NEAL CONAN, host:
Now, the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page.
Britney Spears hasn't put out a proper album since 2003 but that has certainly not kept her out of the media spotlight. We've watched her wed and divorce Kevin Federline, gave birth to two children, party recklessly with and without underwear.
Now, she checks herself out of rehab, asked a hairstylist to shave her bald and when the stylist demurs, she shaves herself. On a slow news day, that makes it on to the BBC. Yes, fame isn't what it used to be. US magazine now devotes more pages to people without obvious talent than to those who do have it.
In a column this weekend, Megan Daum of the Los Angeles Times dubs this phenomenon "Faminess" - that is, people who are well known in concentric circles. They may be famous only to a dozen or so, or their faminess may nauseate rather than inspire.
And of course, we invite you to call in. What's the distinction between fame -it's President's Day, let's invoke George Washington - and faminess - let's say, lonelygirl15? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail, email@example.com
Meghan Daum is on the phone with us from San Miguel in Mexico to tell us more. We appreciate your interrupting your vacation, where, no doubt, you're plotting to become famy(ph) yourself.
Ms. MEGHAN DAUM (Columnist, Los Angeles Times): Good to be with you, Neal. I hope - I'm getting a lot of static here so that may be appropriate - but I hope that we can hear each other.
CONAN: All right. You're - we're hearing you fine. Let me begin by asking you what's the difference between fame and faminess?
Ms. DAUM: Faminess, the more I thought about it, really has to do with having the aura of fame, the trappings of fame, without necessarily or really at all without being in possession of any of the substance that was once a requirement for being famous. Now I think it has as much to do with humiliation as actual accomplishment.
CONAN: And we should point out you wrote your article before Britney Spears further humiliated herself.
Ms. DAUM: Yeah. And it's funny. You know, I'm down here in Mexico and I haven't really tuned in to any news at all. And yesterday, I was out amongst some tourists and the one bit of information I got from the United States was the news about Britney Spears and her shaved head.
CONAN: Oh. It's important to know that people have their priorities straight. Yeah.
Ms. DAUM: Yes. It's a comfort.
CONAN: Yeah. There's a couple of other words and phrases in your piece I wanted to ask you about. One of them is, reverse indifference.
Ms. DAUM: Well, you know, as a columnist, as somebody who writes about, you know, culture and social politics, I find that I have to sort of know about celebrities more often than I'd like. And I was inspired to write this column because I have found lately, that I don't know who most people are who are supposed to be famous. And then when I kind of try to track back, how that had gone, I thought, well, you know, I used to just not care about these people. But lately, I actually have disgust for them. It's not just indifference, it's reverse difference. They actually disgust me. And so, in developing my definition of faminess, I thought that one of the requirements is that we need to be actually repulsed by these people - because that's really their only way of getting our attention anymore.
CONAN: And it's working.
Ms. DAUM: Oh, quite effectively. Clearly, where I - we're talking about it today.
CONAN: Indeed. There is - as you point out, celebrity repulsion has been in the air in recent weeks. I don't need to name names, but suffice it say, that popular culture's approval rating - and in turn that of the media that can't get enough of it - is an all-time low, whether they're talking about a deceased gold digger or an apparently deranged astronaut. And let's be honest, we're still talking about both of them all the time.
Ms. DAUM: Yeah. Not to name names. You know, the value of celebrity is really diminished. What I talked about in the piece, and what I've been thinking about in recent weeks is that, you know, there was a time - maybe not even too long ago where being famous was a pretty tough thing to accomplish - that it was inherently about limited access.
And now for a variety of reasons, whether it's the 24-hour news cycle or the blogosphere or just, you know, the myriad television channels that we have, it's actually not too hard to be famous. And in effect, it's never been a worse time to be a celebrity, because it doesn't have to do with being special anymore. It just has to do with sort of finding your audience, no matter how small.
CONAN: So you could go on MySpace and have your audience be your seventh grade class.
Ms. DAUM: Yeah. You know, it used to be, you know, the old, you know, 15 minutes of fame with the conventional wisdom. But really now, we get personalities who are famous in the eyes of 15 people. And as a result, it's hard to get any traction. We just sort of have this lukewarm stew of people we have sort of heard of, who do, you know, sort of interesting things, and it's none of it's there eat spicy or nutritious.
CONAN: Our guest is Meghan Daum. She's a novelist, essayist and columnist for the Los Angeles times. Her most recent book is the "Quality of Life Report." And you can take a look at her column that ran this past weekend in the Los Angeles Times. There's a link to it at our page at npr.org/talk. And you can also find out there how to download all of our opinion pages as Podcasts. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's see if we can get a caller on the line. This is Chris(ph). Chris is with us from Wichita in Kansas.
CHRIS (Caller): Hi. Yes, I have a comment actually about celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, who'd be someone that I worked with in a - we had a previous job. And in a discussion with that, another co-worker, this co-worker made the comment, how did he happen? And I think that he's a really interesting character in that he has created this persona for himself.
And also through his blog site, through his Web site, which attracts, you know, millions of visitors every day, he's also perpetuating a lot of these - or extending, I guess I should say - people's 15-minute increment of fame into a lengthier periods.
CONAN: Oh, Chris, were those benighted few, which include me who've never heard of Perez Hilton, who is he?
CHRIS: Well, he is a - that's actually a pseudonym, his nom de plume, and he's actually a celebrity blogger and he has a Web site, Perez Hilton, P-E-R-E-Z Hilton that is named - he's created this persona after his friend and kind of idol Paris Hilton. And the whole purpose of it, really, is to almost create - a lot like your guest had talked about it in her book - to create a forum for a lot of these people who might not be celebrities in other forums to experience some celebrity.
CONAN: Meghan Daum, a faminess forum.
Ms. DAUM: Yeah. You know, the entire fact that you can control the type of news information that you want to receive really, I think, perpetuates this phenomenon. I mean people can now, you know, set up their Internet so that they only get gossip, for instance, or they only get news about Republican politics, or movies, or the arts, or whatever it is. And so, that really sets up a situation where it's very easy for certain circles of people to have someone like Perez Hilton and think that he's incredibly famous. And for other people just do not know anything about the person, you know.
The notion of being a household name is really arcane at this point.
CHRIS: Well, I think it's interesting too, in his case, that he's used the Internet to create his own celebrity, and that he is, you know, this entertainment news - is for some people, much more important than news about what's going on in society - just as far as, you know, current events, politics, whatever might be more newsy(ph) or news oriented to the vast majority of people.
CONAN: Chris, thanks for the call. Appreciate it.
CHRIS: Thank you.
CONAN: All right, let's see if we can get one more caller in. And this is Jeanette(ph). Jeanette is with us from Washington.
JEANETTE (Caller): Hi.
JEANETTE: Hi. I'm just calling because it seems to me - I'm just astonished that we pay so much attention to all of this. I just - I really like to hear your comments about why you don't - don't we have anything else to do but listen to - I mean, it's really kind of sad about Britney and her hair being cut off but I've got all these things in my life that are a million times more important. But maybe it's easier or less painful.
(Soundbite of laughter)
JEANETTE: Well, and - what Britney has to say?
CONAN: And Meghan Daum, that goes to the last word I wanted to ask you about and that was I didn't even know how to pronounce it. Mundanity? Mundaninity?
Ms. DAUM: Oh, well mundanity, I mean, you know, celebrity is no longer about being sort of stratospheric and incomprehensible and special. It's really mundane, bordering on tedium. And if this caller were like many people, she does have better things to do and she will be blogging about it and we would all be talking about it and she would be famy in her own way. God bless her that she's not.
(Soundbite of laughter)
JEANETTE: No, thanks. But I just wonder if it's because of our media, that is - that there are so many things. There's the blogs, there's the Internet, there's radio, there's TV, there's MySpace would - maybe we have to have all of this interest in this, in order to support all of this stuff.
Ms. DAUM: Well, you know, again, there's just - it's, there's too much competition that, you know, there's sort of democratization of fame has resulted into just not being very valuable. It's cheap. It's cheap to get this information.
And you know, we haven't perhaps reached the point where we're sort of experienced enough with it and disciplined to sort of sort out what is valuable and what's not. We may be in a transitional time with all this stuff. I certainly hope so.
JEANETTE: Gosh, I hope so too because, I mean, if it's that cheap, let's just - let's go for something more valuable.
CONAN: Jeanette, thank you for the thought and thanks for the phone call. We appreciate it.
JEANETTE: Thank you.
CONAN: And, you know, Meghan Daum, your 15 minutes are over. I'm not going to call them the 15 minutes of faminess, but you can do that if you'd like.
Ms. DAUM: Okay. Well, it's been a great 15 minutes. I will cherish the memories.
CONAN: And thanks so much for taking time from your vacation. We appreciate that.
Ms. DAUM: My pleasure, Neal. Thanks.
CONAN: And Meghan Daum, novelist, essayist and a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. "The Quality of Life Report" is her most recent book. She joins us today by phone from San Miguel in Mexico.
I'm Neal Conan. And this TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.