Columnists > Soul Food

All that glitters

A modern-day gold rush dashes dreams

Issue: "Joe DiMaggio: In memoriam," March 20, 1999

Tinseltown Studios is definitely an idea whose time has come. Located in Anaheim, Calif., not far from Hollywood, this new theme park with a difference offers ordinary folks a crack at celebrityhood for a $45 base price.

Picture this, ladies: You're dressed in that off-the-shoulder taffeta gown you had to buy for the sports banquet and never thought you'd wear again. You stroll to the main gate and hand your ticket, which better resembles an engraved invitation, to the deferential doorman. Once inside, flashbulbs go off in your face and squealing teenagers press forward for your autograph. Waiters do double-takes and point as you go by: "Look! Is that _______?" Reporters pull you aside for interviews: "Your fans are dying to know: Who'll be your next co-star?"

In the bar, a hunky young man in a tux offers to buy you a drink and bends your ear about his new screenplay, written with you in mind. You may be routed into a filming studio and edited into an actual movie scene. At the gala banquet that rounds out the evening, you watch video clips of the taped interviews and may even receive an award for your edited "performance."

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I'm not making this up. Tinseltown is a real place, now enjoying capacity crowds in its first months of operation. The management is talking about franchises in Atlanta, Houston, Seattle, Tokyo. Such over-the-top extravagance shows how far the cult of celebrity has gone, and makes the more sober-minded among us wonder if Americans have too much time on our hands.

But are we taking this too seriously? Tinseltown is just for fun, an elaborate joke. An opportunity to dress outrageously for one night and act a little goofy. There's probably more self-conscious giggling than preening to be heard around the banquet tables. When the enchanted evening is over, erstwhile celebrities pile into their Toyotas and Fords and drive off the lot, back into anonymity, where life goes on as it did before.

Life is going on, all right, but not as it did before. The democratization of celebrity is a new wrinkle on society's face, which calls attention to at least two disquieting trends. The first has to do with defining quality down.

Standards used to be higher, even in the film industry. The "star quality" attributed to great screen idols of the past was a nebulous gift that concentrated the essence of glamour, wit, nobility, wholesomeness, or virtue in one being. On the screen they (literally) projected themselves as larger than life. Their fans looked up to them, and even held them accountable. Back in the 1930s my father was working as a doorman at the Dallas Athletic Club when Errol Flynn came to town.

Long a fan of the great swashbuckler, Daddy looked forward to meeting him-until he learned that girls and booze had played a large part in the evening's entertainment. Next morning he was on the job when Mr. Flynn came through with his entourage. "He flipped me a quarter," said Daddy. "I flipped it back."

Today, even counterfeit quality has been hijacked by the average and the lame. Celebrity worship is not new; what's new is the notion that anybody can achieve it. If Adam Sandler or Chris Farley can be stars, why can't I? Visitors to Tinseltown have said that they are living their dream; celebrity has come within reach. Is it too far-fetched to suppose that one night of "fame" makes it difficult to go home perfectly satisfied?

Which could lead to the second problem: Defining ourselves up, and putting our every desire on a pedestal. Not only can we be famous-we should be famous, even if it's only in elaborate scenarios played out in our own heads. We all know people who order their lives like movie plots starring themselves. What's more frightening is when the whole world becomes a movie plot, with conflicts milked for their dramatic appeal and inconvenient principles swept aside. How else to explain the overwhelming support for an administration so bizarre, theatrical, and superficial it might as well be titled U.S. President: The Movie? It's a fatally constricted view, which passes over transcendent values in order to focus on Me Ascendant, spread thinly, thinly, over the landscape of my own imagination.

Celebrity is being known by strangers. Christians are known by God. Celebrity is walking in the spotlight, the only place where tinsel can glitter. But Christians walk in the Light, and rather than being seen, they see.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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