She’s Famous (and So Can You)
TILA TEQUILA turned 26 on Wednesday, and the reader is advised to do whatever is necessary to forget that useless fact. Wipe it, as the metaphor goes, from the hard drive. Try also to obliterate the knowledge that Tequila is not, oddly enough, her real name (Nguyen is); that she is what Wikipedia — in an entry only slightly less extensive than that on Sigrid Undset, the Norwegian novelist and 1928 Nobel laureate for literature — refers to as an “American glamour model”; that she is a former performer on the Fuse cable TV show called “Pants-Off Dance-Off”; that she is the centerpiece of a hit MTV television series “A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila,” which made its debut early on Oct. 9 and was immediately, as the Hollywood Reporter noted, No. 1 in its time period in the network’s target demographic of people 18 to 34; and that the signal reason for this breakout success may also be the basis for Ms. Tequila’s unconventional fame, her boast that she has 1,771,920 MySpace friends.
Dispose of the information. You won’t need it for long.
How, one may ask, is it possible for a personality who great hunks of the citizenry never imagined existed to build up a social network more populous than Dallas? How can Tila Tequila have become enormously famous having done little of note beyond appearing as Playboy’s Cyber Girl of the Week? When exactly in the Warholian arc of fame did we arrive at a point where we create celebrities of people so little accomplished that they make Paris Hilton look like Marie Curie?
It’s routine to dismiss these people, to sniff from the sideline about the depths to which the culture has sunk. Misses Hilton and Tequila may represent, respectively, leisure-class and working-class variants of the same feminine caricature, a real-time Betty Boop. And yet each, in her own way, has divined truths about the marketplace that academics and industry are still laboring fully to comprehend. Each has understood the wacko populism of the cybersphere and pitched her ambitions to capitalize on what Joshua Gamson, the author of “Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America” calls “a shift from top-down manufactured celebrity to a kind of lateral, hyper-democratic celebrity.”
“Because of new technologies, we get to see now what happens when people have the option of making up their own celebrity,” Mr. Gamson said. “We’ve gone from ‘Oh, my God, they’re so much better than I am,’ to ‘Oh, my God, they’re so good at making themselves up.’”
We’ve gone from dazed idolatry to another and more familiar form of identification. Fame, when not concocted by Hollywood and available to only the genetically gifted few, takes on softer contours. It becomes less an exalted state than a permeable one, available to those from classes and cohorts that, in the days of the studio monoliths, the gatekeepers of the star-making machine kept at bay.
By the standards of the new “Jackass” landscape, traditional stardom, with its career building stations-of-the-cross, its rigid talent requirements, its “Entourage” shtick, seems clunky and out of step with a culture so much more fluid now that a hit record — like the recent Internet sensation “I’ll Kill Him,” by Soko — could emerge from a young French woman’s bedroom and MySpace page.
Who says any longer that one must be able to sing or dance or emote in order to attract an audience or, anyway, a batch of new friends in the ether? Who says that only winners win? As reality TV, with its durable affection for flame-outs, car wrecks and actual losers, has made abundantly clear, even after the tribal council has voted you off their tropical island, you’re still welcome in our homes.
When Jake Halpern set out to write “Fame Junkies,” his book about what is now a universal obsession with celebrity, he was surprised to uncover studies demonstrating that 31 percent of American teenagers had the honest expectation that they would one day be famous and that 80 percent thought of themselves as truly important. (The figure from the same study conducted in the 1950s was 12 percent.)
“Obviously people have been having delusions of grandeur since the beginning of time, but the chances of becoming well known were much slimmer” even five years ago than they are today, Mr. Halpern said. “There are an incredibly large number of venues for becoming known. Talent is not a prerequisite.”
The easiest thing to say about Ms. Tequila is that she lacks talent. In a review of “A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila”— whose flimsy premise offers 16 straight men and 16 lesbians the usual chance to swill alcohol, hang around in board shorts and bikinis (and, let’s not forget, heels) and compete for her affections — a New York Times critic said she would rather watch a dating show starring Danny DeVito than endure another second of psychodrama with Ms. Tequila’s sad-sack entourage.
Yet if Ms. Tequila is no Julie Harris, if she is not stereotypically stellar, she is still a hypnotic presence on the screen. Perhaps it is how her large head sits atop a pert pneumatic torso. Perhaps it is the way her wide-set eyes give her the look of a figure from an anime cartoon. Perhaps it is the steeliness of her will to succeed on whatever terms and the insistent sincerity she brings to the task.
With Ms. Tequila’s hardscrabble upbringing, her story certainly contains elements of the classic show-business redemption narrative. Her family emigrated from postwar Vietnam to Singapore and later moved to Houston, where they lived in public housing and where, as she once said in an interview with Import Tuner, a car magazine, she became deeply disoriented about her identity: “I was really confused then, because at first I thought I was black, then I thought I was Hispanic and joined a cholo gang.”
To judge from myriad Internet snapshots with captions like “Tila in Red Bikini,” though, it is not the Emma Lazarus dimension of her tale that made Tila Tequila a social-network-magnet on MySpace or, for that matter, impossible to look away from on even the tiniest of hand-held screens.
It has been said many times of the Internet that it radically subverts the traditional relationship between high and low, in terms both of culture and class. Yet Meg Whitman, the chief executive of eBay, did not get her career start posing for the video game “Street Racing Syndicate” and, absent a miracle, Tila Tequila’s chances of taking the helm of eBay are nil. Some structures remain rigid, and so it’s worth pointing out that the primary purpose of trash entertainment may not be to provide critics with opportunities to take potshots, but to hold a mirror up to a constituency for whom Tila Tequila is more home-girl than pole-dancing oddity.
People watch her show and mob her on MySpace because, in some sense, they already know someone like her and are looking to participate in a trajectory that has vaulted her out of the projects, away from gangs and into an echelon of the “entertainment industry” that, while it will never include invitations to the Vanity Fair Oscar party or drinks at the Ivy with Demi Moore, still manages to give her recognition, limousine service and a shot at “love” with 32 brand new friends.
“Whether you think Tila Tequila is corny or not, she already has a certain legitimacy to her name,” said Roger Gastman, the editor of Swindle magazine, an indie journal and Web site. Its most recent issue has Death and Fame as its theme. Tila Tequila may have “started out very niche, but she has crossed over to the mainstream,” said Mr. Gastman, citing what he termed “a body of work” including a Maxim cover, a hit show, a MySpace page that now links to a site offering guidance on how to become like her. “Tila could probably do signings at comic book conventions forever if she wanted to,” Mr. Gastman said.
And this would undoubtedly suit Ms. Tequila, for whom fame, she said, was never actually so much the goal as was fulfilling her love for acting and dancing and stripping and modeling and singing and, not incidentally, escaping the limited career growth available to someone who not long ago was posing half-naked on car hoods.
“The press and the media have glorified the celebrity thing and brainwashed people to live in that world,” Ms. Tequila said. “People try to stand out for nothing and they end up getting quote-unquote famous. I’m not into that at all. If you’re just into fame for fame, I’m like, ‘O.K., but what are you good at? What can you actually do?’”