Posts Tagged ‘fame’

I keep forgetting Oprah Winfrey’s talk show is going off the air in late May. It’s kind of hard to grasp the fact that this ubiquitous cultural icon will end her twenty-five year reign as talk show queen. But she’s leaving and, as observed in a recent New  York Times article, her departure will crush the dreams of hundreds of writers, entrepreneurs and those with inspirational stories.

Being on Oprah is a game-changer, no doubt about it. Ask any writer what happens when Oprah recommends a book on her show or in her glossy and immensely popular magazine. Sales shoot through the roof, advances materialize, phones ring off the hook…you get the picture. Even being scolded by Oprah doesn’t hurt a career; James Frey rebounded nicely from the dressing down she administered for writing a less than truthful memoir, A Million Little Pieces, in 2006. Of course, she later apologized on her show. You can’t buy that kind of publicity.

It’s not just writers who hit the jackpot after Oprah. Cooks, decorators, financial advisors, life coaches, and doctors have all gone onto bigger things. Catch Oprah’s eye and your options multiply like magic.  Life is good when you’re a FOO (Friend of Oprah).

The Times article quoted one cultural observer as noting that Oprah is to writers and entrepreneurial types as Johnny Carson used to be to performers. That’s true. As a kid and well through my mid-thirties, I aspired to and then pursued a career in music. I wanted to be on Carson. I didn’t care much about performing; my goal was to be invited to sit by Johnny’s desk, where I’d trade witty banter with him and with Ed McMahon or whoever was sitting on the couch with me. Hey, we all have our dreams.

Johnny Carson retired, and I got out of music to settle down with more realistic expectations; that is, until my book was published. “Maybe you can get on Oprah,” suggested my cousin. “Boy, a spot on Oprah’s show would be great, ” commented my close pal. “Are you going to approach Oprah’s people?” asked my writing partner. I thought back to my work on the section in my book on moral authority and celebrity; I’d used Oprah as my principal example. Had I been too harsh on her?  Did I present a fair and balanced explanation of her place in popular culture? Had I given offense? Would she forgive me?

I began to imagine her reading my slender book, lingering over the chapter in which she was featured, smiling at the tactful way I finessed our disagreement about the merits of The Secret, nodding when she came to my approving comments about her generosity. I pictured myself sitting back in the comfortable-looking armchair she uses for guests on her show as she leaned forward, engaging me earnestly on some point I made about certainty. I wanted her approval, I wanted her blessing; I wanted to be on Oprah.

I sent a copy of the book, along with a heartfelt letter, to her producer. I haven’t heard anything back yet. But I’ve got six months. Anyway, there’s always “Dancing with the Stars.”

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It’s normal to be disheartened by the death of someone young or in the prime of life. It’s also “normal” these days to be especially affected when the person in question is a star or public persona. These are people whose faces we see regularly, whose lives we scrutinize and who we feel we know. For younger people who are just one video clip away from YouTube celebrity themselves, the death of Heath Ledger a few days ago was on the order of the loss of a family member or close friend. In any instance, it’s major news.

The death of a twenty-eight-year-old actor who had also demonstrated  prodigious talent and heart seems like a terrible waste. Whatever might have caused lethal harm, he apparently felt the need to have anti-anxiety medicine and sleep medicine at the ready. “I can’t understand how stressed out he must have been,” commented a young friend of mine earlier today, “although I guess that being a celebrity sucks.” Well let’s put it this way; it doesn’t always help.

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Leona Helmsley, who died yesterday, was perfectly in sync with her times. So was her developer husband Harry Helmsley, who, as Gail Collins reports, once answered her question about whether he might devote his later life to good deeds by asking ““What the hell would I want to do that for?” For you kids out there, Leona and Harry ruled during the Eighties, which was the decade of “Dynasty,” “Dallas,” Michael Milken and Madonna in her incarnation as the Material Girl. One terrifically popular movie was “Wall Street”, in which Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko declared, “Greed is good.” During that time, I was a busy but financially struggling young musician. Everyone seemed to be more successful. I wrote a song about it, called “Downwardly Mobile”:

Some folks is on the fast track
I’m still tying my running shoes
Everybody’s got a piece of the good life
I just got the blues
I’m downwardly mobile…

© 1987 all rights reserved

Self-indulgent? Absolutely but then, so was the era, which begs the question: has anything changed? I mean, today we lust after excess even as we pretend to condemn it, whether it’s our obsession with minor talents masquerading as major celebrities, our quest for the next new must-have gadget, or our race to be or have the biggest, best, most winning whatever. Not only does it seem as if “everyone’s a critic” but also a pundit, a taste-maker, an analyst, a producer, a writer, a director, a star. This is, I suppose, the consequence of a truly democratic society. And given how worried Americans seem to be about nearly everything despite our relative good fortune, a little confidence is probably a helpful counterbalance. There does seem to be more interest in politics, in process, in the world at large and in some long-suffering places in particular. The rich are attracting attention to their causes, whether they concern the environment, abused animals or victims of starvation, genocide and natural disasters. Our candidates are more knowledgeable; this time around they seem to know not only the names of the world leaders with whom they interact but also the longitude and latitude of certain regions in the mountains of Afghanistan or the deserts of Iraq. In fact, even though we apparently still need to keep up with the Jones (or the Vinjays or the Ramirezs), we also seem to recognize that there’s an entire world out there. That’s a hopeful sign, as is the fact that shoulder pads have not made a comeback.

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I don’t obsess about death, well, at least not much more than any normal midlife person who’s experienced several very personal losses over the past few years. But today’s papers seemed to showcase more than a few significant obituaries – renowned filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, talk show host Tom Snyder, and coaching great Bill Walsh. Although 71 (Snyder’s age) may seem a little young compared with Bergman’s 89 years, both men, as well as Coach Walsh, could be described as having reached and passed the pinnacles of their professional careers. Still, Snyder and Walsh were felled by cancer, which makes it seem as if they were stopped just short of the finish line. But if the deaths of formerly public figures catch me off-guard, the health concerns of active public figures definitely pack a punch. That’s why I was startled to note (also in today’s paper) that Chief Justice John Roberts, at fifty-two the youngest member of the Court, suffered a mild seizure of unknown origin over the weekend. Yeah, I admit I wondered for a minute what it meant for the future of the judicial branch, just as I have speculated in the past about the state of Dick Cheney’s heart or George Bush’s colon and the state of the nation. I’m only human, after all. So are our public figures, subject to the same unpredictable variables that catch us all off-guard.

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