Manufacturing Celebrity

by Sarah Trachtenberg


part 1 of 4

An introverted UCLA professor of psychology researches what makes people famous. Does acquiring fame take genuine talent? Or can anyone become famous by artificial means? He hires a public relations agent and an image consultant — and he undergoes a makeover. Then he launches himself into the talk-show circuit and mingles with the glitterati. The shallow world of Hollywood may be fun and lucrative, but what are its hidden costs?


Fame. Does it take genuine talent, appearance, personality, or a combination of any of the above? Or could almost anyone do it with the right tools in the toolbox? To answer this question, I decided to try to manufacture my own celebrity.

Could a psychologist with, and no false modesty on my part, only passable looks, what I like to think of as a good personality, and a career in research in evolutionary psychology become a celebrity if he followed some kind of set formula?

I’m a guy who devotes his life to researching facial expressions, eye contact and birds’ colorful plumage — not exactly the stuff of Britney Spears or Tom Cruise. While it goes without saying that evolutionary psychology is interesting to me and my colleagues, is it the sort of thing that would attract attention from a critical mass of people, and if so, what kind of critical mass?

After all, I’m not the equivalent of Dr. Phil; my area of expertise is not providing jovial advice or counseling under the guise of good old common sense wisdom. This is not to put down Dr. Phil or other well-known psychologists, but rather to illustrate that he is more likely to appeal to the masses than I am. So could I become famous? Perhaps not Dr. Phil famous, but could a relatively simple guy such as myself be marketed to laypeople?

My first step was to consult with a public relations firm. Since I had no experience in the entertainment industry, nor had I published any books or been in popular media (a show or two on National Public Radio hardly constitutes fame, nor do my articles published in research journals or the occasional psychology magazine), I would rely solely on PR to get my name out there and make myself marketable.

After shopping around, I decided to go for Thompson and Sons PR in Los Angles, California, not too far from my workplace at the University of California at Los Angeles. I made an appointment with Tasha Harding, a junior PR agent, on Tuesday morning, after briefly talking on the phone about who I was and what I do.

Tasha greeted me (we were already on a first-name basis) in her window office with a fair view of the Westwood area. She was a pretty young woman with shoulder-length hair and a smocked blouse. She smiled, offered me a Poland Spring and asked me to tell her more about my situation, pointing out the disadvantages and the advantages I had in getting my name out there.

I didn’t quite reveal that I was doing an experiment, explaining to her that I was trying to understand, psychologically speaking, how fame worked.

She told me a bit about her success stories. “I had this one singer in here a month ago and I found out about a big spread coming up in Newsweek about shoplifting and kleptomania, and what it was costing the economy.

So I told her to get caught shoplifting a bottle of Estee Lauder perfume at Sak’s. It was great — we got half a page in the Newsweek article. And that was just the beginning — it got her in all the celeb rags, too, and Entertainment Tonight. So she was really on the ball. We went back to my case.

“I welcome a challenge; we’re particularly interested in taking on unestablished clients. So let’s outline our plan.” She whipped out a legal pad. “First off, we need an image consultant. Take no offense; we do this for all new clients. I know a very good image consultant who I can book for you.”

Fair enough. I’m not particularly handsome, although I do hit the gym a few times a week, and particularly by LA standards, my wardrobe leaves a lot to be desired.

“Next, we need to spin why evolutionary psychology deserves the attention of a large audience.”

I’d already had the idea that evolutionary psychology could be promoted as a way of understanding day-to-day human behavior, particularly with regards to sex: cheating, why men prefer younger women, how appearance mattered, and so forth.

Tasha agreed with me that focusing on sex had a tremendous advantage. She said that she would make a few calls to book me on a popular radio talk show and work her way up to television if all went well. Furthermore, she could arrange for me to write about my work in a popular magazine. Off the top of our heads, we supposed that women’s magazines, such as Glamour, would be good places to start.

It was time to take the plunge. My experiment officially began.

* * *

I met Clark Heath, my image consultant, two days later. He wore an expensive, yet subdued, designer suit; I figured he would simply dress me up the same way, gel my hair back and send me on my merry way. That, unfortunately for me, was not the end of image consulting, although at least I was spared from carrying books on my head like the charm school crash course I’d feared.

While polite and chipper, Clark made it clear that he would take no prisoners. He said that image consulting almost by necessity had to offend clients and that I was not to take it personally. “My clients have been very pleased with the results,” he assured me.

Then it was time to get down to business. First, he took a “before” picture of me. I had seen the “before” and “after” pictures in the portfolio in his office and they were very striking. Could this fairy godmother make me into a Cinderella? Could he make me look like George Clooney or Pierce Brosnan? Well, accounting for the fact that I was younger than those guys, I mean. Now that I thought about it, Pierce probably looked like a corpse without his make-up.

“Your hair is all right, for a man your age,” he said, indicating my hairline, which was beginning to recede. I admit my forthcoming hair loss was something of an embarrassment I had tried to put out of my mind and being scrutinized under a microscope felt pretty uncomfortable. “We’ll need to highlight it and trim it. After we do your eyebrows.”

Huh? My eyebrows?

“Yeah. We need to wax them, probably. There’s too much to tweeze. You don’t quite have a unibrow — that would really hurt you, aesthetically, I mean. Same goes for those stray whiskers.” He gestured to the whiskers that were outside the zone of my daily shave, sprinkled randomly on the edges of my face and throat. I barely even thought of them. I’d never known about the large pores on my face, either. Thankfully, my ear and nose hair weren’t a problem.

“Large pores settle around the nose and under the lower lip,” said Clark, showing me in a lit, magnified mirror. I looked absolutely grotesque in my enlarged reflection, thinking, whoa, those pores really are! I had never even thought about pores before.

“We might be able to do an acid peel, but since you mentioned that you’d rather not do anything surgical...” He paused with what could have been regret or bafflement. “An aesthetician could give you a facial with Q10 and antioxidants. It won’t have a lasting effect, but it’s a start.”

I had mentioned that I didn’t want to invest in anything surgical or para-surgical, such as Botox injections. Eyebrow waxes, OK, but I had to draw the line somewhere. Luckily, Clark said I had a good nose, as a bad nose would have almost necessitated a nose job if I wanted to get anywhere in the public eye. Plus, it was nice to know there was something about me that was fine the way it was.

Next was advice on my wardrobe and which designers were up-and-coming. Clearly Clark had his finger on the pulse; you might have thought that he mingled at fashion design schools daily, and for all I knew, he did. He recommended a few designers, showing me their websites. All the suits looked like suits to me. The same went for the good old classic designers. Clark said that the advantage of going with the new kids was that if one of them hit it big, you’d have been there on the ground floor.

“Since you’re a psychologist, we really can’t go beyond the suit for you,” he said. “Even if we decided to go casual, we’d still need to keep it ‘suit lite’ or you’d lose the appearance of authority.”

“What about ties?” I asked, referring to the one article of clothing the modern American man can use to express his individuality in the white collar mainstream world.

“You might be able to do without,” said Clark. “I’m thinking a literally less buttoned-down, relax-with-the-psychologist look. We want authoritative, yet approachable.” Clark explained that he had much more free rein with entertainers than he did with “media brains” like me.

“Last week I had a rap singer come in here,” he said. “That was fun. We’re still working on his jewelry, but it’s looking as though he’ll be very pleased with the way he’ll look. He wanted to wear a big, gold watch pendant around his neck, but I was able to talk him out of it.” He gazed upward a second. “I put one of those male symbol pendants on him instead. So much more of a statement. Those watches are so overdone.”

Clark recommended Stony Spa nearby for my facial enhancement needs. I was relieved to see a few other men there. While I try not to put too much stock in gender roles, I confess I was uncomfortable with doing this sort of thing, even if it was for an experiment.

My aesthetician, Shalimar, waxed my eyebrows, not quite as painful as I’d expected, and talked me into a brown sugar exfoliant for my large pores and a “soothing facial” made of “fennel, blood orange, and anise,” which she said would calm and even my skin tone and prevent flakiness.

I asked about Clark’s advice about Q10 and antioxidants. “Oh, they’re in there,” Shalimar said. I admit the stuff smelled pretty good, making me hungry for lunch, but afterwards I wasn’t sure that I looked all that different. Friends and colleagues, though, commented that there was something different about me — they didn’t know what. When I said I’d had my eyebrows waxed, they said, “Ahhh...”

When I saw Clark the next week, after I’d done a bit of shopping, had my hair styled and ditched my glasses in favor of contact lenses, he said that I looked “much better” and his assistant, Namaste, took “after” photos of me to add to their portfolio — and also to serve as headshots in my own portfolio, which Tasha was forming.

Tasha had called me in the meantime. “I landed you an interview on Let’s Talk About Sex,” she said, explaining that it was the area’s highest-rated internet radio show, one in which listeners called in to, well, talk about sex. The radio show itself wasn’t high-paying, Tasha was quick to inform me, but would almost certainly lead to something that was. Our job was to build my star power.

The show aired just the evening after Tasha called. I’d listened to a few podcasts of “Let’s Talk About Sex” while I was working out, as per Clark’s advice; there had been plenty of clinical psychologists and sex therapists on the show, but no one in research. Hmm, maybe having a researcher like me on the show was what they were due for.

“We’re here tonight with Dr. Marty Friedman, a psychologist who studies evolutionary psychology, and he’s here tonight to talk to us about whether humans are designed to be monogamous,” said the host, Barry.

I talked a bit about my premise — that humans had evolved to be monogamous, but there were many exceptions, and we’d be talking about what they were and why they got that way.

“So we’re talking about cheating?” Barry wanted to clarify for the audience.

“Yes, but also about polygamy, when a man has more than one wife at a time, and also serial monogamy, which means marriage, divorce, remarriage.” I talked a bit about infidelity. “It’s adaptive, evolutionarily speaking, for men to propagate their genes by having sex with as many women as possible in order to ensure that they’ll have a lot of offspring...”

Barry’s first caller asked, “is it true that if a guy’s just had sex with a woman, and another woman walks into the room, no matter how exhausted he is, he can still get a hard-on?”

“There are a lot of different parts of that question to answer. I think the question boils down to, are men physically wired to have sex with as many women they can when the opportunity knocks...”

We got a lot of calls asking if I was essentially giving men permission to screw around — an accusation I’d heard many times before, but rarely put so colorfully, or from such a large audience. One woman put it thusly: “You’re saying men can screw around because their dicks tell them to? Why not tell them to keep it in their pants?”

Barry himself said that he hoped his wife wasn’t listening to the show. “I don’t want her to ask me if I if I want to ensure the survival of my genes. You know, asking in a pointed way.”

“Are you married, Marty?” Tasha asked when we met for after coffee the day after the radio show. The radio show had gone well and I admit I had a good time. Barry told me it was the best show he’d had in weeks and invited me to come back on some time. Now, Tasha was telling me that she’d gotten me a gig on a talk show — not Oprah, but popular enough.

“Er, no,” I answered Tasha. “Divorced.”

“Any kids?”

“No...”

She asked if I was seeing someone, and I again said no.

“Once we get you invited to some parties and events, we can see who I can introduce you to.” Then she opened up a virtual yearbook of women on her monitor. I couldn’t name names, but it was a cornucopia of mostly blonde singers and actresses. Even though those women were beautiful — heck, they had to be for their work — none of them jumped out at me.

“These are women who are currently uninvolved,” she said, “and I know what parties they go to. Let me ask you, though, what about children?”

“No, I don’t have any.”

“I know. I mean, have you considered adopting?” I asked her if they let single men do that, and she laughed. “I’m talking about long-term plans. Once we find the right partner for you, whether you decide to get married or not — we’ll get to that part later — adoption is just the thing to keep your name out there.”

She showed me a list of famous adoptive parents and the third-world countries that their kids were from. “As you can see, sub-Saharan Africa will never go out of style, but I think adopting kids from South America is going to be the next thing.”

Should I go with tried-and-true, or be one of the first to jump on the bandwagon? That seemed to be the question in a lot of these little decisions.

“Now let’s talk about names. For the baby,” she clarified. “State names, like Dakota, are passé. Food names like Apple and Coco are on their way out. I suspect that animal names are getting big — you know, Lark or Gazelle for a girl, maybe Eagle or Lion for a boy.”

I updated Tasha on the voice and body language guidance Clark was giving me (I had thought I seemed confident enough before. According to the expert, I was wrong). I also told her about the writing assignment I got for Glamour on why men like the way women look in make-up, a much-embroidered explanation of how humans have evolved to prefer things like long eyelashes, full lips and high cheekbones.

A make-up artist wrote a sidebar about how she used my techniques in her work and how readers could apply them at home. In context, the article was certainly giving the magazine’s sponsors a boost. Tasha told me that next I should aim for a magazine like Playboy or Esquire. “These mags always want to hear shrinks talk about sex. And they pay a bomb.”

I explained that I was a research psychologist, not a clinician, just as I had on the radio show the night before, when I was explaining to the audience about humans and polygamy.

Tasha scored me an invitation to a party for the following Friday and it was time for me to get ready. Like opening night after a dress rehearsal, I put on my new clothes, voice and mannerisms. Or so it seemed.

* * *


To be continued...

Copyright © 2009 by Sarah Trachtenberg


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