Reality television’s unchecked rise in popularity recently reached a benchmark with its canonization by the Emmy Awards as an official category. While television has historically showcased talents in a range of fields—accomplished athletes, actors and actresses, musicians, and other skilled professionals—the emergence of reality TV has shifted the focus from such extraordinary individuals to, for lack of a better word, more ordinary ones.
And, yet, the change in reality TV’s subject matter has not totally diminished the celebrity status that accompanies repeated appearances on nationally televised programs. As Survivor “cast members” like Rudy Boesch, Richard Hatch, and The Animal‘s (2001) Colleen Haskell have shown, a spot on a successful reality show can translate into a valuable gateway into show business. Where people used to appear on TV because they were famous, people are now becoming famous simply for being on TV.
Although the law of diminishing returns has apparently taken hold with the influx of several new reality-based programs (can anyone name their favorite Boot Camp participant?), reality television still offers, in theory, the promise of fame, however scant and however fleeting, to everyone, not only to trained actors or gorgeous models. And despite the steep price often asked of participants in these shows—embarrassing, intimate, and “confessional” moments are replayed for national ridicule in MTV’s The Real World and CBS’s Big Brother, while cast members of CBS’s Survivor, Fox’s Boot Camp, and NBC’s Fear Factor are subjected to grueling, humiliating, at times dangerous, physical trials—it is this lure of celebrity that keeps the application videos flowing. It would seem that there is no bungee jump high enough and no grub slimy enough to keep everyday citizens from their chance at fame.
It is precisely this tenacious quest for stardom that motivates an unemployed Belgian factory worker named Jean Vereecken (Josse De Pauw), the protagonist of Everybody’s Famous. Vereecken is the good-hearted, if misguided, father of Marva (Eva van der Gucht), a sullen, chubby girl for whom he desires nothing short of pop superstardom. Over the increasingly vocal protests of his wife Chantal (Gert Portael), Jean trots Marva around to local talent shows where, costumed in ill-fitting outfits, she painfully sings Madonna karaoke. To no one’s surprise but Jean’s, Marva’s singing career is met with little enthusiasm by the judges. After losing his job at the local factory, Jean’s mania to see Marva’s name in lights becomes intensified by his own lack of income. All seems lost until, through a chance encounter, he manages to kidnap Belgium’s reigning pop princess, Debbie (Thekla Reuten) and decides to ransom her in exchange for the securing of Marva’s stardom by Debbie’s manager.
The absurd lengths that Jean goes to transform his daughter into the Flemish version of Britney Spears constitute the bulk of the comedy in Everybody’s Famous, comedy derived from a thinly veiled parody of the widespread desire for celebrity. Some recent U.S. films (Edtv, 15 Minutes) have satirized society’s fascination with fame, elaborating the spectacular lengths people go to for recognition, but Everybody’s Famous offers a more nuanced version of this cautionary tale. Jean’s obsession with Marva’s show biz success is portrayed as a twisted version, but a version nonetheless, of a father’s love for his daughter. At the film’s conclusion, Marva and her father are brought closer together for all the criminal havoc that he has wreaked for her stardom.
And the film allows us to forgive Jean of his mischief, showing him as more of a bungling idiot and hopeless celebrity-phile than a vicious or even very deliberate kidnapper. The balding, forty-ish Jean disguises himself in a Michael Jackson mask when meets Debbie’s manager, Victor (Michael Jensen), to arrange the ransom. Jean’s choice of dress, like Jean himself, is ridiculously out of place in the ski-masked, trench coat-wearing world of hardened criminals.
The comedic elements of Everybody’s Famous, however, do not diminish its indictment of the cult of celebrity and the media blitz that accompanies it. Debbie’s kidnapping is the focus of a television news frenzy that bears an eerily prescient parallel to the coverage currently directed at missing Washington D.C. intern Chandra Levy. Reporters discover and stake out Jean’s hideout, eager for the scoop on Debbie’s disappearance. Cornered at last by these reporters and by the police, Jean finds himself torn, unsure whether he should watch the news coverage of his imminent arrest on television or instead look out the window at the actual scene unfolding before him.
Jean’s dilemma is, in fact, a neat encapsulation of a problem posed by the lure of instant celebrity: when people’s lived experiences become the subject of televised entertainment, where, then, should they turn to for escape? As the line between reality and reality TV blurs with disastrous results for Jean, Everybody’s Famous! offers a cautionary tale for those for whom the distinction between life and live television has lost focus.