THE BACK PAGES

Look at us. Suddenly we’re all celebrities.

TRIBUTE FILMS. DNA PORTRAITS. THEIR VERY OWN ENTOURAGE. IT TAKES THE VERY LATEST VANITY PRODUCTS TO MAKE THE NEW NARCISSISTS FEEL IMPORTANT.

JOHN INTINI July 24 2006
THE BACK PAGES

Look at us. Suddenly we’re all celebrities.

TRIBUTE FILMS. DNA PORTRAITS. THEIR VERY OWN ENTOURAGE. IT TAKES THE VERY LATEST VANITY PRODUCTS TO MAKE THE NEW NARCISSISTS FEEL IMPORTANT.

JOHN INTINI July 24 2006

THE BACK PAGES

Look at us. Suddenly we’re all celebrities.

THE BACK PAGES

web

TRIBUTE FILMS. DNA PORTRAITS. THEIR VERY OWN ENTOURAGE. IT TAKES THE VERY LATEST VANITY PRODUCTS TO MAKE THE NEW NARCISSISTS FEEL IMPORTANT.

JOHN INTINI

Michael Tyas’s Hollywood experiment lasted eight long months. “I was an intern on a reality TV show in L.A., and was hating it with a passion because it wasn’t reality,” says Tyas, who prefers not to reveal the name of the show. “I logged all of the original footage—about 500 hours—so I saw the real story, and then I saw the fantasy story they made out of it.” So the 23-year-old freelance photographer, now back in his parent’s Shelburne, Ont., home, did what thousands from his generation have done: he turned the camera on himself.

Tyas began a vlog—an online video diary of his life. “I always thought it would be cool to get my face in front of hundreds of people.” He’s unapologetic about building a site around his remarkably ordinary existence— his first post was a six-minute tour of his filthy L.A. apartment; more recently he’s included a clip of his trip to the Ontario Science Centre, and another just hanging out at a friend’s apartment. “I make narcissism look good,” says Tyas, who has made $8.49 in ad sales on his site since April 2005. “It’s a very positive thing to like yourself and think you’re marketable enough to put your face out there.” His confidence, cultural observers point out, is not an anomaly. “This is the Barney Generation,” says Alison Hearn, an assistant professor of information and media studies at the University of Western Ontario. “These kids have grown up in a world in which they’ve constantly been told they’re special.” This age of narcissism has spawned an industry that’s all about you and me. And now, a few years into the Me Media revolution, an array of professional-grade vanity products and services have cropped up to meet the new narcissists’ needs. “They’re all ways of defining yourself,” says Hearn. “Creating an image of

yourself and then falling in love with it.”

Anyone interested in a bit of immortality? No problem. For a fee ranging from $15,000 to $80,000, London, Eng.-based eDv, which bills itself as the “personal motion picture company,” gets professional filmmakers to sort through your old home videos, conduct and tape interviews with your family, and edit together a high-quality biography. If that seems too commercial or too much work, try buying your way into the pages of a book by a favourite author. This is often done through charity auctions. Last September, John Grisham, Dave Eggers and Stephen King put the names of upcoming characters on the block (a Florida woman paid US$25,100 for the right to put her brother’s name to a character in King’s new book).

There are many other ways of making yourself a star. One website, based in the Netherlands, allows users to create their own soap opera by posting messages, pictures and video from their own lives. While it doesn’t much resemble your typical mid-afternoon guilty pleasure, that hasn’t stopped people from posting and visitors from checking in and voting for their favourites. The highest ranking “stars” can win prizes, including a celebrity magazine feature (the site is run by a magazine publisher). Then there’s Playstation 2’s EyeToy—a digital camera that literally places gamers within a video game. In KungFu, users can show off their martial arts skills by taking on the bad guys with their very own digitized hands and feet.

Technology is in part to blame. It’s helped us meet these needs—and create them. The affordability of digital cameras, for instance, has sparked a surge in the popularity of selfportraits. Most young people are perfectly comfortable taking their own pictures—a key part of their Internet egos on MySpace and the like. Some change their photo almost every day. “It’s an image economy,” says Hearn. “It’s all about branding yourself.”

Some, like Erica Morgan, have devoted entire websites to self-portraiture—a form in which one can be a star on both sides of the camera. Since February 2003, Morgan, who was born in South Carolina and now lives in Sydney, Australia, takes a photo of herself every day and posts it on her site (l,lll at last count). “At first I was a little concerned about obsessive strangers,” says the 27-year-old photographer. “And a little self-conscious about pulling out my camera and turning it in my direction.” Apparently, she got over it.

These days—again thanks to technology —you can pretty much get your likeness plastered on anything. This business niche

hearkens back to those booths at shopping malls that would print your picture on a coffee mug or a T-shirt. By contemporary standards, that old personalized fare appears like cave art. Today, fond parents can get a replica doll made of their children for US$139. To create a 23-inch Mini Me, parents can go on mytwinn.com and build the doll themselves, or send in a photo of junior and have the toy specialists do the legwork. The doll is an exact likeness; freckles and birthmarks are handpainted at no additional cost. A couple of years ago, a California-based firm started selling personalized confetti—your digital images were turned into tiny paper scraps. Before they shut down, the company had sold 30,000 bags—starting at US$17 each—to people who wanted to be the life of the party.

Our look-at-me industry has even found its way into the art world. Send about $400 and a saliva sample to Ottawa-based DNA 11, and you’ll receive an 18 x 24-inch portrait (available in one of eight colours) of your very own personal genetic code. “Before we started, we thought that everyone with a big ego would want one of these hanging in their offices—and we have lots of CEOs, power-

BY CONTEMPORARY STANDARDS, PRINTING YOUR PHOTO ON A COFFEE MUG APPEARS LIKE CAVE ART. PEOPLE CAN NOW HIRE AN ENTOURAGE—COMPLETE WITH BODYGUARD, FAUX-FRIENDS AND PAPARAZZI PHOTOGRAPHERS— TO GREET THEM CLIMBING OUT OF A LIMO AT THE HOTTEST CLUB.

brokers, investment brokers and venture capitalists that own our artwork,” says co-founder Adrian Salamunovic, whose company has shipped art to 30 countries and sold more than 1,000 prints since last July. “But moms and grandmas have done it too. For most, ego doesn’t play a factor.” In celebration of its one-year anniversary, the company is unveiling this week a new twist on the original: fingerprint portraits. “What we do is not inyour-face narcissistic—like say an oil painting of my face over the fireplace,” says Salamunovic, 30. “This is highly personal art—it’s one of one. And you’re a collaborator.”

The proliferation of personalized services may just be a logical next step for a society in which everything—from weddings to funerals—is hyper-personalized. For several years now, thanks in large part to the reality TV craze, we’ve been told that we can be stars. Now we’re starting to act like it. At the extreme end of the spectrum, people, desperate for the rock-star treatment, can hire an entouragecomplete with a bodyguard, faux-friends and paparazzi photographers to greet them climbing out of a limo at the hottest club.

An effect of all this is the elevation of the completely ordinary. The clearest model may be YouTube, the video-sharing website with

the narcissistic “Broadcast Yourself” tag line, which is getting 70 million video views a day. YouTube has hundreds of thousands of clips from rock concerts and old TV shows, but the very random—and sometimes humorous-videos of regular people doing boring stuff has also played an integral role in the site’s success. We’re not just finding ways to share our very mundane lives, we’re also tuning in to watch other people’s. One recent trend involved users posting videos of themselves watching other youtubers watching YouTube.

Or consider the six-month-old vlog of Dan O’Rourke, a provincial government policy worker in Halifax, who says that making himself the star is simply a product of necessity. “I’m the only actor I can afford,” says the 26year-old, who spends as many as 10 hours a week working on his vlog. “I just do things that I think will turn out interesting without a target audience in mind.” Road trips, he says, usually make for the best posts, but, much to his own surprise, his most popular clip so far— which has attracted more than 1,000 views— was a 30-second spot during which he pours out a container of spoiled chocolate milk.

People seem to be going to greater heights in the pursuit of real reality—and they aren’t exactly succeeding. “Authenticity is a very hazy construct,” says Marc Ouellette, who teaches English and cultural studies at McMaster University. “In the race for distinction, everyone ends up ultimately looking the same.” And often, he suggests, we end up using the modes of mainstream and celebrity culture, even when we think we’re being original. “I’d like to think that it’s totally their voice, but I don’t,” he says. “There are so many forces. It’s not purely narcissistic since it’s almost always attached to some pre-existing cultural and celebrity icon.”

In fact, more than narcissism, Ouellette believes many of us today suffer from solipsism—the inability to recognize the existence of another viewpoint. “Solipsism is supposed to end by mid-adolescence, but I don’t think it’s disappearing at the same stage in the cognitive process that it used to,” he says. “Most people get to a point in their lives when they recognize that others have a viewpoint that is just as valid as their own. With adolescence starting earlier and ending later, some never get to that stage. It ultimately comes down to always thinking, ‘what’s in it for me.’ ” M