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Is 15 Minutes of Fame too Much or too Little?

Nancy Sundstrom - September 9th, 2004
Four years ago, Salon columnist and playwright Cintra Wilson wrote a book that had a title so provocative that I, along with many others, couldn’t help but pick it up and dive right in: “A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Reexamined as a Grotesque and Crippling Disease.”
Every edgy, insightful and slightly vicious moment in her non-fiction diatribe on pop culture (with observations and predictions on the likes of Michael Jackson proving to be nearly Nostradamean) made the book worth every penny and paved the way for more to look forward to in terms of why we, as individuals and a society, are pop culture junkies whom 15 minutes of fame is - well - either too much or too little, depending on your perspective. At the altar of this line of thinking, I just throw in the names of William Hung, Paris Hilton and Joey Buttafucco as a case in point.
Four years later, and a bit overdue comes “Colors Insulting to Nature,” Wilson’s first fictional treatment on fame, all of which centers around her concept of “ego-porn.” As we well know, and especially since Wilson’s last work, our disposable society where instant gratification takes too long has its foundation in the Peter Principle of the early ‘70’s, where mediocrity rises to the top at a dizzying pace. Somehow, though, this is the stuff of America, Hollywood and unrealistic dreams that can come true. In the hands of authors like Wilson, the more unrealistic and hapless, the better the fodder for a tale.
This one revolves around Liza Normal, whose ambitions for stardom have been fanned by a new millennium version of Mama Rose (from “Gypsy”) who is named Peppy. In the first chapter, which pays homage of a famed Judy Blume novel, “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Liza” begins in Novato, California in 1981:
“The faces of the judges revealed, although they were trying to hide it, deep distaste for the fact that the thirteen-year-old girl in front of them had plucked eyebrows and false eyelashes. Something about her well-worn miniature stiletto heels and her backless black evening dress -- side slit up to the fishnet hip, with rhinestone spaghetti straps -- was unsavory to them. The girl looked way too comfortable. Equally unsettling was her performance.
“...and now, I’d like to perform a little something by someone who has been a huge influence on my work. This lady has the most incredible pipes in the business. I’m speaking, of course, of Ms. Barbra Streisand. Vincent?” she asked, addressing the horrified pianist, who was busying himself with the mosaic of colorful buttons on his Yamaha DX-7 that promised such sounds as “oboe” and “tympani.”
“Could you give me ‘Clear Day’ in F, sugar? You’re too good to me.” The child took the microphone and Cher-ishly flipped back a long strand of zigzag crimped hair with fuchsia fingernails as the pianist rolled into the opening bars. Her vibrato, though untrained (learned, most likely, by imitating ecstatic car commercials) was as tight, small, and regular as the teeth on pinking shears.
“On a Cleee-yah Daaaaaaaaaaayy T’Wheel Asssssh-TOUNDYewww. .. thank you,” she spoke, as if the judges had just broken into spontaneous applause.
The mother, visible mouthing the lyrics from the wings in an exaggerated fashion, was clearly responsible for this travesty, this premature piano-bar veteran of a youngster.
“Yew can sheeeee Fah-REVAH, ond EVAH.”
The moderately talented girl was emoting with her hands, seemingly tweezing the adult male heart out of its sexual prison with her kitten claws, all too professionally. The judges squirmed in their seats, intensely disliking the thought of their own daughters or nieces belting out a song in this seamy, overwrought fashion -- parroting the stage acts of overripe chanteuses, moist with the rot of numerous alcoholic disappointments in both Love and Life. The mother would probably be devastated if her child didn’t land the gig. .. she might, in fact, lock herself in an all-peach-colored bedroom and wash down handfuls of muscle relaxants with cheap Polish vodka from a plastic handle-jug; her unfortunate daughter would be left for days without milk and forced to eat lipstick. It was this thought that brought large grimaces of feigned appreciation to the faces of the judges as the girl collapsed into the bow as if she’d just wrung every drop of hot life out of herself and was now utterly spent. She blew a few kisses toward the judges and urged them to “give themselves a hand.”
The mother, whose diaphanous, mango-colored pantsuit was trumped in visual loudness only by the Louis IV-style stack of conical curls on her strawberry-blonde wig, came forward and shook the girl playfully.
“Say goodbye to the nice judges, Liza,” she mewed.
“Goodbye to the nice judges, Liza,” the girl cracked, with a wink.
“Go outside and amuse yourself while Mommy talks grown-up-talk.””
If you’re a pop culture, E True Hollywood Story and People magazine devotee who skips over the headlines on page one in order to get to the celebrity gossip tidbits on page two, how can you resist this? And please don’t, for a minute, think I’m suggesting there’s “anything wrong with that.”
What works for, and against, “Colors” is that this take on fame is written by a woman who has written the book (sorry for the bad pun) on the subject, and as a result, the potential for some of what should be funny is often jaded and hits a little too close to the bone. Wilson has crafted characters who are part satire, part stereotype, part reality (whatever that means anymore) and part worlds in collision. Liza’s family members are the targets, and for all the hits, there are misses that, unfortunately, derail what could be better storylines. One such example is Peppy deciding that her children simply must attend the Manhattan High School for the Performing Arts after seeing the film “Fame,” in which the school is featured.
Still, the never-ending plot twists take us down a path of booze and ego-driven celeb angst that makes it hard from which to veer away, and the end result, something of a “Valley of the Dolls” meets “Beaches,” will leave the reader debating whether the author has a) painted an accurate portrait of a world she knows all too well, or b) has buried an important message underneath a heap of show-biz clichés. Know what? You decide. And in the end, you’ll have fun doing so. What was I thinking that one should read more than any of that in a witty, darkly comedic, slightly scathing novel that’s impossible to put down?
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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