The Half-Life of Celebrity


One of the great hazards of supermarket shopping has always been the tabloids lining the checkout lane, assailing us with tawdry tales of celebrity misfortune. Infidelity, infertility, addiction—all are grist for our sadistic lust to see stars brought down to the same lowly level as us. As French intellectual Edgar Morin wrote in The Stars, his classic book about movie idolatry, “Every god is created to be eaten.”

In Hollywood’s heyday, stars were loved for their personas, not their personalities—they hid behind an impenetrable mystique, and the industry and media colluded by turning a blind eye to unsuitable behavior. Today, it’s the duty of stars to reveal their quirks and defects. In fact, the appeal of shows like The Osbournes or Jessica Simpson’s Newlyweds lies in the presentation of the mundane reality behind the image. (Look, they fart! They shop! They bicker!) Since both of those MTV series are produced by a family member-agent—Sharon Osbourne and Joe Simpson, respectively—it’s obvious that this staged spontaneity reaches us artist-approved.

It didn’t take long before reality TV producers began tapping into the ressentiment of us slobs out here in the audience. Punk’d ambushed stars, forcing them to be good sports about it. But it was The Surreal Life that took schadenfreude TV to the next level, with its menagerie of has-beens forced to perform odd stunts for our amusement (and sometimes for charity). VH1 has built a Sunday-night pop-cultural vulture fest called Celebreality around the latest season of The Surreal Life, adding on the tedious makeover show Celebrity Fit Club and Strange Love, a spin-off of last year’s Surreal Life that feeds on the supposed romantic chemistry between publicity grubbers Brigitte Nielsen and Flavor Flav. For the participants, these shows hinge on a simple premise: Let us watch you at your lowest ebb and you will be redeemed, rehabilitated, and just maybe reborn as a celebrity.

The Surreal Life‘s current quandary is how to intensify the grotesquerie that is so crucial to its ratings. Answer: a horny dwarf who can’t hold his liquor. Before entering the house, Verne Troyer—best known as Mini-Me in the Austin Powers films—sneers that he hates “reality crap like this,” but soon he’s playing his designated freak role with gusto. The cameras catch Troyer on his midget scooter in the middle of the night, stark naked and drunkenly taking a leak against the wall. Troyer’s main competition on the weirdo front is ex-WWF wrestler Chyna Doll, making a bid to be this season’s Brigitte Nielsen. The gravel-voiced Chyna has no problems offering up her fatal flaws for consumption. “I have no family. I have no friends. . . . I am an insecure woman,” she tearfully confesses to the group as they sit around a campfire. To which Christopher Knight (Peter on The Brady Bunch) kindly responds, “I want you to know you don’t have to be entertaining. There are times to be an entertainer and there are times to just be.” Wise advice in the real world, but blasphemy on a show designed to extract enjoyment out of your indignity.

A stint on The Surreal Life didn’t do much to halt the downward spiral of Vince Neil’s career. So here he is again, looking pretty darn pathetic at the start of Remaking: Vince Neil, the first in a series of VH1 star makeover specials. A slobbering and incoherent Neil loses $16,000 gambling, then falls over in the casino. The voice-over notes that the Mötley-era “stadiums packed with screaming fans have given way to tiny shows in strip mall dive bars,” while Vince’s fiancée chips in to complain about his drinking and “not dealing with his problems.” Altruistic VH1 steps in to offer Vince what life so rarely gives any of us: a second chance. This involves a plastic surgeon, stylist, trainer, and hit-making songwriter-producer. Remaking is both unsparingly graphic (if you ever dreamed of watching a rock star’s scalp peeled away from his skull, this is the show for you) and squeamishly censored (we don’t see his struggle to kick alcohol or his painful recovery from multiple surgeries). But just like The Swan and Extreme Makeover, the show does provide Neil with a happy ending, albeit twisted and temporary.

Like Remaking, Celebrity Fit Club stands at the busy intersection of two foul trends—celebrity humiliation and our national obsession with fat. Brought over from the U.K. like so many reality series, this new show treads the same terrain as The Biggest Loser, but instead of helping average people lose weight to look more like celebs, Fit Club harries D-list luminaries like Daniel Baldwin (the forgotten Baldwin brother) and Wendy, the lady from the Snapple commercials. If they lose the flab, does that mean they get bumped up to C-list?

For years, the saga of former A-lister Kirstie Alley’s ballooning weight problems lined the covers of those supermarket tabloids. This is the grim half-life of celebrities, their indiscretions and physical deterioration remorselessly documented even as the memory of what made them famous fades. But Alley seems determined to scramble back up the Hollywood ladder by taking a leaf out of Larry David’s book. The promising new series Fat Actress (premiering on Showtime this March) is an improvisational sitcom based on Alley’s own life. In the pilot, her agent might as well be prodding her to do Celebrity Fit Club when he offers her a Jenny Craig commercial. But she wants more. Alley unleashes a mordant monologue about the double standard whereby women’s careers are tethered to their waistlines while tubby guys like John Goodman rule the airwaves. “And how about James Gandolfino [sic]? He’s . . . way way way fatter than I am!” The punchline is that in real life, Alley actually has signed a contract to promote Jenny Craig. She doesn’t want to smash the double standard and heave her saggy love handles onto our screens. She wants to get real skinny, so she can jump on the celebrity treadmill once again.