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When kids become tickets to fame

Today's short route to celebrity: flaunting children as accessories.

By Mark Guarino / Staff writer / February 8, 2010

Recent media stories with a major real-life, parent-child component include ‘Balloon Boy’ Falcon Heene.

David Zalubowski/AP

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There are media stars who happen to be parents. And then there are those whose media stardom seems mostly rooted in that role.

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We know the names – Octomom, the Balloon Boy parents, Jon and Kate Gosselin and their eight children, even Bristol Palin. They, and many others, represent a new shortcut to achieving celebrity: a trend prominent media analyst Marian Salzman defines as "children as prime-time accessories."

In this scenario, people will increasingly use their children in bizarre, shameless, and sometimes unethical ways specifically to gain notoriety and then will take one step further to brand themselves as the official representative of that notoriety, which means a steady income and a guaranteed spot on the cluttered but competitive media landscape.

Ms. Salzman says that while reality television is a culprit in encouraging this extreme behavior, the problem is "much more serious."

"I think we're living in a social-media age where anything goes and everybody has a space. So you're seeing people being a little bit more uninhibited," she says, adding that even if it is a trend, that makes it no less disturbing: "We have to go back and we have to say, 'No, we can't do these things.' "

Parents and children are a combo that has reliably enjoyed the media spotlight's glare for decades. But what makes this current crop of fame seekers different is that they are primarily using their parental dysfunction to launch media careers.

When reality television star Kourtney Kardashian gave birth at age 30, she rebranded herself from a jet-setting party girl to a thoughtful first-time mom. Bristol Palin was once the poster child of teenage pregnancy and is now rebranded as a spokesperson for abstinence. Both are frequent talk show guests and magazine cover models in issues with articles where they give baby tips and talk about their kids.

"It shows having a baby is a quick way to make you famous," says Kirthana Ramisetti, managing editor of Predicto.com, a website that surveys pop culture.

"For the media, celebrities become much more interesting once they start having kids, and they get 10 times more attention. So I think when reality TV started having people aspire to be on TV, they see the attention celebrities get just by the virtue of having kids. So they home in on that and unfortunately are using kids to do that," she says.

Using children as a catalyst for greater exposure is a shift from earlier this decade when celebrity parents were seen as standard-bearers of good citizenship and used to promote products and provide an example of how best to parent. An example: If Angelina Jolie put her kids in a certain stroller, it meant that stroller was good for humankind, which meant the stroller sold out everywhere.

Which is a far cry from the egregious deceptions of the Balloon Boy parents or the public wrangling of Jon and Kate Gosselin. "What's happened now is [celebrity parenting has] moved to spectacle and the ante has been upped," says Joan Saab, director of visual and cultural studies at the University of Rochester, N.Y.

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