On Thursday night, Michael Kors chaired the God’s Love We Deliver Golden Heart Awards with Anna Wintour, a celebratory event that raised a boatload of money for a great cause. The evening’s unofficial theme: dignity. Bette Midler recalled founder Ganga Stone’s epiphany that “delivering a meal could ring dignity from a desperate situation.” Board chair and honoree Michael Sennott, who dedicates much of his life to the organization, spoke of “mercy and compassion…There is a remarkable dignity on both sides of that equation.”
Across the country, Lamar Odom lay in a Las Vegas hospital, comatose from a reported alcohol-and-drug cocktail of who-knows-what on which he supposedly binged during a four-day stay at a Nevada brothel. The tawdriness, the spillage of hideous details (accurate or otherwise) that leaked, could not have been more suited to our celebrity-obsessed, train-wreck-loving, social-media-engaged times.
Two such different men, different situations, yet with an obvious link: Both Kors and Odom were stars of reality TV. Neither owes his initial fame to that status; each built his public persona on a God-given talent he worked hard to develop, with bumps along the way. Kors became fashion-famous in his early 20s (when a neophyte’s fashion fame meant something very different than it does today). A golden boy with a tousle of blond curls and quick wit who burst into New York’s fashion awareness with chic, optimistic clothes and a big personality, he was ripe for emergent celebrity among the city’s young sportswear-designing ranks. And ascend he did, though not without vicissitudes in 30-plus years, including a flirtation with bankruptcy.
Everybody knows the truisms of the professional athlete, celebrated, some would say coddled, from that first, early glimmer of rare talent. By his senior year, Odom was considered the best high school player in the U.S.; he went fourth overall in the 1999 NBA draft. From the outside looking in, a great life, all upside potential. But he, too, hit his bumps, including collegiate academic issues and two violations of the league’s drug policy. But he made it back to the court, and to two championships with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Two men famous in their worlds. Reality TV called both.
Could there have been a more ideal candidate for “Project Runway” than Kors? Between his fashion ethos of pragmatic chic and his endearing, quip-a-minute personality, the real Kors was central-casting perfect to lead the show’s fashion jury. Odom’s path to the camera was via love; his pop-culture status forever altered from mere former NBA star to Kardashian consort and as such, a supporting player on a great, globally televised soap opera, part fact, part farce, all salacious fascination.
Reality TV can be neither credited nor blamed for bringing Kors and Odom to where they were last Thursday night, where they are now. But at the very least, it impacted the journeys. Anyone who knows Kors knows him as an incredibly talented hard worker — even, one presumes, when as a student he skipped flat-pattern class to go to Bianca Jagger’s birthday party. He has persevered through good times and bad. And he’s always been something of a performer. Had he not already achieved a considerable level of fame, the proverbial famous fashion designer, the producers of “Project Runway” wouldn’t have come calling; the role was for a been-there, done-that critic of stature. “Project Runway” skyrocketed Kors to a different level of fame and cultural awareness that piqued the interest of the financial community. Might his company’s IPO have happened anyway, with the same degree of success? Very possibly. But his “Project Runway” stint buoyed the company’s exposure, heightening its attractiveness to the financial community, which bought in, big time. Big-time enough for Kors to be in the position to donate millions of dollars to God’s Love, the headquarters of which now bears his name.
“Project Runway” is a show about work. Cameras didn’t follow Kors home, chronicling spats with his husband Lance LePere or dishing about what models he thinks are getting fat. The show isn’t about how fashion really operates; it’s an entertainment riff. But it opened a window on the industry and Kors’ role in it. He benefited from the exposure and makes important, philanthropic use of those benefits — the upside of reality’s bite.
Odom found himself in a different reality whirl, a supporting player in probably the most extreme and manic playing out of the exhibitionist-voyeur dialectic in the history of civilization. The Kardashians — what can you say? They’re in it for whatever reason — the money, the exposure, the narcissistic thrills — but they’re also in it for the obsessive engagement of their audience: those who love, and those who love to hate. All’s fair; no one is forced to watch, read about or follow on Instagram.
Yet while most of us believe that reality TV isn’t really real, plenty of evidence suggests that the omnipresent camera takes its toll, either uncovering secrets or exacerbating dangerous behavior. Exhibits A, B and C: a homophobic “Duck Dynasty” cast member. A convicted felon housewife and husband, assigned to staggered jail time for the sake of the children. The Duggars. Ah, the Duggars.
Some people wear their public foibles stoically; they roll with it and move on. Some people can’t be shamed. Odom doesn’t seem like either kind of person. He moved from a Kardashians’ featured player to costar with Khloé to off-camera pin cushion to off-camera star of his own tragic stumble, a tale tawdry enough to have empowered the proprietor of a brothel — the scene of a celebrity’s near death episode — to set himself up as some kind of righteous spokesman, calling out the not-yet-ex-wife for her own camera-loving ways.
Can the Kardashians be blamed? No. Can the reality TV genre be blamed? No. Each participant signs on at his own risk. Yet neither is blameless. There’s an inherent recklessness to playing fast and loose with personal lives. It recalls what Nick Carraway said about the Buchanans: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed things up…and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
The at-home reality genre and its various participants are ill-suited to dealing with the baser aspects of genuine personal tragedy. For all the glee we as an audience might find in the train wreck in the making, most of us don’t expect the crash to come. When it does, we feel shocked, guilty and a little dirty.