Entry from September 17, 2002

Investment advice: It’s a good time to buy futures in second-tier celebrities. Naturally the spread of celebrity culture must be especially good for anyone with a small capital sum in minor, local or accidental fame. But there are also things lesser celebrities are willing to do that major stars are not, and there are signs of growth in this niche market. In America we have already had “Celebrity Boxing” on Fox, which enjoyed a moderate success. I myself could not resist watching Paula Jones and Tonya Harding put on the gloves last spring, though Paula fought like a girl and ran away on account (she said) of her new nose job. Now in Britain there’s a new show (“the stupidest programme ever to be shown on British television” — The Times) called “I’m a Celebrity — Get me out of Here!”

Of the group of celebrities deposited for a “Survivor”-like camp-out in the Australian jungle on this example of “reality-TV” (I never get tired of repeating that delightful oxymoron), almost the only one I had heard of was Uri Geller, the one-time spoon bender who has more recently been peddling self-help advice (“You can now discover through ancient eastern knowledge about how your particular personality type can best deal with all kinds of circumstances and situations, including: self development, coping with stress, self confidence, enhanced performance, relationships and much more”). But as Will Smith of London Weekend Television told Jill Lawless of the Associated Press: “Let”s be honest: you”re not going to get A-list celebrities to spend two weeks in the middle of the Australian jungle.” Anyway, the names are well-enough known to followers of pop culture in Britain, and “the success of the format doesn”t depend on whether people are A-list, B-list or whatever,” as Smith said, “but that you have a group of characters that people recognize and have an opinion about.” Like “American Idol” (“Pop Idol” in Britain) the show is sure to cross the Atlantic in due course.

The winner, by the way, a 59 year-old disc-jockey called Tony Blackburn, is said to be the sort of guy who has “a bit of a rant about lack of respect, crumbling standards, society in a rut, etc.” In short, he’s a right-wing nut. To confirm it, Jan Moir of the Daily Telegraph reports that “what Tony hated most in the jungle was not the frizz-making damp but the swearing. Tony does not believe in swearing in front of ladies and he was particularly distressed when the younger ones cursed in front of his new best friend, Christine” — another of the celebrity castaways whose claim to fame seems to be that she is the wife of a disgraced Member of Parliament. Thus, “a vote for Tony meant that you believed in the same old-fashioned virtues of courtesy and respect that he did. At least, that’s the way he looks at it.”

This confirms the verdict of the Sunday Telegraph that “Tony Blackburn went into the jungle as a has-been and came out of it as the most popular man in Britain” and that “Blackburn”s victory represented the crushing of cool by the forces of geezerdom.” Still, it would be rash to hope that the victory might be permanent, I feel, and there are likely to be plenty more opportunities for even the coolest of the minor celebs (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) to cash in on their own celebrity, here as in Britain.

According to an editorial in The Times of London, for instance, the latest celebrity fad is to buy a house and then sell it again at a large premium — to those who are willing to pay to live in a house formerly owned by a celebrity. America is beginning to catch on. An Associated Press report last week report that Ed and Jennifer McKee of Oregon City, Oregon, were trying to sell Kurt Cobain’s childhood home in Washington State, which they bought last month for $42,500 in a foreclosure sale. At the time they didn’t know of the celebrity connection, but when they put the house up for sale on eBay they got bids in excess of $40 million. Unfortunately, they were from people who hadn’t got $40 million, but the top serious bid was $210,000 — still a tidy profit.

Politicians, as a sort of élite among minor celebrities, may find their stock going up along with the others. In Argentina, for example, which has had five presidents and six finance ministers in the last year, they are soon going to be watching the ultimate in “Reality TV” — something called “The People’s Candidate” in which the grand prize is the nomination of a new party (the TV party, I suppose) as its presidential candidate in the elections coming up in 2003. If it works, we should import the idea into the US, since the chief, perhaps the only, qualification for office these days is the ability to be personable while making (and taking) a few jokes on a late-night talk show, just like any other celebrity.

The vanishing distinction between our leaders and the likes of Uri Geller (though, alas, too seldom Tony Blackburn) is pointed up by the continuing negotiations to put Bill Clinton on TV as a talk-show host. The rumor is that he could be paid as much as $50 million to host his own show. But think how much more he would be able to make if he were actually running for office at the same time! Here is the real answer to the problems of campaign finance reform. Give each candidate in the 2004 elections his own show and the political process would become self-financing. And think what it would do to increase supply to meet the increased world-wide demand for minor celebrities.

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