The Narcissus in All of Us

Reflections on the self, personality, and what makes you, "you."

Modern Fame Means Not Going Hungry

15 minutes of fame lasts a lot longer these days

Frank Wills started his Friday night graveyard shift uneventfully. Working as a security guard at an office building, the 24-year-old would soon find something that would launch the biggest political scandal of the century and catapult Frank into overnight fame.

The year was 1972 and Frank was working at an office complex named Watergate in Washington DC. After noticing a door had masking tape stuck to it that prevented it from latching, Frank called the DC police around 2am. The police arrived and eventually caught 5 burglars who had broken into the Democratic National Committee headquarters with the aim of wire-tapping their office. As we know, the break-in turned out to be part of Richard Nixon’s illegal scheming to get re-elected later that year. Once these activities came to light a couple years later, Nixon resigned as president and many of his cronies went to prison.

But Watergate started it all, and it’s unlikely that the government would have been brought down had the burglary not been foiled, which turned security guard Frank Wills into a sudden, accidental hero.

Frank, who was earning minimum wage as a guard, tried to capitalize on his new-found fame, even getting an agent to help him book gigs. For a little while, Frank was able to get a few interviews and talk show appearances for a few hundred dollars a pop, but those dried up quickly. He eventually got fired from his job, in part because he missed work every time he found an interview to do. From there, things went downhill, as he struggled to find another full-time job and as his role in Watergate soon faded from people’s minds. Though he kept trying, he never found a way to make his 15 minutes of fame work for him, and for the remainder of his life never made more than a marginal living. 

Now consider this: If the Watergate events had happened 30 years later—in 2002 instead of 1972—you can bet things would have turned out differently for Frank Wills. Being at the center of such a momentous series of events in today’s media, most of the country would know about all about him and never forget his name. Just think of accidental celebrities more recently, like Monica Lewinsky, Kato Kaelin, Levi Johnston, who became household names.

Frank Wills’s situation tells us something about how celebrity has changed since the 1970s: Today, it’s much easier to turn any kind of fame into dollars. With a decent agent, Frank would have no trouble converting his momentary fame into a small fortune, at least enough to live comfortably.           

Fame has become lucrative because of the gush of new media outlets that are willing to pay for it, making celebrity-watching a booming industry. Fame today can land you thousands for an exclusive interview, product endorsement deals, guest spots on reality shows, book deals, and when all else fails, you can always get your own show.  

The modern media also enables celebrities to be continually circulated, replayed, downloaded and copied, until their names and images are virtually everywhere. All this coverage strengthens the public’s desire to know more about the celebrity, and as long as they seize the moment when people are curious, there’s money to be made. 

This is why we’re not likely to see someone like Frank Wills again, a young person of such enormous fame who couldn’t use it to his advantage in any significant way.

Frank passed away in 2000, sadly and ironically, just as the new media was starting to take off.

Ilan Shrira is a social psychologist at the Loyola University in Chicago.

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