... essays

rand's ramblings on this and that


Fried Rats Through the Looking Glass:
On Richard, Gay Survivors, and the Price of Fame

"And what was again painfully obvious is that you no longer need any special talents to become famous. You just have to go on national television and eat fried rats or surrender all of your privacy."
--"Variety", reporting on the premiere episode of the new CBS program, "Big Brother"

I have a good friend named Jason. He’s thirty-five, an aspiring musician and delivery truck driver. A rather eccentric, if harmless fellow. What sets Jason apart from most of us is his constant fascination with fame and celebrity. In all the years I’ve known him, I don’t think Jason wants to be a musician necessarily to perform his music – he detests live performances, preferring to constantly record, mix, and fiddle with his electronica in the isolation of his parent’s bedroom. What Jason really wants, more than anything else, is to be famous. That’s all. Just famous.

He’ll send an email or call up with the latest entries from the dream journal he regularly discusses with his therapist. Invariably, the dreams involve other celebrities – taking a cruise with Regis and Kathie Lee, taking a tour of his town with Martha Stewart, appearing on a television program with RuPaul.

At first, I looked at this fascination with a bit of amusement. After all, I didn’t recall ever having a dream about any celebrity. (Well … certain dreams I’ve had in the past about Mark McGwire probably wouldn’t count here, but I digress.) But, feminist Susan Faludi’s book, "Stiffed", released last year to a great deal of brief media attention, made me look at American society’s Cult of Celebrity in a different light. A major theme running through her book on the state of the American male is the way in which media has played a major role in shaping the role models of our country’s young people. As young men find themselves lost – with their traditional roles in the family and community gone – an increasing number turn to celebrity role models for inspiration.

Others have written on this paradigm shift in American popular culture; some have even celebrated it. One author released a study titled, "Life: The Movie", which looked at the blurring line in our culture between reality and fantasy. "Fast Company", the hip business magazine for the dot.com boardroom executive devoted an entire issue to the "branding" of the individual. The magazine elevated the pursuit of celebrity to high art, offering suggestions and helpful tips on developing a "brand image" for yourself through your resume, network of contacts, daily work, and even in leisure pursuits. The Cult of Celebrity is even affecting the stodgy world of academia; the "Chronicle of Higher Education" has reported regularly in recent years on the controversial practice of universities hiring "star" faculty. The outrageous financial incentives and benefits offered by university administrators look like a good investment in a potential draw for publicity and enrollment, but make many less-visible but highly regard scholars feel left out in the cold.

As the quote from "Variety" that began this article indicates, one doesn’t necessarily have to actually do anything of substance to be famous – fame, or a closeness to the famous, is all that is necessary. Fame itself has become the end goal. Monica Lewinsky purloined an affair with the President to become a spokesperson for the Jenny Craig diet centers. The winner (if one wishes to use that descriptive term) of "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?" used the controversy created by that forgettable bit of television debauchery to pursue appearances on a number of talk shows, interviews with the media, and, more recently, a contract with "Playboy" to pose nude.

What, pray tell, does this have to do with Gay politics? Plenty.

The marriage of politics and celebrity was first consumated in a primative way in the 1950’s with the campaign of Dwight Eisenhower – a candidate urged to run not based on political or business experience, but well known and liked among the veterans of a very recent World War II. Eisenhower’s campaign was the first run with significant input from a Madison Avenue advertising agency; "I Like Ike" became as common as "Think Mink" as a catch-phrase of the time. Later, the presidential terms of Kennedy and Reagan further muddied the divide between reality and fantasy. With JFK, we are left with martyr whose death is deconstructed and cannibalized by "fans" in manner similar to James Dean or Marilyn Monroe. Reagan, of course, began his political career during the McCarthey era, using his political connections to government communist hunters and corporate connections to a major defense contractor to his advantage in a run for the governership of California. Today, the former pink boa-clad professional wrestler Jesse Ventura demonstrates that celebrity can indeed qualify one to run a state-level government; in fact, celebrity can create large voter turnout.

Even the current slate of candidates for the nation’s highest office not only have to prove political and business knowledge, they must test the waters as celebrities for the approval of the American public. Seemingly overnight, an informal appearance on "Jay Leno" and "David Letterman" are considered rites of passage for national political figures – Gore, George W. Bush, and Hillary Clinton have all had their turn. Gore even parodied himself on a recent episode of "Futurama", supplying the cartoon voice for the character of Al Gore.

So, it should be no surprise that this shift towards fame and celebrity has touched and influenced Gay politics. The Human Rights Campaign’s recent push for prominent entertainment figures acting as spokespersons for Gay and Lesbian rights at the Millennium March on Washington is only the tip of the iceberg. In addition to entertainment figures such as Ellen Degenerus and George Micheal getting off on their "Equality Rocks" in DC, we keep celebrities busy in other arenas of Gay politics as well. Almost overnight, syndicated columnist Rex Wockner has emerged as one of the most visible of Gay "journalists"; his weekly doses of bite-sized "Reader’s Digest" quotable quotes and plagiarized news summaries morphing into a column that mixes commentary on Gay politics with – what else? – celebrity news. Wockner has become a "star" of the Gay pundit circuit by the simple virtue of hanging around other Gay celebrities and "dishing" the latest dirt in his column. A savvy Walter Winchell for the PlanetOut set, indeed.

A look at the pages of the "Advocate" over the past few years presents a revealing trend. Gone are the commentaries of grassroots activists, academics, and other, more ordinary, people on the front lines of Gay rights. Today, one is more apt to find the deep political thoughts of one of many Gay or Lesbian veterans of MTV’s "Real World". The program’s inclusion of a Gay cast member has become something of a cliché. The "Advocate" web site features a run down of each Queer "Real World" cast member – at least one every year since 1992.

The most recent example is "Danny" in the current season of "Real World". The "Advocate" recently captured his thoughts not only about revealing the "secret" of his sexual orientation, but, in a timely issue, discussing the difficulties facing his boyfriend in the Armed Forces. This little revelation is no accident. With the track record of interest by the Gay community in previous "Real World" alumni and the obligatory anointing of these pre-packaged, single-serving celebrities as political spokespersons, I’m sure the producers of "Real World" looked for just the right candidate for this season’s foray into collective voyeurism – a candidate that would have a better chance of being interviewed on a current "hot" topic like Gays in the military.

Faludi notes that many young men who lack meaning and opportunity in their lives – grim job prospects, an structure that doesn’t focus their energy in the local community – turn to routes that can propel them to fame, believing it is their only way to "make it" in the modern world. The documentary "Hoop Dreams" codified the hopes and aspirations of young Black men who turn to the world of sports. A recent article in "Time" noted how many young white men are setting up pro-style wrestling rings in their back yard and even videotaping themselves rehearsing the tough, brash banter of TV wrestlers.

Some Gay men were well ahead of this national trend. One must remember that the Stonewall Riots so lauded by our community did not emerge just because of police harassment at a little bar in New York. No, that expression of rage occurred on the day that saw the funeral of Judy Garland. Those drag queens saw the epitome of their adoration -- the woman who had taken them from their drab existence in Kansas to the Land of Oz, who stoically climbed the ladder of stardom and survived the suicide of her alcoholic has-been husband in "A Star is Born", and who had survived drug abuse and the abuse of "the system" to keep performing for fans long after her movie career was over – finally succumb to death. They were angry because they had seen a system of celebrity they were so fascinated with finally chew up and spit out one of their own. They weren’t going to let that happen to them. They fought back with anger and high heels.

About the same time, two men that would emerge as leaders in their respective fields – Andy Warhol and John Waters – were busy building on their own fascination with the cult of celebrity. Warhol set up his own "Factory" where unknowns like Joe Dellesandro could become "Stars" through his paintings, photographs, and films. Waters, besides catapulting Divine to fame, examined celebrity as an end in many of his films, particularly his magnum opus, "Pink Flamingos". Divine didn’t have to be anything but Divine to be famous.

Later, Gay men shifted to the arenas of porn actors and Act-Up protests to seek the venue of fame. But, that pales in comparison to being on a television "reality" series – imagine being the center of attention not for some isolated schmo getting off his "Equality Rocks" in the bathroom, but for an entire nation on television. Judy Garland and even Divine had to demonstrate skills in singing or acting to be famous. Michaelangelo Signorile or Andrew Sullivan had to actually do something as an activist to become a celebrity in the 80’s.

Now, one merely has to be a management consultant that eats rats on national television to grasp the star of Gay fame. For those of you living under a rock, CBS, returning from the dead as competition closed in from cable television outlets, began running this Summer a US version of a popular European "reality" based television program, "Survivor". The idea is simple – take a group of "average" Americans and plop them on a deserted island, divide them into two "tribes", design contrived contests where they can win luxuries such as chocolate or a chicken for food, and let them vote on who gets to stay each week. The one who is left gets one million dollars. Of course, in screening the candidates and coming up with their mix of "average" Americans, the producers included the obligatory Gay male – Richard.

According to Richard’s bio on the show’s web site, he "conducts seminars on numerous topics including conflict management, team building, practical negotiation and public speaking". In other words, Richard is a corporate management consultant. In itself, the field of management consultants who go in to a company to build morale is a remnant of "star systems" of the business world that cropped up in the 1920’s. Dale Carnegie was probably the most famous example, writing a book on public speaking and influencing the powers that be that emerged through the gray flannel suit fifties into a seminar and self-help empire that bordered on religion. (A precursor to Carnegie that was a popular part of management theory in the 1920s was a book that compared Christ to a salesman, noting how the actions of the Divine One could guide us in our everyday business dealings.) Today, besides Carnegie, we’re surrounded by celebrity management theories – Total Quality Management, the books and seminars that encourage to not sweat the small stuff or thrive on chaos theory. Have any of us not turned on late night TV to see that creepy Tony Robbins guy hawking Personal Power in a box?

In an essay at Slate on Richard as management consultant, Richard Walker notes, "If a consultant has any skill at all, it's in cleverly positioning himself as invaluable without actually contributing anything of value, stating obvious things as though they are insights, and projecting leaderly qualities while subtly pointing a finger of blame every chance he gets. In a nutshell, extol the virtues of working together and always make sure somebody else gets whacked." So far, at least, Richard’s behavior on the island fits the typical model of corporate trainer. Indeed, Richard has emerged as the man that people love to hate – not because he is Gay, but because he is the same faceless corporate management consultant that charges out the ass to waltz in to a company, state obvious platitudes that management doesn’t listen to, step the staff underlings through fairly meaningless exercises that sap everyone’s time and resources, and move on to the next gig.

The Survivor Island is just another temp position for Richard. All he has to do is keep the natives from rebellion in order to get his consulting fee. In the end, Richard can use the experience of the Survivor Island as another little success on his resume. It may even get Richard to branch out, offering "Survivor"-type week-long excursions in the wilderness for team-building.

Even if Richard doesn’t win Survivor, as long as he can make himself visible and memorable, he can turn the experience into something far more profitable than the final prize of the show. I think Richard realizes this. Already using his sexual orientation to play up his abilities in corporate training on diversity issues, Richard turns up the volume just a bit to make sure the people in the audience remember who he is. (So much so that a Lesbian member of the Survivor group passes almost unnoticed.) Hence, the pants come off and Gay Richard becomes the "Naked Fat Guy" on the Island, the favorite whipping boy of a Salon columnist who is writing about the show.

No, Richard doesn’t care what influence this may have on his ability to keep his adopted son. (No matter how liberal a public agency is, most frown on adoptions by Gay men; many would have a cardiac arrest in allowing a Gay man who has been naked on national television to adopt a child.) For him, the nudity is a key to being remembered. Richard has tapped into the power of the Blue Blot.

Not that long ago, the infamous Blue Blot first became a national celebrity during the Kennedy rape trial. In order to placate the celebrity-crazed press during the trial and to protect the privacy of the victim, the networks came up with the Blue Blot that covered up what the viewer wasn’t supposed to see. The Blot became the subject of a routine on "Saturday Night Live" and other shows at the time.

Richard realized that CBS wouldn’t show him naked and would likely use the Blue Blot to protect the innocent eyes of the general public. Funny thing about a Blue Blot – it makes us all more curious to see what’s underneath. No, we don’t have a carnal interest in Richard’s "Big Fat Gay Ass" (as Salon likes to call it); but the shameless self promoting personality underneath. The Blue Blot will make Richard famous – whether he wins or loses is irrelevant.

Whether Richard taps into the Gay celebrity circuit, much like Ellen’s mother turned her parental role into an advice column for PlanetOut and a book on the Gay bestseller lists, or concentrates on building his own Personal Power empire in corporate America, Gays and Lesbians will be left with the indelible mark of Richard for some time to come. He is not only the Human Rights Campaign’s "everyman", a stand-in for the "guy next door" that just happens to be Gay. Richard, the Corporate Trainer, represents what straight America has thought all along: Gay men can be just as greedy, self-serving, and unlikeable as anyone else.

Sure, one can hear the LGBT leadership talk about human rights, diversity, "community building", and all the other buzzwords of the kinder, gentler Feminist Left. But, lurking underneath all that hand-holding, teary-eyed goodwill is the image of Richard, the Big Blue Blot covering his fat white ass and making us stare even more. Richard isn't fooling anyone -- with a wink and nod, he lets us know how to get what we want in America.


(c) 10.July.2000