`Celebritizing' the ordinary Joe

Sun Journal

Limelight: What separates an aerobics instructor at the local Y from a Susan Powter? Not that much, it turns out. Now, everyday people want a taste of the action.

February 18, 1999|By Sarah Pekkanen | Sarah Pekkanen,SUN STAFF

When we first met him, years ago, he was the stereotypical computer geek: His glasses were thick, his suits rumpled, his personality shy. And every day was a bad hair day.

Today, his suits are sleek and obviously high-priced. His hair has been tamed, and so has his intense shyness. Now he is a household name, and as his recognition soared, so did his bank account.

Few people have the financial resources of Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, the subject of this transformation. He was helped by a small army of speechwriters, public-relations experts and personal assistants. But on a smaller scale, business people who recognize that a better image translates into a better bottom line are following his example, according to experts who study "celebritizing" as an industry.

Actors and politicians have long recognized that a strategic photo-op or well-placed gossip item can lead to a career boost. Now, other professionals are joining in the scramble for tickets on the publicity train, according to the authors of the book "High Visibility."

"In an increasingly competitive marketplace, [high visibility] is the single factor that explains the difference between a merely competent surgeon and one who earns seven figures and appears on talk shows to plug his or her latest book," write the authors, Irving Rein, Philip Kotler and Martin Stoller, professors at Northwestern University. "It can spell the difference between the modestly successful business consultant and one who's paid $25,000 for a keynote speech."

Consider the success stories of some who have aggressively pursued the limelight:

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield: These ice-cream makers hit it big by crafting earthy, friendly personas. Early cartons of their product spelled out the image they wanted to portray: "Two real guys, Ben and Jerry, who live in Vermont, the land of green grass, blue sky and black and white cows, where they make world-class ice creams in some really unusual flavors." The men even drove a "Cowmobile" across the country. Their attention to detail paid off: Their company is worth $140 million.

Arianna Huffington: When her husband, Michael, failed in his effort to defeat California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Arianna's star also should have fallen. Instead, she landed a syndicated column, a cable-television show and a radio show. A movie was even made about her book on Picasso.

She "is a model for using transformation techniques to achieve visibility," according to "High Visibility." How did she do it? "She has put together the quintessential celebrity machine" -- including publicity and literary agents and even a language specialist who tones down her Greek accent.

Susan Powter: This diet and fitness expert was one of thousands in a crowded field. But she set herself apart by marketing her high-voltage personality. "What [she] commands for her services versus what the equally skilled aerobics instructor at the local YMCA charges is Powter's celebrity-generated premium," the authors write.

The rewards are clearly sweet. But how does the average college professor or lawyer go about creating a buzz?

For Paul Rothstein, it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

Rothstein, a professor of law at Georgetown University in Washington, used the O. J. Simpson murder case as a model for the evidence course he taught. Rothstein had commented on local television programs in the past, but his expertise on what was being billed as the "trial of the century" made him even more attractive to TV news producers.

CNN and the local ABC affiliate paid to fly him to Los Angeles for closing arguments. Every television appearance attracted another. Now, Rothstein's resume boasts bookings on the "Today" show, CNBC and the "Nightly News With Tom Brokaw." Even foreign news companies such as the British Broadcasting Corp. have clamored for him.

"Most of it is paid, but some of it is not," says Rothstein. Other perks include a car and driver when he's doing commentary and quick access to Supreme Court decisions -- and he is frequently recognized on the street.

For some, public recognition might be payment enough. A craving for the limelight is certainly part of what drives would-be celebrities. A new restaurant/theme park is trying to profit from that longing.

Tinseltown Studios in Anaheim, Calif., charges $45 per person to let ordinary folks walk in the shoes of stars -- at least for a few hours. After fending off autograph seekers, paparazzi and reporters, patrons can be edited into scenes from such movies as "Psycho" and "Jurassic Park." For actual celebrities, of course, the experience would be a nightmare, but ordinary folks are eating it up.

But why? Blame the media, says author Rein.

"We see these models of life -- Bill Gates jetting to Sweden, we see the parties, we see the life of these people," he says. "It whets the appetite of the public. They say, `Well, why not me?' "

Other businesses have tried to capitalize on this hunger for the spotlight. Florida's Fifteen Minutes of Fame Public Relations promised clients that they would appear on at least three radio shows around the country and two newspaper articles.

But apparently, the company's own 15 minutes are up. Its telephone has been disconnected, with no forwarding number given.

For those truly publicity-hungry professionals eager to market themselves to the max, Rein advises them to move to where the action is: "It's hard to be a high-visible lawyer nationally if you live in Toledo."

You've also got to discover your niche, something that sets you apart from the rest of your professional pack. It worked for Cindy Crawford, who crafted a sexy image -- complete with a Playboy picture spread -- and became more than just the model-of-the-moment.

David Letterman was transformed from an irreverent, wise-cracking weatherman into a talk-show king.

In other words, find a shtick and stick to it.

Pub Date: 2/18/99

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