‘Alex From Target’ and the Mess of Uncontrollable Fame

From NY Magazine:

“That teenage cute boy at the target now has 450K twitter followers so why are any of us even trying?” An adult friend Gchatted me this on Monday afternoon. Now “Alex From Target” has 664,000 followers, fallout from the simple fact that, while at his job bagging groceries at a Target store in Texas, a girl took his picture and said he was cute. Other girls agreed, the picture went viral, and now Alex has been featured on the websites of CNN and the Washington Post. Ellen DeGeneres tweeted at him. Five million people read a BuzzFeed post about him.

All this, literally, because someone took a cute picture of him while he was looking the other way.

Just a decade ago, “famous for nothing” referred to a genre of celebrity we now view as a legitimate career for the hardest-hustling women in Hollywood: the Kardashians, the Hiltons, and all those oxymoronic “reality stars” who build profitable empires by sheer force of personality. There may be “nothing” at the core of their fame — a perceived lack of talent — but turning nothing into a multi-million-dollar industry is, well, something. It takes time and energy. Today’s “famous for nothing” flash points expend time and energy dealing with their celebrity — Alex did a photo op with Ellen — but they do so in a state of triage after rising to fame. Zoe Quinn worked for years as a video-game developer, and enjoyed a modicum of renown commensurate to her work: People in the game community knew her, and she was once a reality-TV hopeful. But she was nowhere close to a household name until she became a flash point in debates about misogyny and the video-game industry.

Fame has always been a reflection of some cultural need — we project our hopes, fears, dreams, and nightmares onto celebrities. They become props for discussions that, ultimately, have nothing to do with them. Gwyneth Paltrow lets us talk about corporeal discipline. Anne Hathaway lets us talk about female likability. But those people, at least, put themselves in the line of fire by choosing careers associated with celebrity. Whether the level of scrutiny they face is fair remains, of course, debatable. But at least they knew that being turned into a symbol was a possibility.