WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you might be a mere saunter away from célébrité.
By Sanjena Sathian
It is February, and February on Hollywood Boulevard is shorts and sweat and air saturated with anticipation. A week before the Oscars, the early skeleton structures of the bleachers that will become the backdrop for the red carpet are already up, glimmering in the sun. Everything is waiting —for this place to transform from gaudy to glamorous, for the real stars to arrive in place of their wax figures in the Madame Tussauds museum. You can feel the impatience in the packs of sticky tourists: They are here, in the cinematic capital of the world, days away from film’s biggest night of the year. Give ’em one — justonecelebrity sighting.
Well, here I am, baby.
It’s hard work, answering the particular call to prayer of the pilgrims on the boulevard. It requires me to straight-facedly flash a two-fingered peace sign in a parade of a hundred Chinese-tourist selfies. I become the pied piper of unfabulous visitors; the plebes trail me with floppy hats and cargo shorts and Canons and Nikons. I enter a Starbucks; a flurry of photoflashes reflect against the glass.
My face is tired: from smiling, pouting. I shield myself, a delicate, fainting palm up by my forehead, dark sunglasses obscuring expression. “Please, let the lady enjoy her afternoon,” my bodyguard, Deon, says. He pushes easily through the crowd, all 6-foot-4 and 270 pounds of him. Behind me, my merry band of pursuants keeps close. “Get out of her face, man,” Deon says, shoving away a chubby guy whose camera nearly pokes me in the eye.
But don’t pity the popular. I mean, I asked for it.
Were I not a mooching member of the media, I would have not only requited but in fact paid a tidy $1,500 for this afternoon. That, apparently, is the price of 15 minutes of fame. Or in this case, two hours. I would have shelled out to 23-year-old Adam Swart, the CEO of an LA-founded, Bay Area-based company: Crowds on Demand has a network of 10,000 rentable actors nationwide who play bodyguards, entourages, paparazzi, rabid fans, autograph seekers and all manner of mild stalkers.
Adam’s clients — who might pay as much as $15,000 for an “event” — include B-listers, aspiring models, obscure foreign stars, 9-year-old CEOs and Russian vodka magnates. Each client has his reasons. Nobody-ish actors want to land on tabloid pages — a few of Adam’s customers have, mid-jaunt, been snapped for the celeb gossip site TMZ (success!). Models seek recognition. A Miami client wanted to draw a crowd big enough to attract Pitbull and LL Cool J (he ended the night with LL’s digits). Startups want better sales. Still others just want the gleam of adoring eyeballs on them. A little taste of fame, no matter how fake.
And what’s so wrong with that?
I am “Katrina,” a Bollywood-bred actress slash producer, up for some mumblemumbleobscureforeignfilm Academy Award, who somehow speaks almost no Hindi and swaps between an American drawl and a vaguely cosmopolitan accent, which, if you ask, Katrina will explain is the result of a complex global upbringing in Nairobi, London, New York and New Delhi. (No one asks.)
Katrina wears all black, chunky jewelry, laughably large sunglasses and thick heels. She is (mostly) smooth with the (fake) paparazzi and the (real) tourists and their (increasingly absurd) questions: “What’s your next project?” “A Bollywood-Hollywood collaboration.” “What of the other nominees?” “A very talented crop of films.” “Whaddaya think of climate change?” “Not real.” “What’s the next hot disease?” “Lupus. I feel very strongly about lupus.”
Each credulous craned neck multiplies the effect ad infinitum. But don’t blame the beguiled. It’s all “a symptom of our narcissistic culture,” says David Marshall, professor of cultural studies at Deakin University in Australia and author of Celebrity and Power. What I witnessed is called “celebrity worship syndrome,” which you engage in even if you simply visit PerezHilton.com and which you’re guilty of on a pathological level if you fall too in love.
We look to celebrities like modern-day religious icons.
“People are hardwired to worship things,” says psychologist James Houran. “We look to celebrities like modern-day religious icons.” Houran and a team of researchers studied so-called normal fans alongside those whom most of us would consider wacko fanatics. Their findings? Freakily enough, both average moviegoers and stalkers were pretty similar. The latter had just been “pushed along the continuum of celebrity worship,” he says. “There’s a stalker in all of us.”
My crowd today consists of 10 or so fakers, most of whom earn about $15 an hour. There’s Deon, my bodyguard; Adam, my “manager”; my fake paparazzi — some of whom actually do moonlight for TMZ — and a gaggle of adoring fans. Not to mention the tourists. (I can’t even tell the difference between the randos and my paid crew.) One of my actor-posse members, Del, is the perpetual hysteric, my public calling card. She shrieks, “Katrina, we looooove you! Katrina, you’re gorrrrgeous! Katrina, you’re gonna win the Oscar!” When people ask who the ef this is, Del oozes out the message: That is somebody. It works. Tourists demand selfies. Beneficent, I ask where they are from. Sweden. Brazil. Florida. China, China, China. Two teenage girls squeal, point, call me “so cute” and declare me the star of an ABC Family show.
Click on “Go Deep” to get Katrina’s look for yourself!
A shy middle-aged woman passing by asks, “I hear you’re a producer?” “Actress, slash.” “What’s your last name?” “Kaif,” I reply. She repeats, “Katrina Kaif.” It ripples. I hear an Indian man half a crowd away yell, “Katrina KAIF?” Uh-oh. I have fully stolen the identity of a real Bollywood star, whom I do not resemble in the slightest. I begin to look resolutely away whenever we pass Indian tourists.
Soon I need to seek safe haven. My refuge: the Hollywood Boulevard Church of Scientology. The Scientologists, like caterers in their white button-downs and black vests, are instant protection. These people guard the intimacies of Tom Cruise! John Travolta! Here, I am both ensconcing myself and multiplying my fame exponentially. The only thing better would be to find a kabbalist and a Chihuahua to tote along with me. Madcap Del bursts into the center: “Katrina, you a Scientologist? That’s just WRONG!” I turn plaintively to my Scientologist as she teaches me how to see a thought. I inquire: How does she handle the rough glare of the media? She must understand. She does. We share sentiments of oppression. But soon Deon tells me we’ve gotta get out of there. My Scientologist is deadpan. I suspect she suspects. But then. She tells me I ought to find another location to seek my truth. “One that’s a little more private.”
This is guerrilla theater at its finest. It’s, as Deon tells me, “the hardest kind of acting.” It’s street improv; it requires engaging an audience that doesn’t know it’s an audience at all. It’s also power. A rent-a-crowd service in Ukraine can supply you with 1,000 students to make a political candidate look like a good old-fashioned populist. Plenty of brands have used these tactics before: Take Lucky Strike’s 1929 campaign to give women the “right” to light up — by planting a crowd of smoking suffragists in New York’s Easter parade. Some sociologists have even called the Arab Spring one of the most successful flash mobs of all time. And Adam says some Republican politicos, whom he won’t name, use his team to deliver the right kind of crowd to appear alongside a candidate. A crowd consisting of all the necessary colors.
Ironically, just a few years ago, Adam was a liberal political idealist, a student at UCLA who helped organize Bill Clinton’s visit to campus. He was tasked with arranging the right diversity of students to stand behind the president as he arrived. X number of whites, blacks, Hispanics, etc. He grew cynical. But the idea of orchestration germinated, and a few years later, on a trip to Estonia, he watched an unrecognizable man hop off the plane and into an entourage of suits and SUVs. Today the impresario recalls, “I remember thinking, ‘Who is that guy? He could be anybody.’”
Personally, I choose to use my power for good. We stop outside Hooters. Adam announces, “Katrina would like to make a statement.” In my (excellent) Hermione Granger accent, I begin a rant. Something about feminism. Misogyny. I forget. The point is: People are listening. Random people. Passersby who, sure, may not understand a word of English, but who figure the person in the black faux-chic blazer with the security tailing her must possess some insight they lack. Around us are addled addicts decrying capitalism; behind, a Korean woman holding a picket sign demands we all seek the Lord, the end is nigh. Down the street are my old Scientologists, and we have just passed a chubby, dancing, drumming Hare Krishna. Amid my fellow street preachers, I am heard as a true prophet. “Hollywood has a luxury!” I proclaim. “Here, in America, we are allowed to be political! We must use our privilege to make real change!”
Later, Adam muses, “I’m very into perception. Today anybody can be famous.” Anybody. Like Del, who lost her PR job during the financial crisis and headed to LA to make it. She’s got her eye on playing a dead body in an episode of Bones. Or like Deon, who tells me he’s eager to graduate from being a perpetual extra. Or like Adam, 23, who is the sole owner of his company, jokes that he’s never held a “real job” and is raking in the very real number of nearly $1 million a year.
For centuries, fame was merely a side dish to existing power. If you were a monarch or an aristocrat, your daguerreotype might be recognizable or your name well-known. Literary critic Harold Bloom has called Cleopatra the first celebrity. You might argue it’s Helen of Troy or Elizabeth I. I ask Fred Inglis, professor emeritus of cultural studies at the University of Sheffield in the U.K. and author of A Short History of Celebrity, who tells me modern celebrity was birthed in the 18th century, when three forces converged: new money, new shops and (then-new) media. He tells me the city center — like, say, Hollywood Boulevard — made the “accidental encounter” possible, minimizing the distance between commoners and the famous.
Perhaps the greatest appeal of my walk down the boulevard is this sense that, though I’m leagues away from being a Judy Garland or a Marilyn Monroe, there are other sorts of celebs whose names aren’t captured on those famous, glitzy sidewalk stars, whom I conceivably could be. I mean, how different am I from your average Snooki? What’s stopping Katrina from making it?
Sadly, probably a lot. Mine isn’t exactly a “sophisticated and professional” move, says publicist Eileen Koch, who has represented Jamie Foxx and Carmen Electra. Sure, you can be seen, but it’s about who sees you. And agents don’t traipse down Hollywood Boulevard hunting for talent. Anyone who knows the industry knows Nicole Kidman or Natalie Portman would never make the walk I’m doing right now. Were I truly hip, I’d be far from the cameras, in Malibu or Santa Monica.
Plus, if we want to go by the history book, Inglis might remind me about the importance of distribution. The power of In Touch and Us Weekly. Without my face landing in a dentist’s office, my fame is brief, wondrous, fragile. I take solace in the knowledge that I’ll be preserved, forever, nostalgically, in the iPhones of some 30 teenagers in Beijing. But, no offense, Adam, I wish I’d gotten more bang for my free buck. No TMZ appearance? No trending hashtag #KatrinafortheOscars? No exposé on my E-Meter readings?
Ah, well. If I can’t have Perez, I guess I’ll have to settle for my face and the intimate details of my very personal Saturday afternoon being plastered all over some other digital magazine. For all my efforts, this had better go viral.
Photography by Kendrick Brinson for OZY.