At the pinnacle of American fame is the celebrity brand, a highly lucrative–and often precarious–position. The recent comedowns of Oprah, Howard Stern, Conan O’Brien, and Simon Cowell, among others, reveal the ways a star’s luster can fade.
It was a day that will live forever in indignity, even if forever isn’t as long as it used to be.
February 12, 2012. The evening of the Grammy Awards, which would feature a special memorial tribute to Whitney Houston, who had died that weekend at the Beverly Hilton hotel. Opposite the Grammys, Oprah Winfrey’s fledgling channel, OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network), was running a two-hour special on the late singer, and Oprah Herself took to Twitter to beseech the Nielsen families among her millions of tweetnik followers to tune in: “Every 1 who can please turn to OWN especially if u have a Neilsen [sic] box.” (The “Nielsen box” is a device that records which shows are being watched in representative households and provides the data—the ratings numbers—by which networks live or die. But you knew that.) Oprah’s plea was quickly deleted from her Twitter feed and attended by an apology, any attempt to game the overnight ratings considered a major infraction in the broadcast world, not to mention tacky. Here, it was more than tacky. It was the desperate wave of a drowning diva. If some joker with his own half-hour at Comedy Central or Spike had tried this, it would have been shrugged off as the prankish ploy of an underdog, but for someone of Oprah’s once celestial stature, it was a mortifying comedown—a billionaire extending the begging bowl. For decades, Oprah was the Everywoman in excelsis of afternoon television, the Mahalia Jackson of New Age gospel and votive candles, a benefactress bestowing wisdom, empathy, and wishes come true, including merchandise, on her viewers. (Once, each member of the studio audience received a Pontiac G6.) Many a novelist and memoirist prayed that Oprah would pick their book as an Oprah’s Book Club selection, allowing them to live the Cinderella dream of being an obnoxious best-selling author. When Oprah retired from the show, in 2011, stepping down from the throne of syndication to rule her own kingdom on cable, OWN (its name a declaration of personal possession and independence), no one expected Act II to be a seamless move, Oprah’s massive audience migrating with her in a Moses exodus. But nor could anyone have foreseen the drop-off that would occur, her once multitudinous flock reduced to a trickle. She set out for the promised land only to find it parched and underpopulated, nobody here but us camels. Not only did Oprah find herself stranded, her network lame-ducked Rosie O’Donnell too. After the success of her daytime talk show and a contentious stint on ABC’s The View, O’Donnell was persuaded to host a talk show on the Oprah network, which seemed a perfect demographic, sympathetic fit; instead, the show’s poor ratings and negligible impact resulted in a ton of chafing and a mercy-kill cancellation. In March, OWN announced that it was cutting one-fifth of its staff, the sort of downsizing usually associated with Mitt Romney and Bain Capital.
The eclipse of Oprah is symptomatic, symbolic. For she is more than a star, more than a celebrity: she is a fabulously successful, haloed brand. Oprah is her own greatest creation and product, her very name a designer label and quality seal of approval, her fame, protean changeability, and hold on her viewers the river Nile of rich, flowing ancillary revenue streams. It isn’t just about making endorsements but about transcending those endorsements as an aspirational avatar. Despite being tethered to a creature of flesh and the vicissitudes of fate, the celebrity-as-brand has proved surprisingly resilient, much less vulnerable to the vagaries of fashion, fickle tastes, and acts of misfortune than would seem plausible. It’s hard to remember a time before Brangelina. The Martha Stewart brand empire survived the conviction of its namesake for obstruction of justice in an insider-trading case and her jailbird status. Britney Spears’s public meltdown in 2007, when she shaved her head into a cue ball and whacked a paparazzo car with an umbrella, didn’t cause a hiccup in the tremendous sales of her fragrance line. Even after death, Elizabeth Taylor floated in misty-lensed TV ads promoting White Diamonds perfume, and at the top of the list of Forbes’s richest dead celebrities reign the two kings, Elvis and the King of Pop, Michael Jackson.
The celebrity brand isn’t indestructible, immune to backlash. A celebrity brand can put itself on the critical list with a single self-inflicted blow; witness the trapdoor that fashion designer John Galliano tripped open when he reportedly went off on a drunken anti-Semitic tirade at a Paris café, but with enough rehab and contrition even he might be able to mount a comeback, plucked of some of his pirate plumage. Talk-radio raja Rush Limbaugh is reeling from a boycott of his advertisers ignited by his neutron-bomb attack on law student Sandra Fluke, whom he called a “slut” and “prostitute.” Limbaugh could conceivably manage the sort of rebound Don Imus did after his ill-chosen comments about Rutgers’s women’s basketball team, but so far he isn’t attempting the genuine repair effort that Imus made—he’s trying to tough it out and, in doing so, perhaps tying the microphone cord around his neck in a noose. Once advertisers have fled like rabbits, it’s hard to herd them back. His brand may be fatally broken.
And then there is Keith Olbermann, an incandescent talent whose ego has enlarged to the size of one of those papier-mâché heads of Bread and Puppet Theater, his recent firing from Al Gore’s Current TV releasing such a deluge of acrimony and recrimination that he is in danger of being designated a toxic hazard.
Most celebrity brands don’t suffer a dramatic flameout, however, but take a wrong swerve and begin to skid sideways, or overreach and hit an air pocket, losing altitude fast. As with Oprah and OWN, exile from Main Street befell Howard Stern after he kissed off terrestrial radio with its F.C.C. rules and commercial interruptions for a luxury berth at Sirius XM satellite radio. It isn’t as if he faded into the noosphere, but compared with his heyday, when he descended butt-cheek naked at the MTV Video Music Awards, appeared in drag on David Letterman, and pondered running for governor, his Sirius tenure has been a carnival sideshow. Last month, in what the Smoking Gun Web site called “a stinging legal rebuke,” Judge Barbara Kapnik rejected a lawsuit lodged by Stern against Sirius XM to obtain $300 million in stock awards, ruling that Stern had not met the subscriber goals of his contract necessary for the payout. As if to break out of the ghetto of Baba Booey and inject himself back into the mainstream, Stern agreed to succeed Piers Morgan in the judge’s chair of NBC’s America’s Got Talent, a once unthinkable scenario for the former Fartman and King of All Media.
No one notched more of a presence in the judge’s chair than Simon “the Scowl” Cowell onAmerican Idol; he was synonymous with the success of the show, the black knight who cut through the schmaltz and zeroed in on the strengths and weaknesses of the contestants with dartboard precision. When he left American Idol to host the American version of The X Factor,many expected Idol to falter after its brain removal; instead, it held steady under the Last Mohican bronze of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler while Cowell’s X Factor was wobbly out of the starting gate, and the true rival to Idol proved to be not X Factor but the new blitzkrieg on the block, The Voice, with its dramatic swivel chairs, suitable for Starfleet commanders. Nor did the bottom drop out of CBS’s sitcom Two and a Half Men when its aging juvenile-delinquent star, Charlie Sheen, he of the porn-star handmaidens, flamethrower sound bites, and gonzo antics (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas seemed to be playing full-tilt boogie in his head), was ejected and replaced by the frozen yogurt of Ashton Kutcher. Two and a Half Men’s ratings remained tall, while Sheen bombed on the road with a Chautauqua show that was like a national version of Kramer’s ramshackle Reality Tour on Seinfeld.