Manufacturing Celebrity

by Sarah Trachtenberg


part 2 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?


Hollywood parties are all you’ve suspected and more, if what you expect is a lot of artificial hobnobbing with people who try their hardest to both look like they’re having fun and like they have a touch of ennui all at once. Heck, for all I knew, maybe I looked the same way. Maybe that was Clark’s object in our sessions together.

I’d arrived on time, which Tasha assured me was “the new fashionably late,” to the Beverly Hills home of a producer. Tasha was right again, since all the guests arrived at the same time and we were ushered in like a mob. After plucking a saketini off the tray a caterer offered, since Clark said it was good to be seen with a drink or other prop in one’s hand, I made my way around the beautifully lit garden, full of night-blooming jasmine.

Even I recognized some of the stars here and couldn’t help but feel a little star-struck that I was within spitting distance of these people, even if I hadn’t actually seen their movies or TV shows. Still, I wasn’t there to have fun; I was there to work.

I forced myself to mingle — as a natural introvert, this wasn’t really fun for me — and circled the garden, picking up snippets of one conversation and then the next:

“I’m on Atkins for two hours a day.”

“I won’t hear back from my agent until OJ’s ghostwriter finishes his next book.”

“Nobody drinks caffeine anymore! Well, no one should.”

“Just by eating, like, just the top of the muffin and throwing away the rest, you eat, like, half as many carbs.”

“Paramount bought it for two hundred grand, but it’s complete crap.”

I was tempted to run to a private corner to call Tasha as a lifeline and ask, “What the heck should I say around these people?!” I reminded myself that, after all, I studied human behavior, and just tried to detach myself from the party. Pretend you’re a psychologist, not a guest, and certainly not a wannabe celebrity, I told myself.

I just watched myself as I joined people I didn’t know talking about topics that I didn’t know about. I recouped my new élan and remembered that I was a newly-handsome man in fashionable clothes and as far as anyone there knew, it all came perfectly naturally. For all they knew, I’d always looked this good and acted this suave. Or so I kept telling myself, mentally pushing out my chest and plunging forward.

I told anyone who asked that I was an evolutionary psychologist, explained what that was, and that I was about to go on the Rita show. So far, no one asked, “so what are you doing here?” It wasn’t long before I exchanged cards with a few guys who knew someone at another talk show and a few women whose intentions may or may not have been professional — I couldn’t tell. After I freshened my drink, a young lady with red hair and brown eyes asked me to light her cigarette.

“Do you know who that was?” A young director asked me.

“Who?”

“You just lit Cara Barrons’s cigarette.” Yes, he did have to explain to me who that was. Apparently, she was on a soap opera, It Never Ends, but was soon appearing in a romantic comedy and had designs on “bigger things,” which I took to mean, “bigger than soap operas.”

I went back to Cara and introduced myself. After a nice chat, when she revealed that yes, she was single, I left the party with tickets to her film premiere next week. She even told me what she’d be wearing so that I’d recognize her.

On Rita, two days later, I picked up where I’d left off on the radio show on the subject of monogamy and how the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin factored in. I hadn’t really understood the fuss that the listeners had given me on the radio show since, after all, my research points to monogamy as being what humans have evolved to do, but Rita’s producers thought it would be more interesting if I was to discuss the contrary evidence and explain why, if monogamy was what we’d evolved to do, there was so much cheating, not to mention polygamy in history and around the world.

And to pit me (all right, maybe not pit me, but still) against two “family values” proponents who did all but wring their hands in dismay about the breakdown of the American family. I reassured them that they had nothing to worry about. What I didn’t say was not to blame me for the results of my research — I was, after all, just reporting the findings, not inventing the hormones.

“It’s nothing short of dangerous that you’re suggesting the family system is at the whim of a couple of hormones,” said one of the family values people. She was, I have to say, pretty young and kind of attractive for someone you might expect to look like Dana Carvey’s church lady. “You can’t be scientific about love, about family love or marriage. You’re saying, basically, ‘Oh, I’m allowed to cheat on my wife, because it’s not me, it’s the hormones talking.’”

“I’m not saying that we don’t take responsibility. We don’t have to be slaves to evolution, and in fact, often, we’re not. Culture overcomes that. But in the case of monogamy, evidence points to its adaptiveness to our species.”

When several audience members asked me about divorce, I admitted that I, myself, was divorced, but the other two guests wouldn’t let me explain my views on how divorce ultimately didn’t threaten our family system.

“How does it help families to have a parent just pick up and leave? How does no-fault divorce do anything to help children?”

Rita had to interrupt them to let me explain my view. Somewhat apologetically, I told them that I had no children who could have been affected by my divorce, and reminded them that divorce was better for kids than living in a household with two people who were miserable with each other.

“And who told the parents to be miserable with each other?” said one of the family values advocates. “Shrinks tell them that they’re miserable and wreck their homes.”

Rita was the voice of reason there: “Do you really blame psychiatry for bringing on a high divorce rate?”

Afterwards, the producer thanked me. Tasha called me and said she had seen me and I was great. I told her about my “date” with Cara; fortunately, Tasha had heard of her (on top of everything else, did she have time to read Soap Opera Digest?) and grunted appreciatively.

“Have I arrived?” I asked jokingly.

“Keep it up!”

* * *


Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2009 by Sarah Trachtenberg


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