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Barbara Lippert's Critique: Making The B-List

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For weeks, David Letterman had been promoting Oprah's Dec. 1 appearance on his show, her first return to his guest chair in 16 years, as the "TV event of the decade," and a "Super Bowl of Love.'' He was correct on both counts. Except that when it came right down to it, the actual back-and- forth was less like a Super Bowl and more like the meeting of two superpowers—as staged and coded as a Kyoto summit.

Dave, in high kiss-up mode, told Oprah that she does a "a tremendous show … I find it admirable.'' For her part, the multimedia missionary told him, "I have never for a moment had a feud with you," although she had been quoted earlier saying she didn't like being the brunt of his jokes.

Then, "just like we're married,'' Dave said, and with all the pomp and ceremony of a Disney wedding, he walked her, in her shiny party dress, out of his theater and across the street to hers, where The Color Purple was opening on Broadway. Like a fairy-tale prince, he kissed her hand, to the roar of the crowd.

It worked: Letterman got three times the typical ratings for his show, and Lady O got a powerful late-night promotion for the stage show in which she was heavily invested.

You can't blame them. That's capitalism, and each has an empire to protect. But at the same time, I came away just a little pissed that I had stayed up to catch this not-quite-sincere exchange, when I could have gotten snippets of the performance later from any of the growing number of network and cable shows, magazines, blogs and vlogs covering celeb icons.

This sort of viewer weariness is not unlike the reader fatigue plaguing celebrity weeklies. They've all seen circulation drop in the fourth quarter, as the field is getting even more glutted (three new titles have entered the field in the past 13 months), and there's only so much Nick and Jessica anyone can take. Perhaps, in response to all the obvious artifice and the general frenzy over bizarre, couch-jumping stars and the women they impregnate, we've reached a tipping point. As a result, one of the ways the idea of "celebrity'' changed this year was the public embrace of something less glamorous, and if not exactly authentic, certainly less fake and stage-managed.

For one thing, technology allows for a more active media citizen, and new outlets afford a glimpse through all the smoke and mirrors. "I think it's a reaction to the superfluffy journalism that we've been inundated with for the past five years," says Hugh Duthie, director of strategic planning at TBWA\Chiat\ Day in New York. "Now you can read OK! magazine, but then get a whole other level of dish from Popbitch.com.''

Certainly, there are scores of Web sites—Gawker, Defamer, the Smoking Gun, etc.—devoted to undoing the careful positioning, or outright lies, of our star-and-publicist- driven culture.

Perhaps as further proof viewers are more fascinated with lesser names, there's a sudden glut of reality programs featuring second-tier—some might say, has-been—celebs. At VH1, which invented the term "celebreality,'' the lineup includes Hogan Knows Best, Celebrity Fit Club, The Surreal Life and My Fair Brady. As the entire reality genre drags itself into middle age, there's a never-ending supply of former survivors, apprentices and amazing racers floating around Hollywood, desperate to extend their 15 minutes, who fit in quite well with the washed-up, er, formerly famous, celebs.

But VH1's Michael Hirschorn, evp, production and programming, makes clear that these former stars are not on the skids: "We call them classic. They are as big or bigger than what you'd call A-list today. Our viewers carry a deeper level of affection from youth for these people than any who are current.''

And the shows are produced, he says, with an "additional level of pop culture knowingness—it's hipper and less self-important ... not super-airbrushed.''

For viewers who don't carry quite that level of affection, Bravo just introduced Celebrity Autobiography—In Their Own Words, a show demonstrating the delusion of "top" stars by having comedians read from their memoirs. Beloved actor Fred Willard, for example, read excerpts from Burt Reynolds' account of his marriage to Loni Anderson. Then Andrea Martin read the parts from Anderson's book covering the same territory. The most painful was hearing Kathie Lee Gifford's account of why Frank would never cheat. Also on Bravo, Kathy Griffin's relentless honesty in My Life on the D-List is invigorating, particularly in the episode that shows her hustling for a free couch.

The couches may be free, but they're loaded down with oddball personalities on the granddaddy of B-list reality shows, VH1's The Surreal Life. The concept—take the leading lights of some parallel universe, like Charro and Dave Coulier (a.k.a. Uncle Joey on Full House) in one season, and Omarosa and Bronson Pinchot (Balki on Perfect Strangers)in another, and put them under one roof, with constant camera surveillance—pretty much assures continuous combustion.

Compare the super-careful Dave–Oprah interaction with last season's Surreal Life, when the cast included Janice Dickenson, the former supermodel who got thrown off America's Top Model (too mean), and Omarosa, the cartoonishly self-absorbed evil-diva from The Apprentice. During a blow-up, Omarosa said, "Janice, shut the fuck up." Janice replied, "I'll yank your weave off, honey." Omarosa returned with "I'll yank your weave off."

As soon as Adrienne Curry, the 23-year old winner of America's Top Model, got into the house in the fifth season, she ran around topless and made a beeline for "Peter,'' a.k.a. Christopher Knight, the 46-year-old, who now looks startlingly like an Osmond brother, though he is best known for playing middle brother Peter on the still-seminal series The Brady Bunch. Duly, their love was rewarded with its own show, My Fair Brady, and with the couple's engagement, coming in such a timely way at the very end of the first season, the pair is coming back for more this year. Not only did the show give the lovebirds visibility when neither appeared to have any other prospects, but in this time of war and natural disasters, viewers seemed to want to hang on their every kvetch. According to VH1, the season finale on Nov. 6 was the No. 1 non-sports program of the day, with a 1.2 rating in the key 18-49 demo, and the highest-rated program that night among 25-34 year-olds, with a 2.2 rating.

The model for such spawning, of course, came the previous season, with the development of a romance between the Amazonian Brigitte Nielsen, and the diminutive, clock-wearing rapper, Flava Flav, who were also given their own show, Strange Love. And next season, Flava of Love debuts on VH1, in which the now Brigitte-free Flav will live in a "love shack'' with 25 women who replied to a personal ad.

It's obviously a manufactured reality, but there are seemingly honest and spontaneous moments, and the characters are way more developed—some would say better written—than on many sitcoms and dramedies. "Celebrities who know how to play that peek-a-boo game tend to be better in this arena," VH1's Hirschorn says. "Those who prosper don't take themselves that seriously. It's a Gen X take on nostalgia, which is pretty unsentimental."

That's certainly the case with the angry, drug-addicted former Partridge Family member Danny Bonaduce on Breaking Bonaduce, who is shown in therapy sessions and injecting steroids. When he attempted suicide, the producers wanted to stop the show, but according to Hirschorn, "[His wife] Gretchen seemed to feel that he would not go into rehab unless we continued to film him.'' The show went on.

Watching Danny Darko in action is harrowing, and Duthie explains that this is also part of the attraction: "These people are archetypal. We relate to archetypes with human failings. They also invite you to pierce the balloon. What can you possibly do to Danny Bonaduce that he hasn't done to himself?"

Bonaduce's an extreme case. More often, it's a happier sort of celebritainment. Call it the William Shatner effect: Certain B-listers keep reinventing their careers because they have enough self-awareness to be in on the joke.

This has been the case in ads for years now. Former Bartle Bogle Hegarty chairman Cindy Gallop says a 2001 ad campaign for Lipton Sizzle & Stir, which had the tag, "When you cook, you're family," was a precursor to The Surreal Life. The creative approach was, she says, "to put the most surreal list as possible of B-list celebrities together, and treat them as a family. ... We cast completely against type." In one spot, Mr. T plays Dad, and Lonnie Anderson is Mom.

Lately, we are seeing more and more celebs making fun of their own reputations in ads. Although the idea has existed since the early days of Miller Lite, and Nike always knew how to play it, more advertisers are moving in on the sensibility. Take someone like Snoop Dogg, a convicted felon and lately advertising's favorite cuddly mascot. In a recent interview in The Wall Street Journal, he proved to be highly honest and self-aware. When asked why he was so popular, he said, "The corporations are trying to bridge the gap between kids and adults, whites and blacks, corporate America and the street. I blend it all together.''

Just as in the latest XM ad—in which Snoop interacts with such disparate satellite family members as Martina McBride and Derek Jeter—a recent spot for the Motorola ROKR had a veritable babel of celebs crammed into a phone booth, including Iggy Pop stage-diving into it—a subtle joke about his past proclivities. (Granted, the ad opens with Madonna, who's not necessarily B-list, but definitely the bitch-goddess of self parody and reinvention.)

This trend, a mixture of fascination with how the mighty have fallen and curiosity about how they claw their way back, is not only an American phenomenon; it's been replicated in other countries. I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! is a top show in England, and one of the most successful viral ad campaigns in Australia this year involved Virgin Mobile's resurrection of the career of Jason Donovan, "Soap Superstar of Yesteryear."

What's next in the brave new world of such celebrity knowledge? V-logs, podcasts and cell phone channels are letting any old Joe be the star of his own content. This further blurs the line between the hots and the nots. And inevitably, we will be able to watch the now-nons fight their way up the media industrial complex—toward Oprah- or Dave-dom. Then they'll have so much at stake that they can start hiding behind publicists and scripts.

Or as US Weekly likes to put it, "Stars—they really are just like us!"