Michaele and Tareq Salahi crashed more than a White House state dinner. Like other publicity stunt architects before them, they crashed through the barricade that mainstream media erected long ago to keep out common folks like you and me. With the advent of the Internet and reality TV, these barricades have been re-examined and reconfigured so that ordinary people can more easily get their 15 minutes of fame. With luck, perseverance and a crafty publicist, this can be parlayed into 15 years or more.
I am pleased that the media who once hoarded the most valuable commodities in America —information and ideas—have been forced to pull extra chairs to the table and share some of the bounty with the potato peelers in the kitchen. The backdoor has been unbolted, giving America ’s “seemingly unremarkable” masses a chance to bypass the golden plated guest list and join the party.
After all, if William Hung—the kid who gained fame in 2004 for his painfully bad American Idol audition—can end up with a Wikipedia page, a fan site and a record deal, anyone can do it. Our “Reality TV-Internet” age means new career opportunities for those who might otherwise feel hopeless about a chance of fame and success.
Apparently, my car is the only one exhibiting the “Go Salahi” bumper sticker. In online articles and blogs, there is seething anger. Words like “narcissistic” and “superficial” are used to describe ordinary people who seek fame or reality show careers. One comment reads, “I’m tired of these stupid celebrities with no talent. I hear they get six figure incomes on Reality TV. That money could feed an entire village.” Maybe but that does not explain his anger because he has no problem with the executives or actors who make seven or eight figure incomes which could feed 100 villages.
I contend it takes a “je ne sais quoi” quality to be watchable, entertaining and catapult to stardom for merely “being you.” Appearing on reality TV is much like acting or hosting a show because the medium is highly scripted, despite appearances to the contrary. And it is a talent in itself to drum up a million followers on Youtube or amass a swarm of fans while competing on Survivor, Project Runway or Top Chef.
Capturing the attention of the media with relatively harmless publicity stunts is a highly paid skill. Every major corporation and celebrity utilizes the services of a public relations firm. The Rose Bowl, the Miss America Pageant and the Academy Awards all began as publicity stunts.
The Balloon Boy ploy wasn’t harmless. It wasted law enforcement’s time and taxpayer dollars but the verdict is out on the whether it will end like the Jerry Lewis movie, King of Comedy. In this flick—which solidifies the age-old message that “any publicity is good publicity”—an aspiring comic kidnaps a talk show host in order to get a few minutes of TV airtime so he can perform his act. The stunt lands the comic in jail for a short time, a small price to pay for the stardom and wealth he finds upon release.
The gate-crashing Salahis with their panache and chutzpah weren’t the first to maneuver past Secret Service. I have done the same thing.
In addition to gate-crashing numerous events and award shows in my late teens and early 20’s, and writing a “how to” book in 1988 called Meet the Stars, I crashed several “Secret Service-guarded” events.
Once was to meet and interview President Reagan at an elite Walter Annenberg party in Palm Springs in the 1980’s. Like the Salahis, I went through a metal detector and my purse was checked. I got into the event by making friends with a White House employee a couple of days earlier and finagling an “invitation” to the affair. I say “invitation” because my name was never placed on the guest list. At the entrance to the event, the employee somehow convinced a Secret Service agent to give me entrance.
Another Secret Service encounter took place at a 2004 Senator John Kerry fundraiser in Los Angeles when he was the Democratic candidate for president. Some attendees had paid as much as $25,000 for the dinner and star-studded show. A few lucky ones including me were able to attend a very private party afterwards. Present were: Senator Kerry, Robert De Niro, Barbra Streisand, Ben Affleck, Neil Diamond, Billy Crystal, Ben Stiller, Jamie Foxx, and Leonard Dicaprio, among others. Of the 50 or so people in the room all were well-known figures and their spouses or Secret Service agents. And me.
Like the Salahis who in the words of Secret Service director Mark Sullivan, went through “magnetometers and other levels of screening,” I underwent a rigorous check confirming I was weapon-free. But no one asked to see my ticket. I had escaped detection in the excitement of the moment and the collage of colorful party gowns. True, I had intentionally shimmied into the center of a group of the wealthiest donors who all seemed to be thinking, “Darn it, I paid big bucks for this shindig, and I’m not about to wait in line.”
During the past few years the Secret Service has protected the President and other officials at more than 10,000 events with 100% success. Apart from initial screenings, the organization has multiple security procedures in place, and I do not believe for one minute that someone with nefarious intent could gain entrance or cause harm.
According to studies conducted between 1998 and 2009, 30% of Americans (and 51% of 18- to 25- year olds) wish to be famous as do the same percentage of English, Germans, and Chinese. But only 1 to 2 percent of these people seek fame for its own sake. Most are looking for fame to lead to a stable career, wealth, power, influence, social distinction, good works, or a place in history.
Fame-seekers are not pathetic, shallow, self-centered souls as many would have you believe. Fame-seekers are your neighbors, your friends, your business associates. They are people who hope to feed their families, live the good life, benefit their communities, and effect positive change. With fame one can be a positive influence. Feeding a hungry child as a private citizen is good but feeding a hungry child as a public figure is better because it can induce others to do the same.
Whatever you may think of it, finagling your way into a VIP event can be an effective stepping-stone and a means to a positive end. And regardless of security changes, the Salahis will not be the last inductees into the Party-Crashers Hall of Fame.
Published in the Los Angeles Daily News on December 1, 2009 and in The Simon magazine on December 1, 2009 and in Counterpunch on December 7, 2009.