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Tamar Abrams Headshot

Reality Life: Not Anything Like Real Life

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Fame is a powerful lure. As Americans, most of us are comfortable with elevating those who achieve it through talent, determination or even kismet. For those who are famous, the rewards are sweet: power, money, status, adoration and recognition. Some claim they are uncomfortable with the trappings: Behold major movie stars who duck behind bodyguards or who excoriate the paparazzi who find financial gain through hunting the famous.

Lately, though, our definition of "fame" has collapsed on itself, admitting into its ranks those who appear on reality TV shows or who are one-hit wonders. The reality show is a phenomenon that encourages individuals to exaggerate their most distinctive features, to create personas that will tug at viewers' heartstrings or cause us to immediately loathe them. Those who are most real, who appear on camera as they do in their own lives, are quickly forgotten as the camera moves on to someone more memorable. Could no-talents like Heidi and Spencer have thrived before Reality Life? Not likely.

And so we shouldn't be shocked when people like the Salahis abandon all pretense at good behavior and crash a White House dinner. It was inevitable. They look like they were sent by central casting, so why not claim their rightful place in the Fame Firmament? Perhaps the line between real life and Reality Life blurred even for the couple and they were blissfully unaware that their behavior was boorish, a security risk and unsavory. In Reality Life, we are encouraged to make bold unprecedented moves. Who cares if you are soundly renounced (even by the White House?) You are a household name.

And how very memorable the Salahis have become! They are the dessert of Thanksgiving 2009. It is impossible to turn on the TV without seeing the slim blonde in the red sari posing with one dignitary or another. Despite years of recidivist history (Redskins cheerleader! Vintner! Polo insider!), the Salahis were not a star in Reality Life firmament until they crashed a State Dinner. Similarly the Fort Collins, Colorado Heene family were only bush league reality stars until they launched a balloon that commanded television time for hours last month. Of course the price of such grand gestures can be high: The Heenes were interrogated and are facing criminal charges. The Salahis have been interrogated and may face charges, and their attempts to rewrite the stories of their lives have been exposed in the national media.

But what do the consequences matter in a culture that seems to honor villains as much as heroes? Memorable is memorable. Larry King and Katie Couric still come a-knocking. People Magazine is probably already laying out the photo spread. The Washington Post has featured the Salahis in every issue for six days. If the goal is fame, the Salahis have achieved it as surely as Captain Sully. But the question remains: Why is Reality Life so attractive that people will abandon all sense of propriety to achieve it? And perhaps the only answer is that the rest of us must begin to not just boo the villains, but simply ignore them.