April 26 2011 11:32 AM

Bad publicity is good for sales

Photo by Jeff Lewis | ChicagoPhotoShop.com

Editor’s note: The author of this week’s “Sordid Tales” column is Larisa Rose, the winner of our contest to write Edwin Decker’s column while he’s galavanting in Europe. Ms. Rose will be back again in this space on May 11, and Decker will return on May 25.

Recently, I broke free from the dove-gray burlap death grip of cubicledom to pursue writing as a profession, opting to sacrifice a paycheck instead of my soul. When I found out how much money freelance writers get paid, I laughed until I cried. Then I thought about how much I spend on rent and my crippling, three-meal-a-day food habit, and I just cried.

It’s not easy to make a living as a writer. I honestly wonder how some of my literary idols, like Hunter S. Thompson or Charles Bukowski, managed to scrape together enough cash to maintain their legendary levels of intoxication. I don’t need to make enough money as a writer to keep hot tubs filled with Cristal; I’ll feel like a success if I can afford to keep my glass filled with Chimay.

Sometimes I whine to my boyfriend when a celebrity who doesn’t seem capable of reading a book gets a lucrative deal to write one, and he calls me a hater. He’s right; I hate this new variant on nepotism, this trend of giving gossip-column denizens carte blanche to try their hand at acting, writing or singing.

When did America lose the ability to distinguish between notoriety and notability? Celebutantes. Reality “stars.” porn “stars.” Disgraced politicians and celebrity mistresses no longer slink off to the shadowy fringe of society, hanging their sexually deviant heads in shame; now they join the cast of Celebrity Apprentice or Celebrity Rehab, where flawed character and bad behavior are rewarded with more camera time. In the fame game, infamy has become a winning strategy.

The realm of celebrity is devolving. Once, people were famous for being talented—then, fam-ous for being famous. We’ve now reached a new low where people are famous for being awful. Name recognition built on gossip-column headlines earns the well-known opportunities to star in TV shows, write books, record albums and slap that precious name on all manner of crap.  As a writer, I’m personally offended by the fact that Lauren Conrad and Tori Spelling can call themselves New York Times best-selling authors.

Will the unsung sartorial genius behind Jessica Simpson’s shoe line one day be consumed by the bitter knowledge that his designs only sell because of her bosomy, blonde cachet? Will The Dream’s career in music be destroyed after producing that awful single for Kim Kardashian? How many Girl Scouts will be mauled at camp by bears drawn to the scent of their Britney Spears perfume?  I think my hate is justified. There are real victims when we let celebutards run rampant across the cultural landscape.

Paris Hilton may be Patient Zero in the epidemic of undeserved idolatry. The great-great-granddaughter of a hardworking and savvy hotelier, Hilton parlayed the world’s interest in her lackluster sexual performance into an empire. The Paris Hilton brand includes television shows, books, a record and 17 product lines, from perfume to shoes and handbags, and—Jesus, 17 different products? I have to assume a range like that includes small appliances, like Paris Hilton’s Hot Dog and Doughnut Maker, and sporting goods, like Paris Hilton’s Sittin’ Pretty Bicycle Seats.

My fellow haters at Rutgers University spoke out in disgust after finding out that author Toni Morrison was paid $30,000 to speak at the school’s graduation ceremony, while Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi was paid $32,000 to speak at an event on campus in March. Morrison is a highly lauded black author, winner of both Pulitzer and Nobel prizes. Snooki is a highly intoxicated, orange television personality, who, yes, also authored a book.

The money for the Snooki event came from an entertainment fund and drew big crowds, indicating plenty of demand for a chance to hear her speak about whatever the hell she spoke about. I’m not arguing that the school shouldn’t have paid her fee; I’m disappointed that the current value of viewing a live train wreck is $2,000 higher than the value of a speech from an acclaimed literary figure. Of course, if Snooki were going to get punched in the face on stage, in homage to the best moment from Jersey Shore, that extra $2,000 might be justified.
I know many talented musicians who toil away for years, who dig into their own pockets to make records and crisscross the country in stinky vans trying to get their music heard by new ears. A few months ago, Rebecca Black’s parents paid a company $4,000 to make a video of their daughter singing a pop song. The song has been called the worst song ever recorded.

The video now has nearly 83 million views; the single was downloaded 40,000 times in a week and reached No. 58 on the Billboard Hot 100. Thanks to  all the horrible production on “Friday,” I don’t know if Black can actually sing, but I do know that she’s recording an album, and it will sell thousands of copies because the world now knows the name Rebecca Black.

I’m going to stop wasting energy hating on people who trade on their infamy to rake in wads of money thrown at them by the American consumer. I’m going to keep submitting my writing, hoping my talent will eventually get noticed. And if that doesn’t work, I can always release this sex tape I made with Chet Haze, rising star in the rap world, and, incidentally, Tom Hanks’ son.        


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