Blogging about the media, commenting on the cult of celebrity, and critiquing the U.S. feminist movement.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Donald Trump Fails Business Challenge!

On the January 17 episode of Celebrity Apprentice Gene Simmons played a master hand and forced Donald Trump to act on his own business instincts -- and the Donald failed spectacularly! The only real business challenge facing the Donald right now is how to make the ailing Apprentice vehicle come back. Gene Simmons was addressing the real business challenge at hand (face it, he and none of the other celebrity candidates this season want to be Donald Trump's apprentice. Donald Trump was Gene Simmons's client and the business challenge Trump hired Simmons and all the other celebrities to tackle was making the Apprentice once again watchable). The question Gene Simmons was forcing the Donald to act on was this: Does Donald Trump fire the man he's picked out as the clear business leader he personally favors not just within the context of the show's silly challenges but as the ratings getter who might breathe life back into the Apprentice vehicle? Does he or does he not trust Gene Simmons to tell him what composition of celebrities is going to make for the strongest entertainment value and the best ratings? Is Donald Trump able to trust his good friend as an astute business leader trying to actually help him and the future of that silly show, or not?

The Donald clearly wanted Gene Simmons to take two women into the final board room meeting with him who could be faulted and thus fired for the failure of that night's particular challenge. What Gene Simmons did instead was take to the final board room the two women he deemd to be most detrimental to the ratings of the show. The Donald either was taking the big-picture business game seriously or he wasn't. He either was playing on the scale where the real stakes are or he was going to insist on the small-scale focus and the arbitrary rules of the game's internal challenges. Gene Simmons left no room here, it wasn't coincidental. He literally forced the Donald to take his own show and his business instincts regarding what was happening seriously or to fire no less than Gene Simmons himself. It was a test, and the Donald blew it.

What's even more telling is that of course at any time if the Donald didn't want to fire Gene Simmons or either of the women Gene Simmons did take to the final board room, he didn't have to -- he's the boss, it's his show, it's his future, it's his Apprentice vehicle that's on the line. At any time Donald Trump had the option of changing the silly little rules set up for the show, as he did in that very episode when he asked Gene Simmons to go over to lead the weak women! Donald Trump could have overroad Gene Simmons's advice and fired someone else entirely. That was the second option the Donald had on the table in rising to the real business challenge currently facing him. Ideally, however, he would have taken Gene Simmons's advice and simply fired Omarosa, period.

Donald Trump did not trust Gene Simmons and did not trust his own business instincts, either! You could see it! At that moment he couldn't understand what Gene Simmons was doing or why he was doing it -- and he didn't trust that Simmons was operating in the best interest of himself and of the Apprentice. In not-so-subtle language Gene Simmons warned Donald Trump that sometimes the client doesn't see the big picture and makes the wrong decision. This absolutely was a test of Trump's business acumen. The Donald proceeded to make the worst-ever possible business decision, for himself and for the future viability of the Apprentice vehicle. This is jaw-dropping classic stuff here, in line with some of the best multilayered pop cultural forces of this era. Not only that, the business aspects of what went down ought to be studied for years in business schools!

Friday, February 09, 2007

15 Minutes Stretched to 15 Years

In 1992 Anna Nicole Smith's Faux Marilyn Monroe Replaced Claudia Schiffer's Faux Bridgette Bardot in Ads for Guess

. . . Faux Celebrity?

. . . Guess

One of the strangest things about the media's coverage of Anna Nicole Smith's sudden death yesterday is how many commentators cannot pinpoint her celebrity-making moment. What's more, most don't even mention her breakout appearance in Guess's gimmicky (but extraordinarily popular) early 1990s black-and-white ad campaigns evoking sexpots of eras past -- campaigns that in the process turned the Faux Faces into Celebrity Names in their own right. Recall that time period, if you lived through it: Guess had come on strong at the very end of the 1980s as the jeans to have branded on your rear end if you were in high school or college. Buying Guess jeans cost at least double the price of any other brand, and the silhouette was unflattering on most figures (too tight in the wrong places, too short on most legs) but if you were a typical teen you had to have them.

By the early 1990s the Guess juggernaut shifted into high gear with the introduction of its black-and-white sultry-sexpots-of-past-eras campaigns featuring Claudia Schiffer and Anna Nicole Smith. These ads appealed to a young GenerationX that didn't yet have its own Face but longed for the fun and the glamour of such personas, even if they were fakes. (How much more did that prime us and our culture for the entrance and celebration of true original Kate Moss less than one year later, over at Calvin Klein in 1993? Moss's waif look became the look that embodied our own era; the term Supermodel, if already coined, finally entered common usage.)

You can argue that Anna Nicole Smith appearing in that classic Guess ad campaign shouldn't have amounted to even 15 minutes of fame, but it *was* a bonafide celebrity-turning breakout moment (as our society defines celebrity, anyway). Claudia Schiffer's celebrity-turning breakout moment came in that campaign, too, and last I checked Claudia Schiffer is still a Celebrity Name to this day. So is Kate Moss, for that matter. Do any of them deserve it? Have any of them done anything other than run away with their breakout moments and stayed in the headlines?

Okay, from this point on I don't know where I'm going with this, I admit it. But it's bizarre to have so many commentators in the media -- especially during a week when Paris Hilton (she of Guess's current advertising campaign) is splashed on the cover of no less than Newsweek!?! -- "don't get" Anna Nicole Smith's celebrity. Disengenuous much?

Finally, I do want to correct another common misrepresentation of Anna Nicole Smith made by many commentators. They routinely say something like: She dropped out of high school at 16 to marry her sweetheart, have a baby, and work at Wal*Mart. Suddenly she jumped to the cover of Playboy and then roped in an oil billionaire more than 60 years her senior, who promptly croaked one year later leaving her all of his money (a designation still contested in the courts after having gone all the way to the Supremes). Let's at least be fair here: Anna Nicole Smith met J. Howard Marshall, the billionaire, in her early 20s when she was a single mom working as an exotic dancer. Marshall was a frequent customer at the Houston strip club where she worked. Marshall took her in, paid for "photographers, publicists, wardrobe, living expenses, hair and make-up stylists, bodyguards, talent agents, attorneys and a host of other support staff" and encouraged her to get a boob job. Then Anna Nicole Smith's career took off; she famously appeared on the March 1992 issue of Playboy. The Guess contract came next, then in 1993 Smith posed as Playboy's centerfold, called "the next Marilyn Monroe," and eventually became that year's Playmate of the Year. The gold digger didn't marry the old man until June 27, 1994.


Monday, May 08, 2006

Harvard Plagiarism Scandal Exposes Modern-Day Machinations to Get Into College

It's hard to know what part of the plagiarism scandal involving 19-year-old Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan is juiciest -- but oddly enough, it probably isn't her lifting of other authors' work. First up is the fact that first-time Viswanathan landed a breathtaking $500,000 two-book contract with Little, Brown & Co. -- a publishing house unit of mega-media powerhouse Time Warner Inc. -- as a result of the work of a firm hired by her parents to help her get into college.

Viswanathan is the daughter of Indian parents, both doctors; Viswanathan, born in India, grew up in northern New Jersey. The book that got her into trouble, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, tells the story of a New Jersey girl's effort to get into Harvard to fulfill her Indian parents' lifelong wish -- the character's parents lay out a strategy for getting Opal into Harvard when she is still a toddler. How much of Opal's story is actually fiction -- as opposed to nonfiction draw directly from Viswanathan's own life -- is highly questionable, given Viswanathan's apparent inability to come up with entire storylines (nevermind sentences) of her own. Viswanathan appears to have creativity problems when dealing even with banal nonfiction: Like Opal's parents in the novel, for example, Viswanathan's father is a neurosurgeon who drives a Range Rover and her mother is a doctor who gave up medicine.

Interestingly, it turns out that long before the mainstream media began writing about Viswanathan's plagiarism scandal -- heck, even before Viswanathan wrote the novel -- major news outlets were quoting Viswanathan about ... her strategy to get into Harvard. Bloomberg's online business reporting outlet revealed last week that Viswanathan, "an English major who wants to be a banker, wasn't unknown to major publications before her book came out." Specifically, Bloomberg reporter Lisa Kassenaar found:

"As a student at Bergen County Academy in Hackensack, New Jersey, she was quoted in a Forbes magazine article on private counseling services like IvyWise. IvyWise's services can cost more than $30,000 and include guiding a child as young as 14 toward classes, awards and performances that will impress college admissions departments. Viswanathan was also featured in a 2004 essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In it, she speaks of sending monthly messages to the admissions officers at nine colleges, including Harvard and Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. "I think a lot of applying to college is about strategy," Viswanathan says in the piece.

The Viswanathans did indeed hire IvyWise's services to help get Kaavya into college. IvyWise connected Kaavya to a book agent and also got her representation by the William Morris Agency. The agent, meanwhile, connected Viswanathan to Alloy Entertainment, which, according to Bloomberg, "pulls together writers and ideas and shops a refined 'package' to publishers and movie houses."

Little, Brown earlier this year held a luncheon for its new authors at an Italian restaurant in midtown Manhattan, one publishing insider told Bloomberg. Viswanathan arrived after interviews for summer internships that morning at Wall Street firms, he says she told him. "She said she loved writing but didn't feel she would pursue a professional writing career after college," Bloomberg reported the insider as saying.

Wow. In the convoluted process of getting into Harvard this young woman landed a $500,000 two-book contract and did not even aspire to be an author.. That tells us something about not just the modern-day college admissions process but also about the crank-'em-out cash-cow "chick-lit"publishing industry -- but that's for another blog.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Hollywood's Prom Night

True, it's almost two weeks after the Oscars, but I'm a new blogger and lost my original post on this subject halfway through writing it on Oscar night. That's the night when we watch adults -- the vast majority of whom do not have a high-school education -- don their best prom-wear and exude the desperation of those sweating to be accepted by the ultimate in-clique. Why the newly crowned Prom Kings and Queens and the princess starlets ever thought we'd want to hear their political views as they present or accept a statuette of a naked gold man is beyond anyone's guess. But I digress. This year's Oscars were notably absent politicization -- a fact largely attributed to the already highly political nature of the films up for awards and the sense that Hollywood was backing down from the heavy-handedness of the political statements embodied in the nominated films.

It is the cult of celebrity that interests me, generally, and the fact that the vast majority of our stars are so terribly undereducated. It is a bubble world of high-school mentality and maturity. A few years ago, Gwyneth Paltrow proudly told the press about meeting President Clinton and sharing with him a high-school history class factoid about Thomas Jefferson and how Clinton fawned over her comment in awe. It was clear to the reader, and it was evident in the way the reporters wrote this news story, that the Jefferson-obsessed Clinton could not have been impressed with the information but instead was doing what charismatic leaders do best: make the powerful feel like, well, stars.

And even though it's painfully obvious to consumers looking at the covers of celebrity tabloids, which seem to multiply weekly, that the vast majority of us in the United States do not love or even like our celebrities, this is far from clear to the celebrities themselves. Week after week the tabloid covers cast celebrities in the most unflattering storylines possible. Some examples from the past two weeks alone: "Nick's Revenge Romance," "How Kevin Ruined Brit!" "Why Angelina Hates Her New Body!" Bad photos are another top cover seller: "All New! Extreme Celebrity Flaws! 50 Shocking Photos!" "Top 10 Weight Winners & Losers!" It's scandal that sells. You want a puff piece on your favorite celebrity? Go to Entertainment Weekly, People magazine, or the aptly titled Vanity Fair. You will not find such pieces, however, in the tabloids that sell millions weekly and that appear to have a boundless market -- there seems to be an ever-increasing number of tabloids competing for our entertainment dollars these days.

Weirdly, celebrities apparently don't notice that these articles are far from fawning or that there is no small element of Schaudenfraude -- delight in another's misery -- among the tabloid-reading population. Well, this might be explained in part by the typical celebrity mindset, which is still stuck in the high-school mentality and maturity dynamic. Jennifer Aniston, for example, only this week complained that she is tired of being stuck as third wheel in the ongoing tabloid saga of that celebrity Bermuda Triangle that is Brad-Angelina-Jennifer. I don't want anybody to pity me! she wailed to the press. Don't feel sorry for me! The thing is, is there any tabloid consumer who felt sorry for Jennifer? Did it ever occur to anyone other than Ms. Aniston herself that tabloid readers might take pity on her? Aniston on the cover of tabloids last year looking bitter in the chosen photos and seeking "Revenge!" as the copy declared is what readers wanted, my Friend. They wanted the dirt on her misery, to put it bluntly. The Vanity Fair puff piece last summer in which "Jen Finally Talks!" was largely regarded in the industry as the equivalent of one of her movies: a stinker.

In future posts I would like to go deeper into the political significance of such a powerful elite having no real education. Is it by accident or design that such a powerful class -- in regard to wealth and reknown -- has no real ability to think critically or make pronouncements that the rest of the nation will regard as educated and important? And I'd like to go into the shallow stuff too, of course.