On-line takes off as a way for stars to reach their fans

September 06, 1994|By Bruce Westbrook | Bruce Westbrook,Houston Chronicle

Mick Jagger could get no satisfaction from press conferences with media hacks, so the rocker became a hacker.

Mr. Jagger is just one of many celebrities now churning onto the information superhighway. Computer networks are offering on-line "talk shows" and other services that put stars, in a sense, face-to-face with their fans.

Subscribing PC users can key in questions that the celebrities answer, either by typing in replies or dictating to someone else.

These Q-and-A sessions can be done in "real time" or in a delayed way, with questions accumulating over several weeks and the answers given and accessed after a set time.

This year, such entertainers as Mr. Jagger, Jodie Foster, Jerry Seinfeld, Meat Loaf, David Bowie, William Shatner and Rosie O'Donnell have chewed the fat by going to their mouse mat. Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller was available Thursday on America Online. Coming up later this month on America Online are Garth Brooks (Thursday) and Laurie Anderson (Monday).

Often the celebrities reveal more by computer than they would on radio or TV, says Phoenix-based Eliot Stein, a pioneer in bringing the entertainment industry on-line.

Mr. Stein, who has also worked as a broadcaster, launched the nation's first on-line talk show last March.

His Stein On-Line is on hiatus while technical changes are made to broaden its audience on CompuServe's 2.3 million subscriber network. But soon it will return to nightly one-hour status with such guests as Martha Reeves of the Vandellas, due Sept. 19.

"Celebrities are more guarded on radio or TV," Mr. Stein says. "But when they go on-line and know their voice or visual presence isn't there, they tend to open up and get intimate and personal."

Some might argue that computers are a remote way of meeting people. But Pam McGraw, of Vienna, Va.-based America Online, says conversing with fans via computer "seems very personal to celebrities."

"There's no one else in between -- no agents, press, cameras, nothing. And for fans, this is as close as many will get to these people."

On-line with Oliver Stone

America Online, which has a million subscribers, offers a "Center Stage Event" featuring real-time interaction between celebrities and 300 subscribers, linked by computer screens in a "cyberspace auditorium."

The Eagles and director Oliver Stone were recent guests. But their answers can still be accessed for several weeks.

Interfacing with international stars is really "exploding," says Carol Wallace of Prodigy.

That computer service recently enlisted as hosts Mr. Jagger, Ms. Foster and Jamie Lee Curtis for its 2 million subscribers.

Ms. Curtis defended her "True Lies" striptease by typing, "It's just a comedy -- lighten up." Ms. Foster named her favorite bars while a student at Yale University. Mr. Jagger said he still tours at age 51 in part for the money but mainly because "I derive a lot of pleasure from being creative."

Mr. Jagger also "wanted to ask a question himself, to know if our subscribers liked their music with video or without."

Going on-line is more convenient for celebrities than holding a press conference or granting an interview. They can do it anywhere from "riding on a plane to sitting in their pajamas in their living room," Ms. Wallace says. "They don't have to look good or sound good. And for once in their lives what they say won't be edited. We send their answers exactly as they write them."

"Celebrities like it," says Michelle Moran of CompuServe. "They can go on-line from the comfort of their homes and get real feedback from their audience without being bombarded or having to sign autographs. So they're much more relaxed and prone to be more honest and personal."

They also get to choose which questions to answer.

Mr. Jagger received hundreds of questions from Prodigy subscribers, but he only answered 20 to 30. (On-screen, it's specified who asked the question.)

Stars 'just want to talk'

Singer Glen Campbell opened up about his personal life and religious beliefs, Mr. Stein says, and comedian Dennis Miller revealed he's not nearly as interested in politics as his act indicates.

Mr. Stein's guests also include politicians, sports authorities and UFO experts.

The celebrities, who aren't paid, often go on-line to plug a movie, TV show or album. But Mr. Stein says about half "just want to talk."

For on-line talk shows, some celebrities already are making their second rounds, Ms. Wallace says. As on TV, there are standards.

"Inappropriate language is caught by a scanner and sent back," Ms. Wallace says. "It catches certain words. It's what we call the George Carlin scanner."

Ms. Moran says most celebrities "are not computer literate and don't like keyboards. Agents and studios prod them."

Ms. Wallace agrees. "It's agents who are getting savvy and realizing that being on-line helps stars a lot," she says.

But some celebrities are active PC users.

Ms. O'Donnell says she's "hooked" on computers. And former California Gov. Jerry Brown "is the best typist," Mr. Stein says. "It's amazing how quick he is."

Then again, Buddy Ebsen and Bob Denver had to dictate their answers by phone for Mr. Stein to key in.

"I'd say 25 percent of celebrities have computers and are into it," Mr. Stein says. "But that's going to change."

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