I am a celebrity.
Don't scream at the top of your lungs when you see me or ply me for autographs. I wouldn't sign your shirt anyway, unless you paid me. I am a celebrity, and this is what celebrities do—collect money for signing things. Before I learned I was a celebrity, I was always signing things to spend money—checks and mortgage forms and such. Ah, won't my bank be surprised when they learn the tables have turned? I'm beginning to see why this whole celebrity thing is so appealing.
Oh, don't give me that look. I was as surprised as anyone to discover my celebrity. After all, I'm not the star of a popular movie or a background singer on Susan Boyle's new Christmas CD. I haven't had a stint in rehab. Neither one of my children is named Exuberance Madrid. I just woke up one morning and discovered that I've been a celebrity for years without really knowing it. So I'm just thankful the paparazzi hasn't found me yet.
And now I've got a secret to divulge: You, my fabulous friend, could be a celebrity, too.
It was a gradual thing, us all becoming celebtastic. We didn't just wake up one day and have a sudden urge to buy purse dogs (though, when I get around to buying mine, I'll name it Exuberance Madrid). It came upon us gradually—the product of the cultural creep of our times and, of course, electricity.
When Ben Franklin invented electricity—some historians say by jabbing pieces of metal into those mysterious little wall sockets that dotted his Philadelphia home—he had little idea what havoc it would wreak. His diary entry from the day features just one word—"YEOWWWW!" Even later, Franklin appeared to think of it as a rather impractical wartime weapon. "If only I could invite the Redcoats for dinner," one entry reads, "and, after dessert, encourage them to take their forks, walk over to the wall and …" He had no idea that it would eventually lead to the age of radio and television and the Internet and, finally, Jersey Shore.
Perhaps, had he known, he would've spackled the wall sockets and flown a kite instead.
But then, of course, we never would've become celebrities.
Back in Franklin's time, and for quite a while afterwards, the bar you had to vault to become a celebrity was much higher than it is today. A person who aspired to be a celebrity had to, typically, possess some sort of special talent or skill. Franklin, for instance, was a celebrity largely because he was an inventor and author and politician and publisher and philosopher. The fact that he wore funny glasses would have won him a shot at the 2008 American Idol auditions, but not national recognition in 1783.
Yes, it's true, he had gathered around himself many of the typical accoutrements we think of a celebrity having: He traveled and flirted and caroused, often staying out until the wee hours of the morning. He was, in fact, the 18th century's version of Paris Hilton—if Hilton was in her 70s or 80s, boasted an IQ of around 230 and had helped write the Declaration of Independence. Still, no one would've invited Franklin to their parties or slapped him on the front of $100 bills had he not had real talent.
This system worked reasonably well for centuries: People who became famous typically deserved their fame (or, in some cases, infamy) because of what they did and how they did it. Celebrity was a byproduct of a certain sort of success.
All that changed with the advent of the television game show. Suddenly, the country was awash in programs such as Hollywood Squares, The $10,000 Pyramid and Match Game, all of which required celebrities to appear in them. But there weren't enough celebrities to fill all the seats. Most, apparently, were too busy doing what made them celebrities in the first place to bother with making witty rejoinders on Celebrity Billiards. The United States was heading directly for a serious celebrity recession.
So we printed more of them.
The television industry began churning out scads of celebs, from Zsa-Zsa Gabor and Paul Lind to Tiny Tim. The Gong Show—a curious forerunner to YouTube, in some ways—began making stars of regular Joes who were willing to juggle while wearing a gorilla suit.
Celebrity had changed. You no longer had to be wildly talented. You just had to be interesting. Or funny. Or slightly unhinged.
But game shows didn't allow everyone to become a celebrity. After all, there were a finite number of channels (only three at the time), a finite number of studios and a finite number of washer-dryer sets the television industry could give away. Fame was still, for all its democratic trending, the province of the privileged few.
It wasn't until the Internet was discovered—probably by some guy poking around his digital walls to see if he might get shocked—that celebrity truly became ubiquitous. No longer did we require washer-dryer sets to act silly. We did it just because our computers came with cameras. No longer did we need talent or skill. We just needed to tape a 6-year-old kid after he went to the dentist.
The proof is in the popularity of the YouTube video "Charlie Bit My Finger—Again!," in which a boy sticks his finger into his baby brother's mouth. As of November 2010, this piece of riveting cinema had garnered more than 244 million views, according to readwriteweb.com. That means it outperformed Eminem and Rihanna's "Love the Way You Lie" video (184 million views) and Miley Cyrus' "Party in the U.S.A." (170 million views). We now live in an age when our society's most gifted comedians, most intelligent thinkers, most controversial starlets and most poignant moments can regularly be trumped by a well-placed LOLcat.
"That's all well and good," you say. "But I still don't see how that makes you—or I, for that matter—a celebrity. What have you done to snag 200 million hits?"
That, my famous friend, is the beauty of modern celebrity: It does not require that you be legendary … it only requires that you have the potential to be legendary. Just like dot-com companies that sell for 16 gazillion dollars when they've never made a penny of actual profit, today's celebrity is more a hypothetical, potential thing. And that makes me hypothetically, potentially, a celebrity.
Consider: Someone's filming me all the time. I can see the little security camera from my cubicle/work station/worldwide stage right now. And I gain more screen exposure each and every time I go to the ATM or shop at a large convenience store.
Consider: You are reading this story, right now, on the Web—which garners for me a far larger potential audience than Hollywood Squares ever had in its 1970s heyday. This story could literally be read by billions of adoring and appreciate fans. Take that, Faulkner! And your lyrical prose, too!
Consider: I can be easily found with a single Google search—and not one of the results has to do with the Colorado Springs Police Department.
Granted, I am not the celebrity I could've been, had I started my quest for fame earlier. To become really famous, you must begin young—obsessively dwelling on fame from the time you set your sights on preschool.
In Part 2 of our Celebtastic series, we look at how the folks at Disney and Nickelodeon are working overtime to make sure your young children aren't being shoved into the celebrity breach unprepared.
Celebtastic 1: We Are All Celebrities Now
Celebtastic 2: Teach Your (Celebrity) Children Well
Celebtastic 3: Six Easy Steps to Becoming a Celebrity