In pursuit of 15 seconds of fame

I've had my 15 seconds of fame. Only the good Lord knows whether I'll get another 15. It's not top of my prayer list.

As to fame, I'm not talking about a faceless name recognition that a byline in a newspaper might give. I'm talking about national television and the kind of fame that comes when you're a featured commentator on a VH1 special about Cher.

That was I a few years back. Apparently, VH1 had Googled Cher and found an interview and review I'd done as an arts critic, which seemed to match what they wanted for this hour-long special. I was deemed an authority, chiefly because I dug her over-the-top camp appeal. So, they - makeup, lighting, camera, and interview people - flew up to Boston from New York, sat me in a conference room in the newsroom where I worked and grilled me (nicely - they were all softball questions) for an hour, vastly straining my Cher knowledge.

The piece ran a month or so later, and there were maybe five cut-ins to my commentary, the best being along the lines of "After the nuclear war, all that will be left is cockroaches and Cher.'' I don't think it was original. I'm sure I read it somewhere and it lodged in my brain, and I recycled it.

Anyway, it didn't seem that big a deal - until I started getting calls from long-lost friends around the country and appreciative gazes from co-workers. See, VH1 doesn't air these things once; they're in rotation. So this "celebrity" status kept popping up until the thing went off the air and all was forgotten.

I'm not saying I wasn't flattered to be asked to do it. But it was all in a day's work - at least one hour of it. My flame may have burned brightly, but it was short lived.

Skip forward to 2006. Everyone wants to be a celebrity on national TV and no one minds if it's only for 15 seconds. (Forget Andy Warhol's standard of 15 minutes, it's too lengthy.) And no one minds how outrageous they look on "The Biggest Loser," "Fear Factor," "American Idol," "Wife Swap," "The Apprentice,'' "Temptation Island," "I Want to Marry a Millionaire,'' "My Big, Fat Obnoxious Fiance,'' or "The Bachelor.''

The word "humiliation" no longer seems to apply. That and "shame" have been banished from the fame-seeker's lexicon. "Survivor,'' once seen as curiously exploitative, almost seems dignified now. One could argue these "reality" shows are simply prime-time outgrowths of daytime TV game shows, where Bob Barker and Pat Sajak's contestants have been screeching and beseeching for decades.

On the serious side, I'm stunned by how easily the friends and relatives of victims of violent crimes - even murder - become animated with flowing tears when the camera is turned on them. Doesn't anyone say, "Go away, I'm grieving" anymore?

Thus prompts the existential question: If you haven't been on television, do you exist?

"That question is very postmodern," says Clinton Sanders, professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. "It's the idea that reality is only a media-driven reality. It's difficult to overestimate the power of the media. While I am not a postmodernist, I do think our understanding of what is real does not come from our own immediate experience - it comes from what we see in the media. What we see is that people are very trusting of the [entertainment] media. [To the question] of whether we become more real by becoming media fodder, I'd probably answer, 'yes.'"

Of course, lately there has been a trend toward feel-good shows where stars of one ilk skate or dance with pros, where homes are remade, where towns are redone. Inevitably, tears are shed. I like to tune in for the salty downpour at the end of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition'' on Sunday nights before those naughty "Desperate Housewives" make merry havoc. But even I might take in an hour of the homebuilding heroes on March 23 when they begin a four-part series dedicated to the devastation in the Gulf Coast caused by hurricane Katrina.

That's the kind of reality - and 15 seconds of fame - I can handle.

Jim Sullivan, a former arts writer and columnist for The Boston Globe, is a regular Monitor contributor.

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