(2 of 7)
But something perhaps even stranger is happening: through a sudden explosion of new-wave voyeur shows, ordinary people are becoming our new celebrities. Following Multi-Millionaire's Darva Conger and Rick Rockwell, there's now Stacey Stillman, 27, Survivor's cranky attorney ("I never realized how annoyed I looked," she says. "I was hungry"). There's Julie (last name withheld for security reasons), 20, the Mormon naif in the just-premiered ninth season of MTV's The Real World, in which this year's crew of twentysomethings find romance and hurt feelings while sharing a New Orleans mansion. There's Joyce Bowler, 44, who persuaded her family to spend three hardship-filled months in a house outfitted with 100-year-old technology (or lack of it) for The 1900 House, a fascinating British show that made its debut last week on PBS. "[Celebrity] does become quite addictive," she says. "But you have to realize it's not your whole life. We don't do this for a profession." In VTV-crazed Europe, where Survivor and CBS's forthcoming voyeur game show Big Brother originated, ex-contestants have become pinups and pop stars.
The price: living in front of cameras that catch their every tantrum, embarrassment and moral lapse. TV and media critics are conditioned to believe that once people start entertaining themselves by spying on others, we are just scant moments away from grandma porn and ABC's Monday Night Stoning. (You could base a drinking game on how often the Colosseum, Network and Orwell come up in discussions of VTV.) Stuart Fischoff, professor of media psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, cheerfully admits to enjoying Survivor but adds, "The downside that does concern me is the need to get more excessive and extreme. Let's try a public execution. Let's try a snuff film." On the other hand, TV voyeurism also means millions of ordinary folks are making other ordinary folks, without benefit of surgical augmentation, into stars just for being themselves. Can that be so wrong?
We'll get to that. But first, maybe more puzzling: Why on Earth are so many people willing to let us look? To understand, you need to first look away from television. (Oh, just for a minute. You can do it.) Our culture is deep into a populist period of personal confession, the First-Person Era. There's the unflagging craze for memoirs--especially ordinary people's tales of woe, like Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes and Elizabeth Kim's story of orphanhood, Ten Thousand Sorrows. "I don't see any sign of them waning," says Jeff Zaleski, book-review editor of Publishers Weekly. "The high-profile memoirs by famous people haven't done well, [but] there's been an increase in the common-man type of memoir." Novelist Martin Amis writes in his own new memoir Experience, "We live in the age of mass loquacity. We are all writing it or at any rate talking it: the memoir, the apologia, the c.v., the cri de coeur. Nothing, for now, can compete with experience--so unanswerably authentic, and so liberally and democratically dispensed." Thus the modern appeal of the real: journalists pepper their reports with the pronoun I; historians focus on the lives of ordinary people rather than those of their rulers; and many literary scholars set aside the classics to study first-person testimonials of peasants and slaves.