not putting myself above and beyond any of this. My wife and I, we have a four-month-old baby and you walk into our house and the kids–our son is bashing his stuff is everywhere and you walk into our room and he has a wardrobe that is bigger than mine and my wife’s. Everyone sends him baby gifts and then I look at parents that are a little bit older and on the weekends they are driving them from one little league event to another and to vacations at Disneyworld. There really is this element that kids are like celebrities in the family and the parents are sometimes like as you say, the celebrity’s personal assistant. So I do not think it is entirely surprising that when these kids grow up, they continue to expect that star treatment.
The other part I wanted to get to which was my favorite part of the book was when you hung out with this woman named Marcy who worships Rod Stewart and actually helps his star on the Walk of Fame. Then you went to the ceremony with her and you got mobbed by the paparazzi. The most interesting part was when you ended up in the limo with Rod Stewart interviewing him and you were telling him about her crazy obsessions and her Rod Stewart room. You said he didn’t seem shocked at all.
Yeah. What happened was basically Marcy who is really a great character because she is so thoughtful about her own obsession with Rod and she is constantly mooning it over. Anyway, she has got this Rod room that is a shrine to Rod, it has every single piece of Rod Stewart memorabilia you can imagine. It also has a shirt Rod once wore framed on the wall. It has the glass that he once drank from on the set of The View. So, in the car was Rod Stewart – this is after the ceremony. I am in the limo with him and his fiance or maybe she is now his wife, Penny Lancaster and we are driving back to his house and I say, ‘You know this woman Marcy’ because she had nominated him to be on the Walk of Fame. ‘Oh! Of course, I know her.’ I said well, did you know she has got a Rod room? She has got your shirt framed on the wall, a glass that you once drank from. Do you find this weird at all? And there was this moment where he looked at me and I was thinking about how he is going to answer the question.
And then he said, ‘No, I just think it is wonderful. You need fans, you need something to give meaning to your life and that is – I am a big soccer fan and she is a big fan of mine and that is great. The crazier they are about me the better basically.’ I could not tell whether he genuinely meant that, or whether this was something he was saying carefully because he did not want to offend his fans because he knew his fans. Or whether he has just been in the spotlight so long that it seemed totally normal to him that someone would have his shirt and a glass he once drank from setup in a shrine to him.
But there was this kind of weird symbiotic relationship that seemed to exist between the two of them. For Marcy, it was this need to have someone to put up on a pedestal, to be in this exalted position which she devoted a shrine to. For him, there was a certain need to have these people putting him up on the shrine and so there is this weird kind of dynamic they both seemed somewhat comfortable with.
The chapter is actually called ‘A Choice of Worship: Rod vs. God’ and I remember she was saying how she travels all these hundreds of miles to see Rod Stewart but she is not sure that if Jesus came back to earth she would travel to see him. You talked about whether celebrity worship is the new religion.
Yeah. To some extent it is. When I was in Pittsburg visiting Marcy, there is this moment where she is talking about whether she devoting too much energy to Rod and not enough to God. And then eventually she invites her pastor over the following evening and invites me back for the three of us to have a discussion, me and her and pastor. She is actually a pretty observing Christian and so the pastor is doing a good job. He is asking her about what Rod does for her and what God does for her and what the differences are. And she says, ‘The thing about God is I know He is all powerful and I don’t really compare Rod to Him.’ But what Rod offered her was he was accessible. When Rod showed up, he showed up with all the lights and the glamour and she could go to his concert and see him and occasionally he would point down to her. There was accessibility to Rod that there is not to God, because ultimately God is all about faith and is totally abstract.
The great thing about celebrities – at least from the perspective of the fans – is they are there. You can go and see them. You can see pictures of them; you can even get recognized by them occasionally. So she is saying all this and then she says, “I realized ultimately that God loves me just the way I am, whereas Rod, he only loves me sometimes. We have this idea in our head of the fan as being this crazy zealot who does not think about why they are so into it. Marcy is such a great subject because you could totally talk to her about it, and she would think aloud about why exactly she was so into this person. It made her a really sympathetic and interesting character.
I wanted to ask you real quick, “was it Janice Min or Bonnie Fuller that you interviewed from Us Weekly’?
I interviewed both.
Did you find them likable or did you find them to be very hard-nosed sort of like the tabloid editor Courteney Cox plays in “Dirt”?
Janice Min and I met more than once in person when I went to Us Weekly. Bonnie Fuller and I only met over the phone. So, I really do not have a good sense for who she was. But Bonnie Fuller struck me as very smart but no-nonsense. I could see her having the edge. Janice Min was very delightful. I found her to be very down to earth and very intelligent. The FX show with Courteney Cox cannot be modeled after Janice Min because she seemed far too nice. Bonnie Fuller — I really do not know her well enough but she certainly seemed like she could be tough if she needed to be.
One thing that made me feel a little bit better after reading your book is you talked about how our needing to be close to celebrities or our obsession with fame may be hardwired in our brain. So can you talk a little about the experiment with the monkeys that you talked about in your book?
Yeah, this is one of my favorite parts of the book. The question I got asked so much on my book tour was, “Why are we so crazy about celebrities?” People want magic bullet answers. I do not think there are any. I think it is a combination of a number of forces and one of them, I think, is evolution and this really hit home for me with the study at Duke University. I actually went down to Duke. There is a guy named Michael Platt there who has been studying Rhesus monkeys. In any troop of monkeys and generally in a lot of primates, there is a dominant monkey like the classic alpha male and that monkey demands tribute for the other monkeys. The other monkeys bow down and grab on to him. It is not to keep with chimpanzees…those kissed their feet and offer up little gifts. It is all kind of celebrity like. Anyway, with the Rhesus monkey, Platt in his experiment built a device that gauged where these monkeys looked at.
They could basically do two options; one option is they could get food and the other option is they could stare at a picture of the dominant monkey in their group. And what he found was, again and again, these monkeys actually gave up food in order to stare at the dominant monkey, and they paid for it. I asked why is this happening? He said, ‘Well, the idea is that our brains are hard-wired to zone in on the powerful important players in our circle.” So, back in the ancient cave times, we studied the dominant person in our cave and knew when they ate, what they ate, where they slept, who they slept with, what they did at different times during the day? And we were kind of careful observers of this. It just increased the chances that we would survive and that we would pass along those genes that made us watch these people and then over time the gene pulled it off such a way that we had this mechanism that kicked in our brains and said, “Hey watch that guy strutting around or watch that sexy woman” and the idea is that now our minds are getting hijacked and incensed by pop culture.
So, instead of watching the movers and shakers of our immediate circle, we are watching celebrities because they are strutting self-important, flamboyant behavior. It triggers that part of our brain that says, “Hey, watch that person, because he or she is important for your own survival.” But of course, as we all know watching Tom Cruise, jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch is not exactly important for our own survival. But that ancient mechanism is still firing way in our brain. It does get you off the hook a little bit.
We have a lot of authors on the call, and you have had a lot of success with your book. You have been on tons of shows and magazines, so I was just wondering if you have any advice for authors about how they can get exposure. Your book has pretty much been everywhere in the last couple of months.
I think there is the sense people have: just write a book and hand it off to your publicist and they say a prayer to the publicity Gods and that is it. I took a proactive approach. Part of my motivation was I am a freelance journalist and I am also writing books. I have a sense of how the system works, and I know these places get bombarded with books. I used to work at a magazine and we used to get like thirty books a day. So I tried to use all the contacts I had made, and I used in any possible contacts at different publications and different shows and tried to think of ways around it.
I went to college with someone that worked at Atlantic Monthly which is respected but has a relatively modest circulation. So I sent this person a copy of my book, he said, “Oh, this seems like something that this guy Scott Stossel might be interested in.” So, I wrote this guy Scott Stossel an e-mail and I sent him a copy of the book and never heard back from him and figured nothing was going to happen. I get a call or e-mail back from him like five months later. He said, “I went on vacation to Cape Cove with my uncle and he loved your book and he thought it was very interesting, and my uncle is John Stossel who is the host of 20/20, you’ve got to send him an e-mail.” So, I sent him an e-mail and then I got on 20/20. It was one of those things where it was just following up on every single connection and never knowing what the response would be. It is also just persistence. I am on NPR now and initially, I put together this series for my first book which was a totally different subject matter, and I sent it in and for like nine months, it just got rejected by various people in NPR. But I kept on, and they said, well, I am not interested but maybe so and so would be. And this must have happened like six times.
Then I got this one producer who just said, “This is fantastic! Let us turn into a series.” And it aired and I have been doing stuff with them ever since. There were like five points where I could have given up and said, “what I have done is crap, it is not going to work out” and I just said, “well, I’ll give it one more try.
So, I think it is a combination of pursuing all the various possibilities and just insulating yourself against rejection.
That is great advice because like I was telling you before the call, a lot of people who use our ContactAnyCelebrity.com service are fans but they are also authors, non-profits and small businesses. One other question along the same lines: every business today wants to have a celebrity attached and every product or service want to have a celebrity tied in it some way. In your opinion, why do you think celebrities help a product sell? We are smart enough to know that maybe Jessica Simpson does not really use Proactive but having her on the commercial really helps sales. Why do you think that makes people run out and buy it?
It is crazy. I think still the best selling grill and one of the most profitable celebrity endorsements of all time is the George Foreman Grill, which is kind of bizarre. Like, what does George Foreman know about Electric Grills?
I think it’s a number of things. One is that we know these celebrities, and it is the same reason we vote for politicians or the sons of politicians or the daughters of politicians, like George W. Bush, George Herbert Walker, or Al Gore and Al Gore Jr. and that sort of thing. Or even a Michael Douglas and Kirk Douglas, or Martin Sheen and then Charlie Sheen. We have faith in the names of these people, and we have invested in them and to some extent, we feel we know them and whether we recognize it or not there is some sense of trust there. There is a sense of trust and a sense of similarity that if we know the one person we would give their son or their daughter a chance because we know them and I think it is the same with the product.
We know George Foreman; he seems like a nice enough guy. We remember him in the Dunkin’ Donuts’ commercials where he was trying to get back in shape to fight the title. He was always dealing with weight himself. He was like a good old guy out in your backyard cooking. We do not know any of this for sure, but we feel this, and those feelings seep into the products. On the one hand, there is a sense of trust: we feel they would not be endorsing some crackpot thing because they have to protect their own name after all, so it has to be a somewhat decent product.
The other fact about it is it gives us the illusion of being close to them because we can say, “Oh, I have the same purse as so and so, or the same grill as so and so, or I have the same sneakers they do”–to some extent it’s an illusion of proximity. We feel we are as good as they are, or at least close to what they are because we have their stuff.
The other point is to realize that it is not always conscious, it is often all working kind of subconsciously on us and we are just making the decision. I am not actively thinking, “This is why I am buying the George Foreman Grill.” It is more of just the feeling we have, but the feeling has these specific reasons and that is what I have tried to do in Fame Junkies a lot. We have these feelings for people we do not necessarily know–we just have them. The question is then breaking down and figuring out how these feelings came to be.
Awesome! Are you working or anything else, any other books?
Jake Halpern: I am working on a piece of fiction now and a novel and I am going back and forth with that, and I am doing much of magazine pieces and that is about it, except taking care of my four-month-old son.
Making him a celebrity, right?
Exactly! Making him into a celebrity.
Taking him to the conventions. Well, thanks again. Fame Junkies is really good like I said, I read it, I actually read it twice, and if you are interested in the psychology of fame it’s really I must have. But it also has a lot of fun entertaining stories about Hollywood and celebrities, so it is not just scientific experiments although, that was one of the most interesting parts of it. For those of you on the call, if you want a copy, it is pretty much everywhere on Amazon. I got mine at Borders because the manager at Borders actually recommended that I read it, although I already knew I was going to read it but she was like, “My friend told me about this, you have got to get it.” So, it is kind of funny how it made its way around the country. Well thanks again Jake, it was nice talking to you.
Thanks so much and it was nice talking to you as well.