The Web of Celebrity
In August, Cindy Margolis kicked off The Cindy Margolis Show, a variety show taped in Miami's South Beach for Eyemark Entertainment, CBS's syndication wing. Margolis is a thirty-something former Cal State Northridge business student- turned-model who distinguished herself from other former business students-turned-models in the mid-1990s not so much through her appearances on greeting cards or as a "Barker's Beauty" on The Price is Right or a nipple-gunning "fembot" in Austin Powers as by launching an Internet site, CindyMargolis.com, featuring photos of her friendly, curvy self. She became, according to Guinness World Records 2000, the Most Downloaded Woman in the world. She has her own calendar, has made guest appearances on sitcoms and Hollywood Squares and Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, has chatted with David Letterman and Roseanne, and has hosted a series of specials on cable's E! channel; she was one of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People in 1998, Details magazine's Sexiest Woman of the Year in 1999, and one of Forbes magazine's Top 100 Celebrities in 1999 and 2000. Soon, believe it or not, in addition to her TV show, she will be a featured attraction in Ripley's Believe It or Not! museums.
Margolis's nearest male counterpart is unquestionably Mahir Cagri, the 37-year-old Turkish accordionist/journalist whose goofy Web page became a sudden sensation last November. The site featured photos of the mustachioed Cagri in a teeny bathing suit and playing ping-pong and with his accordion. It offered a lovely "I Kiss You!!!!!" welcome, along with frank proclamations such as "I like sex" and charming made-up words such as "invitate" and "musicenstrumans." Within days of his posting, kitsch-and-irony mavens the world over were e-mailing each other about the site. By the second day, 500,000 had visited, and over the following months, page views ran into the millions. As Cagri himself put it later on his Web page, it was like "having something fall on your head while walking through."
It turned out that much of the funniest and most endearing stuff--the lines about liking sex and liking to take "foto-camera (animals, towns, nice nude models and peoples)"--was added to his site by a Turkish hacker, but by the time that news broke, Mahir Cagri was already a celebrity. An Internet company called eTour brought him on a U.S. tour. At his San Francisco debut, Janelle Brown reported in Salon, he was "surrounded by TV cameras and flashing lights and flanked by eTour P.R. people," and mobbed by a crowd of people "screaming and pushing forward and acting like a bunch of teenage girls at a Backstreet Boys concert." By now, he too has appeared on Roseanne's and Letterman's shows and Comedy Central's Daily Show. He's been profiled in People, Time, USA TODAY, and Entertainment Weekly. He was number 100 on Forbes's list of the 100 most influential people in the entertainment industry, and has reportedly received personal e-mails from Bills Clinton and Gates. Like any good celebrity, he is working on a film deal and has announced plans to use his fame to promote World Peace and help The Children.
Cagri and Margolis are two of a handful of Internet-produced celebrities, most of them still at about the same low-grade, could-end-any-second level of fame. They join people such as Matt Drudge (who made his name through online Winchellesque journalism and from there became a small-time radio and television personality and sometime pundit), Jennifer Ringley (a pioneer in online exhibitionism whose JenniCAM displays her everyday life nonstop on the Internet, and who was recently featured in Entertainment Weekly's 10th anniversary issue), Breakup Girl (an animated dating-advice superheroine, anointed as "a star on the Net" by The New York Times, who now has her own show on Oxygen and whose alter ego and co-creator, Lynn Harris, has appeared on talk shows galore), bands like the duo Fisher (whose "I Will Love You" became the most downloaded pop/rock song on MP3.com, which led to a deal with a Universal Music subsidiary), and a zillion wanna-bes, including a Dallas man who legally changed his name to DotComGuy and, with the support of managers and publicists and sponsors, has locked himself into a house for a year to live entirely on dot-commable goods and services.
The Internet is certainly being used by the existing entertainment industry as just another marketing outlet for old-style celebrity--chat with Britney Spears or George Clooney on AOL! get romance tips from Melanie Griffith on MelanieGriffith.com! But the Web is also tapping into the more populist currents of celebrity culture, which, although not themselves new, are so terrifically electrified online as to seem to be almost rewiring celebrity itself. On the Net, at least for now, the audience is celebrating its own star-making power.
The story goes that in the old days of celebrity (that is, a few years ago) becoming a star involved some combination of dumb luck, hard work, and special talent or "it"-ness, and also required a team of celebrity-industry insiders to sponsor and promote you. Only a few people had that combination, so only a few people got to be famous. The Internet drastically widens the pool of potential celebrities by lowering the entry barriers--a computer, a modem, and a bit of moxie, and you've got a shot--and bypassing the tightly controlled publicity system, and the tightly controlling middle people, of Hollywood. The Internet speeds up the process, too, so that you can go from aspirant (or nonaspirant) to celebrity in a few hours. (And back again. Because people are always ready to click onto the next new thing, the shelf life of online celebrity is short.)
The computer is also a different sort of home for fame: even more domestic than television, even more productive of a sense of intimacy with the famous. "You can see this kind of march, if you start way back, from portraiture to photography to movies to radio and television, as a gradual domestication of the image of the famous," suggests University of Southern California professor Leo Braudy, author of The Frenzy of Renown. "At the same time the person was becoming famous, they were becoming, at least seemingly, more intimately related--more eye contact, more direct address. With the Internet, it's another step. Fame was brought into the home [through television], and now it's brought into your lap." Even movie stars are available, if only in a virtual room with hundreds of other people, for a chat; you picture them at their keyboard, just like you. The Internet, that is, closes not just geographic distances but social ones. The relationship to celebrities online thus tends to be less one of awe--the celebrity floating above the rest of us in a Gucci gown--than of identification. Cyberstars are anybodies. "With the traditional Hollywood celebrity," says Salon's Janelle Brown, "there's a definite separation, and no one ever really gets close to them. There's an aura. On the Web, because that distance is drawn close between fan and celebrity, the celebrities seem less great... . I mean, Mahir is just a guy. JenniCAM is just a girl. Cindy Margolis is just a woman with nice tits."
Online, most celebrities are eventually stripped naked. If you type the word "celebrity" into a search engine, in fact, you come up with hundreds of links to nude photo sites, most of which cost money and many of which feature famous heads attached to unfamous naked bodies. It's the Internet expression of some of the nastier propensities of populism--a distaste for elites translated into the familiar desire to yank celebrities off their pedestals, to rip their images to shreds with tabloid teeth. This is the duskier side of the hyperdemocratized, sprightly celebrity culture the Internet encourages, in which, as Brown puts it, "the fan culture is the culture." There are certainly plenty of Tom Cruise and *NSync Web pages and the like, but the vertical relationships between fan and celebrity are secondary to the horizontal ones among people online. "What really drives [Internet celebrity] is the discovery of a Web site and the communication about it by e-mail," says Brown. You find the goofiest guy, or the sexiest gal, and pass it on--hey, you guys, let's make a star!--and I tell two friends, and they tell two friends, and so on, and so on, and so on.
Indeed, much Internet culture remains, at least for now, quite suspicious of the big commercial forces that are trying to take it over, which makes the industrial manufacture of celebrity that takes place offline harder to achieve online. "There's this whole do-it-yourself thing that the Internet has really brought," says Noah Robischon, who covers the Internet for Entertainment Weekly. Offline, when "you have one big boy band, Sony or whatever thinks they can reproduce that, like an assembly line. Once you've got the mold--Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera--you can do it. Online that has tended not to be the case." Mahir Cagri came to fame, for instance, as a sort of anticelebrity. "The whole creation of Mahir as a celebrity," Brown says, "was like this giant, fun, whimsical, collective in-joke. It very much goes against the grain of everything that traditional celebrity is about, and people really liked that."
But American culture's scrappy, antihierarchical, powerto-the-people tendencies are hardly an Internet invention. The Internet amplifies and indulges the anxious American search for authenticity behind carefully managed celebrity images--what are they "really" like? what do they look like naked?--and the uneasy assertion that our stars are popularly elected rather than placed in the sky by high-paid producers. But the control center of the culture has not shifted significantly, at least not yet. Being a much-visited or downloaded Web personality still has nowhere near the social and commercial value of a good old-fashioned TV appearance or studio contract, even if it does make those appearances and contracts easier to secure, since you bring a risk-reducing recognition factor with you to the table. Internet users may be flexing their muscles at the moment of discovery, but cyberstars tend to quickly convert their online celebrity into conventional Hollywood-ish currency. On that level, the more things change, the more they stay the same. "Please make my band famous," says the rocker-model in a billboard advertisement for Soundbreak.com, "so I can be a sellout."
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