Rats Through the Looking Glass:
On Richard, Gay Survivors, and the Price of Fame
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"
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.
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
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.
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
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.
pray tell, does this have to do with Gay politics? Plenty.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.