As evident in A&E’s DVD release, Gene Simmons Family Jewels: The Complete Season 1, the show about the KISS rocker imitates the Ozzy Osbourne celebreality formula. Simmons’s program about his placid home life, which the network quaintly markets as a “real-life A&E family series”, uses the same premise that MTV’s The Osbournes popularized. The idea is that savvy audiences steeped in the marketing practices of rock musicians will be fascinated to see Simmons the domesticated father behind the fire-breathing image. Since his rock star image is so iconic, so immediately recognizable, and so incessantly consumed by fans eager for more (or nostalgic for their favorite band’s heyday), the next logical step in branding that image is to give fans behind-the-scenes access to Simmons’s daily life.
Far from undercutting his “rocker demon” stage persona, the docusoap account of Simmons out of his black leather and puttering around the house only fuels his media image. Celebrity stardom always combines the extradordinary with the ordinary. Fans see the extraordinary rock star living a jet-setting life they might dream of, but they see that balanced with footage of the ordinary, goofy father overly invested in his kids’ lives. They are encouraged to envy the star yet identify with the man behind the curtain. And a celebrity media image has to balance those two poles carefully, lest the star seem too remote or the ordinary man seem too familiar.
It is the ironic juxtaposition of outrageous rock star with aging father that the Osbournes patented. Here, cameras trail Simmons, his partner Shannon Tweed, an actress, model and former Playboy Playmate, and their two teenaged children, Nick and Sophie. We see Simmons plan gigs, manage his business interests, and sit in his home office happily reflecting on his past successes (while surrounded by mountains of KISS memorabilia). Meanwhile, his long-time partner Tweed makes fun of his infamous ego and teasingly runs the household.
Their kids follow her lead, affectionately rolling their eyes at their father every time he wants to talk about what a great rock star he is and then getting to the real business at hand, like asking him where mom is or if he’s going to drive them to their soccer game or band practice. They don’t take his persona very seriously and they imply that no one else should either (NPR take note). Yet when Simmons does whip out the full rock star regalia for a KISS awards-show tribute, squeezing himself into his leather outfit, platform boots, and almost Kabuki-style make-up, everyone is suitably impressed (and Tweed decides he needs to help her go make another baby).
The episodes focus attention on these moments of juxtaposition. Each features a standard format for documentary interviews and confessionals, such as what the A&E promotional materials term “couch interviews”. In that set-up, members of the family do talking head, direct-address interviews to the camera while sitting on their family couch. They comment on the events we’ve just seen depicted in mostly direct cinema-style footage. A recurring conceit is to have Simmons comment on his great rock star fame while a family member surreptitiously pokes fun at him.
In one segment, Simmons sits on the couch in full beast make-up and costume and talks up KISS while son Nick rolls his eyes ironically. In another, Sophie comments on an episode of “take your daughter to work day,” in which she accompanied Simmons to auditions he was running to find dancers for a randy work-out video he wants to shoot and market. We see the footage of her sitting embarrassed in the studio while Simmons creakily tries to flirt with the dancers. Sophie later says she thinks many of the dancers were very nice, while in other footage Tweed expresses her disapproval, wondering if this kind of “job shadowing” experience is really good for Sophie’s self-confidence or self-image.
Nick has more luck in trying to follow in the family business. Simmons is determined for his son to become a famous rock star just like him. While Nick gingerly tries to form his own band, practice on his own, and create his own musical identity, Simmons (much like Hulk Hogan in VH1’s Hogan Knows Best) is wildly over-protective and incapable of not interfering. Many episodes feature footage of Simmons bursting into Nick’s room while the teen is meeting with his band. The father takes over and tries to show the kids how to “rock out” and have real stage presence. The seemingly thoughtful and humble Nick rolls his eyes at the camera and grimaces as he suffers through his father’s over-the-top antics. Simmons tries to name the band himself, tries to make their logo for them (curiously like KISS’s), and not only compels them to take their first gig (which he helped arrange) but also shows up handing out T-shirts he had made that highlight Nick Simmons, rather than the band as a whole.
The beast is apparently OCD about his own kids. Even while Nick resents his father’s overbearing actions, he also knows enough to appreciate the industry access the rock legend can grant him, and he accepts it gratefully. The tone here is refreshing, because the series depicts Simmons as entirely fallible but well-intentioned. He comes off better than he did in VH1’s earlier reality series about him, Gene Simmons’ Rock School (2005), in which he tried to teach British adolescents to become rock stars but mostly came off as full of hot air.
The program emphasizes the fact that Simmons is not married to Tweed, his partner of 23 years. They describe themselves as “happily unmarried”. In one episode, Tweed jokingly tries to throw a surprise wedding to make Simmons marry her on the spot, but he won’t do it. Both play up the idea that theirs is a non-traditional family. A&E also does so in their marketing of the series, proclaiming that the program “reveals a side of Gene that he has kept hidden from the world at large until now, and shows how the most non-traditional family in America manages to make normal life work under the oddest of circumstances.”
On the one hand, the series emphasizes the idea that the Simmons clan departs from the traditional norms of family life. As unmarried partners with teenagers, this celebrity couple is perhaps yet another reflection of the changing patterns of family life in America, including the decline in marriage rates. Add to this their celebrity status, and you get a somewhat unique package. Yet even while trumpeting their departure from norms, the series is also careful to laud the normalcy of their domesticity. Simmons is a soccer dad, Tweed is an attentive and nurturing mom, and their home lives revolve around family dinners. Tweed reflects on motherhood and her own experience as a woman with a ticking biological clock when she actively pursues her hope of having another baby with Simmons. While Simmons makes jokes about his rock star sexual prowess (note the program’s subtitle), Tweed plays along but is really more focused on all the medical interventions and fertility treatments necessary to help her in her quest.
The series does not detract from the magic of a rock star icon; it instead gazes lovingly on the trappings of that particular kind of fame while juxtaposing it humorously with domesticity. Yet it does manage to skewer Simmons for some of his egomania. Simmons is famous for his marketing savvy, just as KISS has sometimes been decried for focusing much more on marketing, less on musical substance. He is also infamous for trying to perpetuate his image of himself as a long-tongued rock sex god well into his middle age. Many of his press interviews consist of him insisting that he is the best rock star in the world and then making inappropriate comments to any women in the room, trying to prove his image. Given how much his wife and kids laugh at him when he tries to burnish his ego, this docusoap does manage to make his posturing seem even more ridiculous than it already did.