originally published August 10, 2013
I have made no secret about the fact that the Kardashians, the most unredeemably useless potholes along the seedy boulevard of our popular culture, will never be the focus of an article here. They serve no purpose, except to draw ratings away from people who actually work for a living to produce television content aimed at something above the lowest common denominator of drek-slurping zombies.
Yet despite my inherent loathing, I am nonetheless fascinated – not by the sisters themselves, but by a culture that would allow such talentless cuntery to blossom into a royal-esque adulation. Radio personality and cultural philosopher Ralph Garman once pointed out that despite Kim Kardashian’s rise to fame via a sex-tape, she doesn’t even deserve the title of ‘porn actress’, because at least porn actresses actually work for their paychecks.
She’s a celebutard, a tragic deviation from our one-time unmitigated respect for actors, musicians and even politicians who have made a positive difference in the world. But neither Kim nor her vacuous sister of the small screen, Paris Hilton, can lay claim to being the first model of fame for fame’s sake.
The term ‘celebutante’, a portmanteau of ‘celebrity’ and ‘debutante’ was first ascribed to Boston-area heiress Brenda Frazier. She was young and beautiful, and deviously clever enough to ensure that her photo was taken at every society function she attended. Gossip columnist Walter Winchell used to write about her, launching her into some weird orbit of fame that not even Brenda could have predicted. Along with the likes of Gloria Vanderbilt and Doris Duke, she became famous simply because she existed.
Dubbed ‘Glamour Girl #1’ in 1938, Brenda’s coming out party was so massively publicized she wound up on the cover of Life magazine for it. They called her the ‘Poor Little Rich Girl’, and like in any fairy tale, her prince showed up in the form of John “Shipwreck” Kelly, a football star. The celebutante lifestyle wore Brenda down to a nub, as she divorced in 1956, suffered from nervous breakdowns and eating disorders, and eventually fled the limelight to live out her days as a hermit.
I’m not going to wish a similar fate on the Kardashian sisters, but the fleeing part I can totally get behind.
Before she was punching police officers or getting ripped off for $10 million by Bernie Madoff, Zsa Zsa Gabor was an actual famous person. She too entered the public eye via the socialite scene, but Zsa Zsa had at least enough talent to land a fairly respectable movie career. Respectable, but ultimately forgettable. What made her stand out were her nine husbands.
While her sister Ava earned her moment in the sun by mocking the very heart of the uber-wealthy lifestyle on TV’s Green Acres, Zsa Zsa was at her best when she was showing up in the society pages – the 1950’s equivalent of TMZ. She married Conrad Hilton and claims to have slept with her stepson. She married Oscar-winning George Saunders. She married Jack Ryan – not the character from all those Tom Clancy novels, but the guy who invented Barbie, Hot Wheels and the Chatty Cathy doll. It’s almost surreal that she’s been married to the same guy since 1986.
Are you old enough to remember Charles Nelson Reilly? Chances are, you don’t remember him from his Tony-winning performance in the first Broadway production of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. No, you probably know him from his numerous appearances on The Match Game, Password, and any other game show in which the host was required to banter with B-list celebs.
Reilly was also a frequent guest on The Tonight Show, mainly because he had a sharp wit and could easily offer more interesting chatter than the larger audience-drawing names that would snag the first guest spot. I hesitate to include Reilly on this list because the guy actually had brains and talent. But in the end his greatest fame comes from fame itself. It’s a little unnerving, really.
Residents of Los Angeles unquestionably remember Angelyne. She truly built her own fame: starting in the early 80’s, a number of handbills bearing her likeness began appearing on the city streets. Then came the massive billboards, featuring her in various poses, her agent’s number scrawled in the corner. Her first break on TV was as a guest on Alan Thicke’s pre-Growing Pains talk show.
She has released a trio of albums no one has heard, and has an IMDb resume that reads like the trickling of one of those actresses too minor to even have a photo on their page. Nevertheless, the billboards kept going up through 2011. Angelyne had staying power, if only because she was willing to pay for it on a monthly basis.
For those who can never hope to be famous for spurting out of a wealthy woman’s nether-regions or plastering themselves on gigantic signs all over town, there’s always the route taken by James St. James and Lisa Edelman in the late 80’s and early 90’s: the New York club scene. They found their way into the right parties, buddied up with Village Voice columnist Michael Musto (gotta get that name out there somehow), and took the quickest route to celebrity status they could find: loud music, wild behavior and copious amounts of illegal drugs.
James was flamboyant and eye-catching. He went from attending the right parties to creating them, heading up the ‘Club Kids’ group of garishly-costumed narcotic-gobblers that included a young Michael Alig. When Alig murdered his drug-dealing roommate, James St. James felt the scene had run its course and he scooted off to California to write Disco Bloodbath, which would get made into the movie Party Monster, starring Macaulay Culkin.
Again, James gets a pass from me. He may have soaked up a bunch of ink in the Voice, but he never invaded our culture and crapped all over it. Actually, he turned his ‘famesque’ lifestyle into a book and movie – two legitimate contributions to the entertainment landscape.
That crazed expression on the right comes courtesy of Lisa Edelstein, another member of the Club Kids and a frequent imbiber of the liquid madness of the early 90’s Manhattan club scene (also available in pill form, I’ve heard). “Lisa E.” was known as the Queen of Downtown. I’m assuming this means the lower portion of the borough of Manhattan, but I could be way off. She was dubbed a celebutante by the New York Times, which inspired her to be even more vapid and useless.
Actually, it did the opposite.
Lisa wrote, composed and starred in Positive Me, a musical about the AIDS epidemic, using her local fame to draw audiences in. She then parlayed her growing fame into small but respectable guest-starring roles on numerous TV shows, including The West Wing and Seinfeld, as George’s unsatisfied risotto-loving girlfriend. Then she landed the gig as Dr. House’s boss for seven years.
Lisa Edelman took the notion of being famous for being famous and turned it into a legitimate career. It’s possible – Paris Hilton tried acting, and she proved that she was no good at it. That’s great, now if we as a people can simply erase her from our collective consciousness, we might all move forward down that evolutionary road where useless Kardashian-types have no place in the common lexicon.
I’m not optimistic we’ll get there.