It's All About Being on Television

On occasion, one sentence can epitomize an entire phenomenon.

Here's one of those, from a wanna-be actress awaiting an audition for the TV show America's Next Top Model:

“It's not so much about being a model as it is being on television. I'm, like, accorded 15 minutes, and I want to take it while I still look hot.”

That came from Trisha Henson, as reported by writer Eric Wilson in the March 26 New York Times. Henson, who doesn't even meet the height requirement, was among the hopefuls at an audition in New York City.

Her two self-absorbed sentences are the credo of American Idol, every reality show on television, YouTube, tabloid magazines, gossip websites like, and shows like Access Hollywood

Americans crave fame, either directly or vicariously.

Ms. Henson wasn't the only aspiring model interviewed for the Times piece.

An 18-year-old declared she loved model Naomi Campbell, most recently photographed doing community service as a punishment for assaulting someone with a cell phone, because “she is a diva.”

The mother of another contestant, who also would never make the cut because she also was too short, commented, “I drive a city bus. It would be nice to see her plastered on the side of it.”

When asked for a life motto on the TV show's application form, a 23-year-old told the Times that she wrote, “My life's motto is 'Live your life for you because no one else can.'” This same young woman said her mother was mad at her because, “She wants me to go to college and all of that. But I like the attention of walking down a runway.”

It is a chicken-and-egg question.  Do people obsess about celebrity, fame and fortune because it is all they see in the media around them, or do the media provide what people want to consume?

It's probably both.  In fact, the desire for fame is such a phenomenon that it has caught the eye of social scientists who have conducted empirical studies on the topic and the experience that such desire generates. The findings indicate that mass media and the desire for fame are inextricably linked.  In a paper published in 2005, researchers David Giles and Julie Mrowicki state, “Fame is repeatedly brought to our attention through reports on the lives of famous actors, sportspersons and musicians. In the case of some reality television shows 'ordinary' people are thrust in to the limelight and turned into superstars overnight regardless of ability or talent.”

In a book entitled The Importance of Being Famous, Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth documents the creation of fame and the “celebrity-industrial complex” that drives the star-making machinery of Hollywood.  Her book describes an evolution in American culture from a time when talent attracted attention to the current day where “celebrity” is a commodity that is shaped and re-shaped to appeal to the masses.

And that is exactly the appeal of shows like America's Next Top Model.  The pursuit of fame and the implication that it will bring happiness and fortune is packaged and promoted to appeal to the innate desire to be more than what we are. 

Americans worship at the altar of celebrity.  The media promotion of celebrity for celebrity's sake fuels the desire to be a celebrity.  If you can become a celebrity yourself, then people will worship you.

Television networks seem to have an endless supply of reality show premises and an equally endless supply of people who will humiliate themselves just to be on TV.  Plus, a lot of people like to watch such stuff. Shows like The Swan and Extreme Makeover trade on the illusion that beauty, even at the expense of painful plastic surgery, will bring happiness.  The Biggest Loser puts obese people on camera and America watches them exercise past the point of exhaustion in the hope of attaining the cultural ideal that thinner equals better.  Survivor, Big Brother, and The Amazing Race are all built on the premise that a million dollars is a sum of money for which you should be willing to do anything

More remarkably, a new genre of reality shows has sprung up that features the castoffs and losers of reality shows.  Fifteen minutes of fame can breed spin-offs, if you're lucky.

Yes.  It's all about “being on television,” for whatever reason.

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute (, a division of the Media Research Center.