The Power of Hot – Rolling Stone
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The Power of Hot

Everybody wants to be a star. But what does that really mean?

Flame, fire

Does "hot" mean sexy? Sought after? Most popular? Or does hot mean on the cusp of greatness, about to ignite?

Rolfo Rolf Brenner/Getty

This being the Hot Issue, I think I should say straightaway that I have always had trouble with that word. Hot. It’s just so… vague. Does it mean sexy? Sought after? Most popular? Or does hot mean, as we have chosen to define it in this issue, on the cusp of greatness, about to ignite? I’m partial to our definition, but I’m not sure it’s completely accurate. In the public mind, at least, true hotness is probably exemplified by the likes of Michael J. Fox, Madonna and Don Johnson rather than by some virtual unknowns. It probably has more to do with having a solid public image and an instantly recognizable face than with anything else. True hotness probably involves fame, but the men and women picked for this issue aren’t famous. Yet.

I suspect they will be famous someday soon because, apart from their talent, I suspect they all want to be famous. For the most part I believe their intentions are honorable: they want to be known for their work, famous for their abilities as actors, musicians or whatever. But lately it seems to me that nearly everyone wants to be famous, and not just for their particular expertise, whether it be archery or child rearing or the law.

No, we have entered the age of entitlement, where talent is a secondary consideration. In case after case, people seem to feel they should be known — famous — for simply being their wonderful, or tormented, or ordinary, selves. Perhaps video technology — MTV and public access and 4 billion channels to choose from — has made fame seem easier to achieve. Or perhaps the fact that movie stars are now more accessible than they were during the days of the cloistered studio system has brought fame closer to home. Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that our president, formerly an actor, has built a hugely successful career based on presentation over content.

As much as these factors contribute, I think the desire for fame has more to do with a historic and uniquely American conflict: the Ideal of Equality versus the Needs of the Individual. Face it — there isn’t any wild frontier left to conquer, no empty landscape for a cowboy to roam. Instead, there is the realm of the self. So the idea has become: Have Fame and You Shall Triumph. ”The famous keep alive the romance of individualism,” writes critic John Lahr. ”For fame is democracy’s vindictive triumph over equality: the name illuminated, the name rewarded, the name tyrannical.”

And the image. Image has become all-important: Lee Iacocca is the Bruce Springsteen of business. Bruce Springsteen is America as a rock star. More people know who Norman (Advertisements for Myself) Mailer is than have read his books. Celebrities have even eclipsed politicians, at least in events like Hands Across America and Usa for Africa. Mickey Kaus, writing in The New Republic, called this phenomenon celebrities. ”Politicians are considered expendable, even disreputable, while celebrities are essential,” Kaus wrote. ”Do you think America would rather sit around mumbling about Gramm-Rudman-Hollings or hold hands vicariously with Rosanna Arquette?”

Yes, fame lust is everywhere. In the fashion world, we have the example of Tommy Hilfiger. Eighteen months ago, Hilfiger, a very ambitious sort, was an unknown freelance designer. After several dead ends Hilfiger hooked up with the Murjani company, the people who brought you Gloria Vanderbilt. Murjani has spent $20 million (and plans to spend more) ”developing” Hilfiger and his line of menswear. They went straight for image — the first thing they designed was a logo (a red, white and blue flag) and a crest (a lion holding a sword and a shield). Hilfiger’s line of clothing, which can best be described as oversize preppie, was not nearly as critical a selling point as his advertising campaign. The first ad, which ran last October, was, indeed, intriguing. It read, in magazines and on practically every telephone booth in Manhattan, THE 4 GREAT AMERICAN DESIGERS FOR MEN ARE: R—- L——, P—- E—-, C—- K—-, T—- H——–. There was no mention made of Hilfiger’s name, just his logo and the address of his flagship store, Tommy Hilfiger’s, which is located on chichi Columbus Avenue, right next door to a shop selling Murjani’s other collection, Coca-Cola Clothes.

The Hilfiger campaign, which was continued in People and GQ and the like, was wholly endorsed by the designer, who doesn’t seem to realize that his presence in the scenario isn’t really necessary. Murjani could have plugged in any name, any willing body. Even so, Hilfiger was remarkably eager. ”We think we’ve found the formula,” he told The New York Times. ”We found the way to tell the public we’re here without being too arrogant. We created a whole fame.”

Whether the cult of Tommy Hilfiger takes or not (early indications are that his clothes will sell well), his quest for celebrity brings to mind the peculiar genius of Andy Warhol, a definite trend setter in the realm of fame worship. Even before Warhol said those ominous words — ”In the future everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes” — he was ahead of his time. His interest was always in the superficial — the ordinary examined so closely it became extraordinary. Warhol would take basically talentless people, whose claim to fame was their family lineage and their good looks, and he would make them stars. They were famous for being famous, known because he made them known. Some of Warhol’s stable — like Edie Sedgwick — died and became even more famous in death, but had Edie lived, as did Baby Jane Holzer and Brigid Berlin and Joe Dallesandro and many others, she would have been famous for her past, for the fame Andy had loaned her.

In a crazy, twisted way, Warhol had the right idea. He instinctively understood the perfect appeal to the needy, narcissistic mind. ”I always wanted to do a movie of a whole day in Edie’s life,” he writes in POPism: The Warhol ’60s. ”But then, that was what I wanted to do with most people…… I only wanted to find great people and let them be themselves and talk about what they usually talked about, and I’d film them for a certain length of time and that would be the movie.”

The only trouble was that Andy would get bored with the movie just as his eager subjects were getting seriously addicted to the attention. Which is always the way it goes, sooner or later. ”Fame, which glorifies the omnipotence of the invented self, diminishes the authentic one,” John Lahr wrote in an essay on Orson Welles. ”It is literally self-destructive.” As well as literally addicting, for both the worshiped and the worshiper. Andy Warhol is still making ”movies,” although the faces have changed. He also publishes Interview, a monthly magazine devoted to gorgeous photos of the famous, or notable, matched with their most trivial utterances. In Interview the photos rule; the image reigns supreme.

I have to confess that I too used to be a sucker for the Interview mystique. One of my recurring fantasies when I first moved to New York from California was that Interview would take a fabulous, glamorous photo of me and run the caption ”Lynn Hirschberg has just arrived and is taking Manhattan by storm” or some such nonsense. I thought if they took the picture, perhaps I could become the picture, and then I wouldn’t have ended up staying in my room for a year. But enough — you get the point: the whole thing is very seductive.

Which is why the publicity business is booming. The fantasy is that a publicist will help create you, will then protect you and will make certain that you remain forever in Interview. Actors and actresses have long had publicists for that reason, but now lawyers and commercial directors and sports stars and thousands of others are hiring publicists for the first time. Sportscaster Ahmad Rashad proposes marriage to Phylicia Ayers-Allen on national television — was he seized with sudden desire or was it a publicity stunt? After all, NBC’s NFL pregame show wasn’t doing all that well in the ratings. Is Bob Giraldi really the best video director, or is he simply the best at garnering the media’s attention? Recently Manhattan, inc. did an article on a lawyer, one William Zabel. They heard about Zabel from his publicist, who documented the lawyer’s attributes, including a partial list of his clients, in a three-page letter. ”Mr. Zabel typifies what the New York Law Journal recently described as ‘a new breed of business-wise practitioners……”’ the letter states, ”’pushing the profession further and further away from the ”white shoe” gentility of yesteryear.”’

Mr. Zabel, Mr. Rashad and Mr. Giraldi are not exceptions. They are, as Mr. Zabel’s publicist states, the ”new breed,” non-show-business personalides who are applying showbiz publicity techniques to their businesses. But even so, there are limits to the fame potential of a lawyer — no matter what he does, he isn’t going to end up a movie star. Showbiz fame is still the tops. It sells movies, it sells magazines, it sells products. Why is Michael J. Fox on the cover of this issue, you ask? Because after Back to the Future, he is one hot actor. His fee per film has increased from $250,000 to $1.5 million, and he’s booked until spring of ’87, what with Family Ties and two or three new movie projects. He is a real-life show-business celebrity, and show-business celebrities are America’s hottest commodity. They are what everyone wants. And what, it seems, everyone wants to be.

Because of this attitude, publicists rule the day. Hollywood publicists are hired to maintain a certain level of public exposure for their clients and, simultaneously, to show their clients off in the most flattering light possible. The bigger the star, the more power the publicist wields. And this power enables publicists to choose the photographer for a fashion shoot, pick a sympathetic writer for an interview or demand the cover of a magazine. Their wishes will be granted depending on how badly the media want the celebrity.

But journalism, you may recall, is supposed to be an objective science. A great many publicists would like to change all that. ”The press is totally pussy-whipped by Hollywood,” says producer-actor Michael Douglas. ”They are scared to death, and it’s not really Hollywood’s fault. It’s the press’s fault, because of their insatiable appetite for celebrities and for selling papers and magazines. They rely on publicists. Therefore writers who are trying to do stories with some degree of integrity burn their bridges. The publicists come back and say, ‘You killed me and you’ll never get a story again.’ The press has lost their balls in dealing with Hollywood because they’re so dependent on Hollywood for their material.”

Douglas is right, but he’s forgetting the demands of the public. This is, after all, a democracy, and if America wants Madonna, Madonna is what sells, and her price is met. You might argue that the press could create its own Madonna, pool its collective strengths and create a new celebrity or two, but starmaking isn’t really the media’s game. Television and newspapers and magazines tend to spot trends; they don’t really initiate them. That is left to the domain of the publicist.

Or the manager. Take, for instance, the ultimate in Hollywood managers, Jay Bernstein. Bernstein has devoted his life to starmaking. He has managed, among others, Farrah Fawcett and Suzanne Somers and Kristy McNichol during their primes; he orchestrated the stateside resurrection of Stacy Keach, who had been jailed in London on cocaine-possession charges; he even gave birth to the concept of ”Women over Forty Being Sexy” when he managed Linda Evans.

This starmaking stuff is a serious business with Bernstein. ”I consider myself like a scientist,” he says. ”The first thing I look for is not talent, but that quality. Talent is something that can be developed, but I’m interested in stars, not actors. They’re different businesses.” When Bernstein finds that certain special something — that quality — he turns to the past for inspiration. ”Every star I work with is somebody else,” he explains. ”With Farrah, I said, ‘Betty Grable!’ Betty Grable had that pinup photo. The white bathing suit and the legs. I took that idea, and Farrah became the first poster. She was a poster queen before she was a TV star.”

Bernstein made Fawcett approximately $17 million (”Seventeen million as a star,” Bernstein says, somewhat wistfully, ”and now she’s a fine actress”), and he also made millions for Suzanne Somers (”Marilyn Monroe mixed with Judy Holliday”) and TV star Bruce Boxleitner (”Clark Gable to John Wayne”). Currently, Bernstein is charting actor Michael Paré’s path. ”Who is he?” Bernstein wonders aloud as if this were an existential question. ”Is he James Dean? Tyrone Power? Monty Clift? Or Marlon Brando?”

Bernstein is leaning toward Clift — his favorite movie is A Place in the Sun — but it doesn’t really matter: Bernstein’s aim is only to ”maximize potential.” ”In 1979, when Farrah and Suzanne left me, I got this idea,” he explains. ”I thought, ‘I’ll make myself a star.’ I thought, ‘Someday I’ll be able to look at this overweight kid from Oklahoma who came out here to Hollywood not knowing anybody, and I’ll be able to say that I became a star.’ I maximized myself.”

And so Jay Bernstein is now famous for making people famous. 20/20 has done a segment on him, and he has appeared on countless morning chat shows and in lots of newspaper and magazine articles. He gets called Starmaker all the time, and he has his own publicist. Jay Bernstein is very proud of all his maximized potential, but, for some reason, I find the whole thing oddly depressing. I would think, having been up to his neck in the creation of sudden fame for Farrah and Suzanne and all the rest, Bernstein would have developed a somewhat more cynical eye, that he would have been immune, that he wouldn’t have been left longing.

Which brings up the downside of all this. What if you do it all — become Marilyn Monroe or Montgomery Clift or even Suzanne Somers — and somehow it just doesn’t click? What if you are, in fact, famous for fifteen minutes but that fifteen minutes is spent shooting someone? What if you try and try for the validation that fame offers but are shut out again and again? Do you turn angry? Does your longing disappear?

Or do you reinvent yourself, only to try again? David Bowie has done that with ease and great success, as have countless other actors and actresses. But self-invention is a risky proposition, not for the emotionally shaky. Director-writer Bob Fosse dealt with that theme in the film Star 80, which told the story of Playboy centerfold Dorothy Stratten’s murder by her husband, Paul Snider, who was desperate for attention from the Hollywood community. As Fosse has put it, ”Star 80 is about attitudes that pressure us, about how the world can be yours if you wear the right clothes, smell right, smile the right kind of smile, all the stuff that’s crammed down our throats every day. It’s about what happens when you do it all, but wrong — and get locked out, dismissed, abrogated.”

The downside of hot also has to do with the inevitable fall from grace, when the fickle public moves on to a newer model. The attention span of the American people is, for the most part, notoriously short. This year’s Madonna is next year’s Debbie Harry and so on and so on. Comebacks are few and far between, and when they are successful, as in the case of Tina Turner last year, they always have that return-from-the-dead quality. And then, at best, it’s a shot in the dark.

But despite the risks, there is cause for hope, as one aspect of Tina Turner’s resurrection illustrates. Her record Private Dancer is the best LP she has released in years. ”What’s Love Got to Do with It” was a great song, and she sang the hell out of it. Tina Turner deserved to be known — famous even — for her work. Her talent spoke for itself.

Which brings us back to the definition of hot. The predictions in this issue were not made by a publicist or a starmaker or an advertising department. We were not looking for the actor or actress or boxer or whatever with the greatest chance for fame. We were looking for talent, for the possibility of excellence. I wish that didn’t sound so self-congratulatory. I wish it sounded ”hot.” It doesn’t, but I wish it did.

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