Making the Most of Iconoclasts

12/26/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One possible reason why magazines have moved away from long form celebrity profiles is the increased access we have to our celebrities. Celebrities of all sorts are more available than ever to media outlets on television and the Internet, keeping them permanently in the public eye. Their perceived "downtime" shrinks with every generation of new celebrities. The need for long magazine spreads about them has dissipated.

Our fascination with celebrities hasn't, though. We're now finding new ways to deliver the information. For many celebrities, writing books has given them the medium to express who they are, how they wish to be viewed, and the message they want to impart to the public. And they're given a podium, too, at book events to plug the books. I have found more often than not at these events that the celebrities, when given the opportunity, speak freely about what the book means to them, personally.

Most recently, I heard Kenneth Cole speak about his new book, "Awearness," and what went into the book. At the event, I learned about the designer's humanitarian side. He's spent decades raising funds and awareness for AIDS research, and this book lists ways that others can be equally inspired to make a difference in the world.

Cole is using his celebrity status to change the lives of others. He's famous for his fashion line, but defines himself through his work for public service. At this event, I discovered another side to the man.

Sundance's "Iconoclasts" aims to explore celebrities in hopes of changing perceptions and curbing assumptions. It's a show pegged with the tagline, "Change the Way You See Celebrity." I watched several episodes, hoping to find out that more celebrities were dedicated to solving the world's problems in the same vein as Cole. The show brings together intriguing pairings and profiles them. But where the show comes up short is in its structure which feels a lot more like "Blind Date" than it does the Independent Film Channel's provocative series "Dinner for Five."

The difference, I believe, is in the format and the content of the shows. "Iconoclasts"' format is bare, by design. It pairs the two celebrities together and asks them to find their common ground. Although the duo often does achieve this goal, the conversation for the most part is dry, mundane and artificial. It's difficult for the two to establish any sort of chemistry in such a short period of time as one meeting. The conversation therefore doesn't generally elicit emotions or provoke new ideas or perspectives in either party. As a result, the celebrities don't wind up going home at the end of the day profoundly changed or impacted from meeting their counterparts. They had just another interesting day.

"Dinner for Five," on the other hand, succeeded because of its structure and its depth. Jon Favreau would moderate discussion with four other celebrities about the state and nature of their industries, who inspires them, and their professional and personal ambitions. Conversation depended squarely on Favreau making connections between the different guests and guiding them down common paths of mutual interest, thought and reflection. The moderator made this show such a success. Without Favreau at the helm, the show would have only been four strangers sitting around and having dinner together. What's interesting about that?

But structured as a panel with one, ongoing conversation, celebrities can shine. When they are focused on one particular point of discussion, they can contribute. "Iconoclasts" is a bit more ambitious. The show wonders what these celebrities don't know or about what they might wish to learn more. There is hardly a script, no moderator, and a camera rolling to capture it all. Even the awkward moments. The hope is that, through introducing them to people outside their normal sphere, celebrities will be challenged and inspired.

When asked about how he can run a company with such obvious humanitarian goals attached to it, Kenneth Cole said that for him there's no separation between his designer self and his humanitarian self. He sees himself as one entity, whether he's performing social justice or coming out with a new line of leather jackets.

"Iconoclasts" might be better off following this lead. The celebrities featured on the show tend to appear out of their element. For the most part, they look unsure what they're supposed to talk or ask about next. And we wind up watching two strangers sit nervously and uncomfortably next to each other in the backseat of a car while film rolls.