PRINT September 1986



STAR SEARCH IS THE LATEST in the ancient line of amateur talent contests. The amateur hour is a radio and television tradition, from Major Bowes through Ted Mach’s Amateur Hour and Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts down to The Gong Show. Many viable stars have been discovered through amateur contests: Julius LaRosa, just to name a few. And Star Search has already uncovered the major talent of Sam Harris, the young man with the big voice, in tuxedo and sneakers, who could be the next Wayne Newton.

Amateur talent contests have remained virtually unchanged. From Arthur Godfrey to Ed McMahon is not exactly progress. But there is one significant difference between Star Search and the talent-contest shows of semiold: a new talent category has been added to the menu of singers, dancers, comedians, and actors. The new stardom schtick is the postmodern career of spokesmodel.

Spokesmodels are show business personalities groomed specifically for the protolively art of advertising, though often they have to work their way up through the ranks of talking decor. The spokesmodel is a talking head with a body. Spokesmodels unveil convertibles on game shows, open the mystery curtains on Let’s Make a Deal, and expedite the advertisement of a true host of products; they slice, they dice, they mince, they peel.

Spokesmodel is a chancy profession but it can pay off. I’ll never forget the first time I saw Farrah Fawcett. She was leaning out of the shower borrowing a bottle of shampoo from her roommate. And Barbara Feldon rocketed to fame selling men’s hairdressing, subsequently landing the part of Secret Agent 99 on Get Smart. There was never any doubt in my mind that these spokesmodels were destined for greater things.

Technically, on Star Search, the spokesmodel is the one category that is not equal opportunity. Their spokesmodels are always female. In fact, their spokesmodels might be described as voice-programmable bimbos not ready for soap opera duty. But in real life men can make it as spokesmodels too. They may not get to wheel out the merchandise on The New Price Is Right, but there are opportunities out there. Before long they might be impaneled on Super Password.

Spokesmodel is also a great second career, whether in addition to an established celebrity career, or as a boost to a celebrity career that may be on the wane. Bob Uecker, the funny former-major-league catcher, turned mediocrity into a media schtick and parlayed it through a series of advertisements that made him a household name and brought him the opportunity to star in a prime-time sitcom. Pro athletes do not usually qualify as full-fledged spokesmodels, but retired pro athletes, perhaps because they are allowed to sell beer, have become some of the top spokes-models in the business. Joe Namath was a legend among men for his work on the playing field,but his legend among women was really made by his work in pantyhose and cologne ads. And, sadly, Joe DiMaggio is known to many young people primarily as Mr. Coffee. Joltin’ Joe a spokesmodel? Well, a role spokesmodel at least.

“Do you know me?”

Sure, kid, you’re Ronald Reagan Junior. I’d know you anyplace, even without looking at your American Express card.

“Do you think he’s the most successful First Child ever?,” asks his agent in Vanity Fair.

“I didn’t go out looking for it, but the machinery feeds on that sort of thing. You’re the new hamburger meat. . . ,” says Ron the Lesser.

Out of the frying pan, into the fire. That’s the life of a spokes-model. Looking good is only half of it. You also have to know how to read.

Glenn O’Brien is a writer who lives in New York. His column on advertising appears monthly in Artforum.