PHILADELPHIA — Proponents of capitalism, you’ve got a new idol. And her name is Snooki.
Sure, the oft-intoxicated, self-described “meatball” star of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” reality show may not be able to take the reins of, say, a Fortune 500 company. But according to writer Jo Piazza, celebrities like Snooki, reality star Kim Kardashian and actress Angelina Jolie are business savants, managing worldwide brands and raking in millions of dollars by providing the world with what it desires: more of them.
“(Celebrity) is absolutely capitalism at its best because it’s all supply and demand. If people weren’t demanding it, they wouldn’t be supplying it,” said Piazza. “It’s the free market. It’s exactly what America wants and celebrities are giving it to them, so they deserve to be paid for it.”
Piazza, who splits her time between Philadelphia and Manhattan, is the author of the recently released “Celebrity, Inc.: How Famous People Make Money.” The book delves deep into all facets of the celebrity economy, from making money off shedding excess pounds to selling pictures of progeny for eight-figure sums to the Machiavellian machinations of Kardashian matriarch Kris Jenner. Celebrities can even make thousands in 140 characters or less, by including endorsements in their tweets.
“These people are as smart as the CEOs of any company and they’re managing a corporation that makes as much money in some cases as a company,” Piazza said. “The Kardashians brought in revenue of $70 million last year. They’re not dumb. They know exactly what they’re doing and those that are dumb don’t make it. Tara Reid didn’t make it. It’s capitalism and natural selection at its purest.”
The successful celebrities are a brand and when people no longer desire that brand, the celebrity loses all value. Consider former “It” girl Paris Hilton: “I saw her at (the) Sundance (Film Festival),” Piazza said. “She was begging paparazzi to take her picture and no one cared about her.”
But the celebrity economy couldn’t exist without what Piazza calls the Hollywood Industrial Complex. Piazza describes it in Celebrity, Inc. as “an interconnected web of businesses all working to maximize the value of the industry as a whole.” These people put too much time and money into making celebrities succeed to let them fail, she said.
During Hilton’s heyday, Piazza had a boozy breakfast with Hilton’s manager, a member of the complex, who claimed he “created her out of nothing,” that she was a puppet and he pulled the strings. “We just propped her up and trotted her out,” he told Piazza.
And there are no sacred cows. Take the upcoming Academy Awards: Ostensibly, Oscars award the best and brightest of the movie industry. In her book, Piazza outlines how the “little gold men,” as she calls them, are bought through the hiring of high-priced consultants, mailing out DVDs in elaborate packaging, throwing parties and dinners that “coincidentally” have only academy members on the guest list and having stars do appearances to promote their work.
Piazza hasn’t always been a student of celebrity culture. She attended the University of Pennsylvania as an economics major. “I started writing for (Penn’s literary magazine) 34th Street mainly because I wanted to go to restaurants for free,” she admitted. Instead, she caught the journalism bug and enrolled in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
There, she met George Rush, of the New York Daily News’ famed Rush & Molloy gossip column. He needed an assistant and asked Piazza if she knew anything about celebrities.
Piazza answered him honestly: Nothing at all.
Rush hired her anyway. “We went to our first party and I talked with Jay-Z for about an hour and I had no idea who he was,” Piazza said. “I came into the office the next day and they were like, ‘We’re going to fire you.’ “
But Piazza studied up. She thinks her outsider status has helped her as a celebrity reporter. “I’m not a celebrity journalist because I want to hang out with famous people,” she said.
Piazza said that celebrity journalism is one of the best proving grounds for anyone trying to make it in the business because no one hands you a good story on a silver platter. “I was out at the Iowa caucus in 2008 and one of our political reporters at the Daily News was like, ‘It’s so cute that you came here. Maybe I’ll go to (nightclub) Bungalow 8 and report from there.’” Piazza told him, “You wouldn’t get in.”
In 2008 Piazza quit her job at the New York Daily News. She decided to write a book that would “connect the dots” of celebrity culture and reveal its smoke and mirrors.
“I want people to know how often they are being sold to,” Piazza said. “I think the book allows people to look at celebrities with a more critical eye.”
That means when you see a celeb shilling for a weight loss product — like Janet Jackson, the face of NutriSystem — that doesn’t mean they are actually using the product to lighten up. Like Mariah Carey saying she eats Jenny Craig, Piazza said. “Mariah Carey, you’ve never eaten frozen food in your life. You have a personal chef who makes you delicious meals every day, you are not eating frozen food.”
Celebrity Twitter feeds also are suspect. For example, comedian Kevin Hart, who has more than 3 million followers on Twitter, recently tweeted, “I’m an Eagles fan, the only big blue I was cheering for yesterday was the bottle of @BartenuraBlue moscato that I had sitting next to me.”
But does Hart really drink that brand of wine? Who knows when celebrities like Kim Kardashian can command as much as $10,000 for endorsing products via their Twitter feeds?
“We’re doing the wrong thing,” Piazza said of those of us toiling away in obscurity. “I should have made a sex tape with a middling rapper (like Kardashian did) years ago.”