The Price of Fame, in Real Time

January  25,  2011 / By Bryan Harris

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The saga of Ted Williams, the homeless man with the golden voice, reminds me of that old nursery rhyme, Solomon Grundy, Born on a Monday. From the moment he was discovered panhandling along a highway earlier this month in Columbus, Ohio, Williams went from white-hot media star and vocal oddity – a grittier, low-rent version of Susan Boyle – to the proverbial dustbin of instant celebrities in less than seven days. Died on a Saturday. Buried on a Sunday. This is the end of Solomon Grundy.

Williams is struggling but very much alive. However, his standing as a cultural phenomenon, the feel-good story of the moment, came to a halt as quickly as it began. Instant celebs pop off the assembly line almost every day, but most are little more than interchangeable, disposable photo ops. But Williams was different. His story had depth, humanity, hope. In the blink of an eye and the click of a mouse, he became a viral video sensation, a one-man reality show. He was interviewed on national television, flooded with job offers including a voiceover for a Kraft macaroni-and-cheese spot, reunited with his mother after 20 years, saw his lengthy rap sheet exposed, and eventually ended up back in rehab after admitting he was still drinking while being counseled on Dr. Phil’s couch.  All this in a matter of days. The glare of the media is one thing, but to be flooded with job offers and promotional gigs, while attempting to reconnect with society, not to mention an estranged family? That would drive most any man to drink.  His story, so uplifting and inspirational hit a giant pothole and it was on to the next news cycle.

But there’s a postscript, lending more sadness to this once promising tale of redemption: today, it was reported that Williams quit rehab against the advice of his doctors, after spending less than two weeks in a Texas facility. Perhaps we never hear from Williams again (I may be the last person to write about him) but you only hope he somehow finds his way toward sobriety and lands some stable work showcasing his golden voice.

Examined under the microscope, Williams’ star turn is a sad and rather predictable example of how fleeting and fragile fame can be, circa January 2011. Everyone loves a comeback story — you, me, corporate brands, the media. As long as it has legs. But a one-man rogue’s gallery on The Smoking Gun will drain the life out of anyone’s feel good story.  Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame used to last a few months. Then it became weeks. Now, it’s days, even hours. One day, it’ll be down to 10 minutes.

The lesson to be learned is an old one, and unfortunately, too often ignored: don’t sacrifice empathy for morbid fascination. Someone living on the margins of society is not prepared to be thrust into the spotlight for our fast-food version of entertainment. We’ve seen it time and time again, but not often on this scale, in this context, with so much drama. It’s the classic “price of fame” parable — condensed, blurred and packaged for our snap-shot driven, ADD inflicted lives. So the next time a Ted Williams is plucked from the proverbial (or literal) side of a road, let’s try to give him some room, some time to catch his breath. Turn off the Flipcam and let him  arrive at a sense of normalcy before he’s paraded about as a star of viral video, morning-drive, and daytime TV.  Offer him counseling and rehab in lieu of job offers and promotional appearances. And maybe, just maybe, he’ll have a chance to hang around longer than poor Solomon Grundy.      

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