Craving the spotlight
Photo: © 2009 Jupiterimages Corporation
By now, most of the hoax-generated hullabaloo over the Balloon Boy has taken flight, bobbed around and been deflated, so here's a fresh story:

I was once a guest at a wedding of a TV and film star. I found myself en route to the wedding reception in a limo with her hypoglycemic, equally famous bridesmaid, as well as her hair, makeup and stylist team. Once inside the limo, the stylist started banging on the window to communicate something to the driver—perhaps he desperately needed a cigarette? When the driver, busy shepherding folks into the limo, didn't respond with alacrity, the stylist barked in a terrifying rasp, "Acknowledge me!" His demand has always stuck in my mind, and not just because my date and I laughingly quoted him for years. There's something about his primal plea that seems to sum up our times.

The Heenes sure wanted to be acknowledged when they pretended (with some very, very bad acting indeed) that their 6-year-old son, Falcon, was joyriding in a Mylar-mobile. What's particularly bemusing about their con is that they'd already enjoyed their allotted 15 minutes of fame: They'd appeared on Wife Swap—twice. So, really, they got waaaaaay more than their 15 minutes—an "hour-long" TV show is actually 44 minutes, so if you do the math, that's about six times more Heene than we ever needed.

So why are Heenes so insatiable? Why would they go to such lengths to be famous? Why do so many people want to be reality stars?

Well, okay, duh: There are some major perks to fame. Money, US Weekly covers, guest hosting on The View, having people glue fake eyelashes on you. Plus, as never before, fame seems democratically accessible. The opportunities to broadcast yourself are preposterously available. You can blog, graffiti your life on your Facebook wall and YouTube yourself to anyone who will stop tweeting her own thoughts long enough to pay attention to yours. Round-the-clock cable news coverage combined with major networks making dubious decisions to commit themselves to reality programming makes for a ravenous maw that demands to be fed. So being famous seems plausibly achievable.

But. Do you actually remember the name of the third Bachelor? How about the winner of Big Brother 5? What's Joe Millionaire up to? Martha Stewart's Apprentice—has she stenciled, brined and grommeted her way into your permanent "acknowledgment"?

Doing important things versus feeling important

I was once a series regular on a short-lived but critically acclaimed TV show. When people started recognizing me—say, at a restaurant or at Kinko's—it was as if my hard work had paid off: I mattered. When my show was canceled, the recognition Snuggie I'd wrapped myself up in was suddenly stripped away, and there I was, shivering like any other actor seeking employment. I had to learn that I needed to do things every day that mattered to me in order to give my life meaning.

There are two kinds of people: those who do important things and those who want to feel important. The latter are the Heenes. The latter are the ones who willingly offer themselves up like cattle to be branded "Prime Reality Beef."

You'd be hard-pressed to find a doctor who goes home, after feeling like she made a difference in the ER that day, to submit her audition tape for Bridezillas. Or a stay-at-home dad, who's delighted that he just taught his daughter how to read, but who really wants to have nine more children and spend quality time with them in front of four cameras.

Deciding what is important to you and living it takes work. It calls for boldness. It requires a willingness to log in hours—years!—of hard work, to try and try again, to be rejected, to fail—sometimes publicly. Discovering what challenges and fulfills you is a lifelong commitment to creating your own journey. And that's how you star in an exciting reality show called Your Life.

Ah, but if you're lazy, if you're unwilling to be introspective enough to find out what drives you or brave enough to commit to creating your own compelling existence, then you might just presumptuously want someone else to make "reality" for you and cast you in it.

And that kind of reality just makes you want to throw up. Ask Falcon.

If folks went to as great lengths to be famous as they do to "live their best lives," as Oprah says, there'd be a lot less hot air in the atmosphere. The kind of people who dare to do something meaningful—whether it be smashing protons in the Large Hadron Collider or holding the hand of their sick mother—you'll never hear them cry, "Acknowledge me!" Because they've already acknowledged themselves.

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