Look At Me! 15 Minutes Of Fame

Alex Boylan, left, and Chris Luca, pose for a photograph with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, Wednesday, May 15, 2002, in San Francisco. After five continents, eight countries and 52,000 miles, Alex and Chris, lifelong friends from Boston, edged out two other teams to win the $1 million dollar prize on CBS' "The Amazing Race: 2."
Joe Cristina is making a pest of himself.

"Are you ready yet? Hey, pick me. I'm your man," he says, grinning at a casting producer who's setting up a video camera in the VIP room of a Chicago bar. It's 10:30 p.m. on a Friday night and already, Cristina and several others are crammed in the hallway outside, peering in anxiously as the sliding doors open and close.

Before the night is out, a select few will twirl before the camera to show off their bodies. They will complete an application that includes such questions as "Are you comfortable in a bathing suit?" and "What are your sexual turn-ons and fetishes?" And some will share those details on camera - all in a bid to make it on to "Elimidate," a raucous and sometimes ruthless reality dating show that, even those auditioning acknowledge, leaves many participants looking foolish.

So why in the world is Cristina, a recent college graduate who now works for a rental car agency, so keen to audition?

"I'm not going to lie to you - it's that 15 minutes of fame," the 21-year-old says, giving a nod to artist Andy Warhol's prediction decades ago that, in the future, everyone would be famous for that amount of time.

Now it seems that Warhol's words have come true, or - at least - more people than ever want them to be true.

While chasing fame has always been part of the American dream, the quest has turned to frenzy, thanks in part to reality TV, Web cams and "blogging," first-person diaries posted on the Web for all the world to see. Today, even cell phones have cameras that allow a person to e-mail instant photos of themselves to large groups of perfect strangers.

"For years, teens have been standing in front of the mirror, performing with a hairbrush microphone," says Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a Washington-based media watchdog. "Now there are multiple industries devoted to showcasing this behavior."

At least one pop culture expert says that access to exposure has helped create a generation of young Americans in love with, as he calls it, "pure, slobbering attention."

"Humans have almost this pathological behavioral characteristic that makes them scream out 'Look at me!"' says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television and a professor at Syracuse University. And he says that urge has never been greater than in it is in today's young people.

Time was, he says, when his students were focused on one thing: making money.

"Now," Thompson says, "given the choice between becoming fabulously wealthy or fabulously famous, most of them choose famous."

Adrienne Katzman, a 23-year-old from Washington, D.C., knows what he means. She fantasizes about being on the CBS show "The Amazing Race," a reality program that features two-person teams racing across the globe. She's also writing a pop fiction book with a friend in hopes of doing something that will put her "on the map."

"I think fame will give meaning to my life," says Katzman, who works as a corporate fund-raiser. "I mean, who am I right now? A face in a million. If I become famous, then I really will feel like I am someone, and I will have a sense of accomplishment in my life.

"I will be known."

Ari Golan, who owns a TV production company in Chicago, sees that hunger for fame all the time when he films shows for Jerry Springer and Jenny Jones, whose programs often get rowdy and outrageous.

"We've always asked what would drive people to expose themselves knowing that it would be degrading," he says. "I guess the average idiot has less sensibility than desire for fame."

Golan is well aware of the irony of his comment, given that he, too, is at the Chicago bar waiting to audition for "Elimidate." He knows he's probably older than what the casting crew is looking for (he won't say how old), but wants to give it a shot anyway.

"Maybe it'd be good for my business, a little exposure," he says. "Maybe it'd just be fun."

He never makes it through the door.

Meanwhile, as music from the downstairs dance floor is pounding in the background, casting director Brendon Blincoe fires questions at would-be contestants who sit on a couch and talk to him while the camera is running.

"I don't care how good-looking they are. If they don't show some personality on camera, they're going to suck," Blincoe says before the auditions begin.

He's looking for argumentative. He's looking for sexy. He's looking for someone who'll say just about anything.

During her interview, Dina Clemente, a 27-year-old who works in a suburban Chicago salon by day, laughs as she tells Blincoe how she pretends to be a porn star recruiter when she meets guys in bars.

Cristina, when asked to describe his dream girl, answers quickly.

"Not blond girls - a model girl, big boobs," he says, continuing with a little bravado: "Older girls don't scare me off."

Natividad Rodriguez shows up for her audition in a sleeveless top that is laced up in a way that reveals more than many mothers would probably like.

"It's not a matter of how much brains you have; it's how hot you look," the 24-year-old Chicagoan says. Recently laid-off from her job as a flight attendant, she is also studying to be a pilot - and looking for new ways to earn money for school. "Maybe I could have a big break," she says, shrugging.

But she does have some rules: "No nudity, no tackiness, no stripping," she says. "It's not my style, not my taste.

"Everybody wants a little bit of attention," Rodriguez says. "That's OK - but certainly not to degrade myself."

Many of those auditioning talk about the thrill of putting themselves out there - something Katzman, the Washingtonian who wants to be on "The Amazing Race," understands.

Offbeat stories about real lives, she says, help push the envelope.

"No one will pay attention to some humdrum love story or hero-saves-the-day story. We need excitement, adventure, something that will keep us drawn in and clinging to the edge of our seats," she says.

"Drama is life nowadays."

Certainly, for this generation of young people, life has been documented almost as if it were their own personal movie, says Thompson, the Syracuse professor.

"Dad had a camera aimed right at them when they exited the womb," he says. "Every time they took a first step or blew out the candles on their birthday cake, somebody was videotaping it."

So taking it the next step - to TV or the Web - is now almost considered the norm, says another analyst of pop culture.

"It's so publicized and pre-processed that it turns into a kind of anonymity," says Jerry Herron, a professor of American studies at Wayne State University in Detroit. "It's like a nude beach, where everybody is naked. Nobody, individually, feels embarrassed."

In the end, Rodriguez (the student pilot) and Cristina (the rental car salesman) don't get picked to be on "Elimidate."

Clemente, the one who tells guys she's a porn scout, does get a call back. She's selected to be a "player" - one of a few women who vie for the affections of one man in an episode that will air sometime in September.

"It's a 'Why not?"' she says, explaining her motivation for going on the show.

But after the taping, her enthusiasm is noticeably dampened.

She says the other women, egged on by producers, made fun of her Italian heritage. "They called me hairy," she complains. "It got pretty ugly."

She says she was finally eliminated from the show because she didn't want to make out in a hot tub with one of the other women in the show.

"I wouldn't do this show again," she says, then pauses. "But, hey, at least I'll be on national TV, right?"

By Martha Irvine