Claire J. Harris

New York – the city where ‘making it’ takes many forms

Back in my youth, I travelled to New York and was amazed to score a writing job for a celebrity public relations company. The reality was quite different.

 

 

Hey YOU, want to be a STAR? Feeling stuck and depressed because you aren’t? Want to know how to move forward and reach your DREAMS? Are you frustrated, sad and tired of not being seen for the talent you are? Sick of WASTING YOUR TIME in a dead-end job? Here is your chance!! Call in to the THREE MINUTES OF FAME and win instant success!

I had been in New York for just a few weeks, so I should have been grateful to land an internship that vaguely aligned with my goal of writing. It was with a marketing company catering for rich people who were unsatisfied with just being rich and wanted to be famous too. Their tactic was to unleash these people onto the public in as many forms as possible, usually by way of simultaneously creating a radio show, reality show and a book deal.

The radio show was broadcast online and the entire purpose of the show was to pretend to the hosts—our clients—that people were actually listening so they could feel famous. The only problem was that nobody was listening. My job was to find listeners by advertising on a site for reality television opportunities, and call up the people who responded, assuring them that phoning in to our phoney radio show would launch their long and prosperous careers on reality television.

Every ad I wrote began the same way: Hey YOU, want to be a STAR? And it turned out lots of poor folks did.

“So what do you do for a living, Destiny?” I asked one caller, preparing to launch into my bit about how much the host of our radio show would be able to help her achieve her #lifegoals.

A sigh extended across the telephone line, husky from cigarettes and overuse. “Well,” it drawled, “I don’t really have a job right now, ya know. I mean apart from looking aftah my babies n’all.”

She had three babies and was living in a shelter after her ma kicked her out and her last job at Dunkin’ Donuts didn’t work out because they didn’t recognise her potential. Her true calling was to be an entertainer.

“An entertainer!” I say. “Do you sing? Act? Dance?”

“No,” she replied, “But I have a great personality! I mean, everyone says to me, ‘Girl, you have a great personality!’ I should be on TV like Snooki. Or…” she enthused, “maybe I could be like a life coach, ya know? Same as Oprah!”

The callers were from all over the States but mostly the South. They were living below the poverty line, disabled, in shelters, evicted, homeless, had five kids, divorced, needed medication and couldn’t afford it, wanted to go to college but couldn’t afford it. They were all trawling this website looking for reality television to pluck them out of their current situation and make them famous. We promised them our producers would call them for the next television show, if they would just phone in to our radio program.

The radio hosts had no idea the callers were coaxed this way.

“Another loser,” one woman said off-air, not sensing the irony. “These people are so desperate to be on the radio, it’s pathetic.”

When we couldn’t get callers, the interns were called on to phone in with fake problems. One of the shows was themed Men’s Sexual Health and not even the poorest man from deepest Mississippi believed that calling in to that show was going to make them a television star, so the company hired actors.

After spending the day making calls, I went to my seven-dollar-an-hour job flipping hamburgers. The uniform was a blue jumpsuit with an elasticised waist and a red cap—so customers kept mistaking me for a teenage boy.

Behind me, a row of Mexicans in identical jumpsuits were busily chopping onions and shovelling beef patties as they did from morning until midnight when they took a two-hour bus ride back to the far side of Brooklyn or Queens for a few hours’ sleep before getting up and doing it all again.

Once a week, the marketing company filmed a celebrity gossip show that was devoid of actual celebrities, the “set” being the rooftop bar of a fancy five-star hotel where one bottle of wine was equivalent to an entire week’s salary of my Mexican co-workers. The celebrities were reality television stars, mostly real housewives of somewhere or other swanning in with a posse of young male cohorts clicking cameras constantly. My job was to meet these celebrities, usher them to the dressing room and from there to the set.

Their latest pilot was an entirely new concept, featuring just one woman trying to get on television while her boyfriend Crazy Johnny got into fights.

It was shortly after the Japanese tsunami when Wendy the casting agent strode into the room clutching a tabloid newspaper. She waved the newspaper wildly above her head. “Oh my gaaaaad,” she trilled. “Have you seen this?”

What she was alluding to was not the pictures of disaster flooding the front page, but the news that Scarlett Johansson and Sean Penn were dating. The makeup girls fled their positions and twittered around her, pulling the Entertainment pages back and forth. Above us, Charlie Sheen’s face flickered across a television screen on mute and a PA sat mesmerised on a chair, staring up at it. The hair girl was straightening the fringe of a reality star when Wendy finally tore her gaze from the paper and flung an arm out towards him.

“David!! Darling! Loved, loved, loved your work on The Bachelorette!” she cooed with all the rapture a poet might use to tell Shakespeare they loved his sonnets. “Such a shame you were voted off, you were so fabulous!”

Wendy breathed out her words in rapid succession the same way she covertly puffed cigarette smoke on the hotel balcony when she thought no-one was looking. Her kisses left lipstick marks on the reality star’s cheek and one of the makeup girls jumped to attention and ran for the Kleenex.

The Bachelorette non-winner was promoting his book, or rather booklet as it was fewer than fifty pages, about the Man Code. He came over with a copy to give me while we were waiting for the call to go on-set. The Man Code, he explained solemnly, was about small yet important things—like sleeping on the side of the bed closest to the door in order to protect your woman in the event of a burglary. He offered to sign the book for me and I asked him to make it out to my husband so he would stop saying the words Man Code at me.

In a lowered voice he asked, “Is your man a Man Code man?”

Upstairs on set, the host was sipping wine poured by the busty actress playing the bartender, a girl desperately trying to prolong the three minutes of fame she enjoyed as a YouTube sensation when a song she sang in a bikini went viral. Her function in the show was merely to serve as the butt of an endless string of breast jokes by the host.

“I want to be taken seriously as an actress,” Heather confided tearfully—not to me, but to a camera and a film crew.

They were using her as the subject for a new reality show they were pitching. Their latest pilot, TV Divas, focusing on a group of women who had fights and tried to get on television, hadn’t been picked up. This was an entirely new concept, featuring just one woman trying to get on television while her boyfriend Crazy Johnny got into fights.

“The YouTube thing totally upset me, like I just couldn’t deal. Suddenly I was just the Bikini Girl and I want to be way more than that.” The camera zoomed in on her cleavage.

“Perfect!” shouted Jerry the executive producer. “Let’s call it The Adventures of Bikini Girl and Crazy Johnny!”

Crazy Johnny picked himself up off the floor from where he was entangled with the cameraman in a fabricated brawl.

Jerry turned to me. “You can write the pitch,” he said. “Think Jersey Housewives meets Jerseylicious meets Jersey Shore.” Or something-something.

I wrote the pitch between fielding phone calls from drug addicts and alcoholics for a special addiction-themed radio show.

Heather and Johnny are passionately in love but is that enough to keep them together while everything else is tearing them apart? Is Johnny holding Heather back from being a star? Is she driving him away or just driving him nuts?

I got fired from my burger job after just three weeks. The boss was a thirty-something Israeli sharply dressed in designer jeans and a tight t-shirt—no jumpsuit for him.

“Can I see you for a minute?” I followed him down to the dank basement where a Mexican cleaner was bent over a mop. “I don’t think you take burgers seriously,” the boss said. “In fact, why don’t you just call it a day. And make sure you return your uniform!” he shouted after me, as if I might want to take it with me as a keepsake of New York.

“Hey,” I said to the kitchen crew as I headed out. “I need some callers for my radio show tomorrow, does anyone here want to be a star?”

The Mexicans didn’t even look up. They just kept on flipping burgers.

 

This is an excerpt from Claire’s memoir, What Are You Running From?

 

Claire J. Harris

Claire Harris is a writer in exile who has spent the last decade travelling and working around the world. This is not nearly as glamorous as it sounds and usually involves scraping by on a diet of muesli and cheap wine. Occasionally together. You can find her at www.clairejharris.com

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