Olivarius: Welcome to the ‘Real World’

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Photo by Amelia Sargent.

Last weekend, the Emmys honored the best and brightest of 2010 television. “Mad Men,” ”True Blood” and “Modern Family” cleaned up. With 13.5 million viewers, the Emmys were one of the most watched events of this summer. America, it seems, loves the glamour of a good red carpet packed with celebrities.

But this summer’s television programming would suggest that America is also fond of human beings far less glamorous than John Hamm and January Jones. According to the Nielsen Survey, 5.5 million viewers tuned in for the season premiere of “Jersey Shore,” dwarfing the 2.9 million that the premiere of “Mad Men” attracted despite thrice winning the “Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series.” The season finale of “The Bachelorette” boasted 11.7 million viewers.

As much as Eva Longoria in Vera Wang, America loves to see sweaty obese people run on treadmills competing to lose the most weight, D-class celebrities dance in glittery outfits, housewives of assorted cities kvetch, Hugh Hefner’s platinum blonde girlfriends gab and guidos get arrested for disorderly conduct.

This is reality television.

Why are we drawn to it? After all, it’s all fake. (If you are shocked to discover this, by the way, smoking kills.) The dialogue is scripted; the fights, make outs and “confessions” are largely pre-determined by television executives whose only concern is ratings. The editing emphasizes certain dramatic lines and cuts the fluff.

But we watch. Reality stars seem to be kind of like us. They struggle with base human emotions too; they have drama. And they get to act on it. When someone says something catty, reality stars get to throw punches on camera while we have to bite our tongues. We like schadenfreude, too — seeing others in painful, embarrassing and humiliating situations.

Voyeurism is mesmerizing. We love it when Kourtney Kardashian tells her sister Kim she thinks she’s pregnant, in “confidence” — on national television. At the same, we love it when the people we think of as “real celebrities” turn out to just be “real.” Hollywood is now in the “Real World.” Stars who would look down on Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt for being ridiculous and talentless now Tweet and blog to make sure their reality stays in our thoughts, even if it’s only that they walked their dogs, picked up a Vitamin Water Zero, or, as Taylor Swift wrote on Monday, “went to go buy a coffee maker.” It doesn’t get much more genuine than that.

Of course, though they’re making it easier for the editors of US Weekly to fill their “Stars, they’re just like us” page, these “reality” personas created by Twitter are all fake too, just like the cat fights on “The Hills.” Often personal assistants write the tweets, one more “transparent” brick in an assiduously constructed wall of fame.

Celebrity as a construct used to be based on mystery and glamour. Picture Cary Grant in a bespoke suit, Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Classic and apparently effortless glamour was what differentiated the gods of the silver screen from us sweaty plebs. Can you imagine Princess Diana tweeting about picking up her dog’s poop?

But now, it seems that celebrity is based on the exact opposite of mystery — on creating transparency, alleged connections and reminding us, constantly, that stars are “normal” as they work desperately to make sure the flood of new celebrities don’t wash them out of our minds.

Marilyn Monroe remained enigmatic, distant, despite dominating Hollywood; Zac Efron dominates by being “human” and “humble.” “It’s weird,” he said in a Details Magazine interview, “but I don’t feel like I deserve any of the attention. There’s really nothing but one audition for a Disney Channel movie that separates me from 2,000 other brown-haired, blue-eyed guys in L.A., you know?” Both kinds of celebrity, Marilyn and Zac, are products of their age.

So what does constant “reality” say about our age? The Internet era is one of blurring lines between elites and the rest of us — it’s certainly more democratic in a sense. Anyone with a cell phone can be a paparazzo. Your YouTube video can make you a phenomenon in Latvia. Journalists with 30 years’ experience compete every day with bloggers in their bathrobes. We like reality stars because they are us. And real stars want to seem like us.

“Us” must be pretty important in our increasingly anonymous age. We know that Zac Efron is nothing like us deep down, just like we know that Snookie and “The Situation” have professionally chosen outfits as they act out carefully scripted fights on “Jersey Shore.”

But we buy into the illusion because in its apparent normalcy, it’s glamorous.

Comments

  • chaseom2

    An extraordinary work, and of such staggering genius. In the nimble hands of this illusive columnist, Kathryn Olivarius, the paradox of celebrity in our times is brought forth as humans were once from clay. The athleticism of this commentator’s wisdom erases all doubt: he or she is truly the Serena Williams of commentary. Every reader wishes Kathryn Olivarius a speedy recovery.