I want my MTV to want me

I was one of 2,000 contestants in MTV's "Wanna Be a VJ" contest.

Published April 14, 1999 9:27AM (EDT)

"I just want to be famous," says Jackie MacMillan.

With her pale blond hair yanked into a ponytail and a rim of purple-brownish
liner around her chapped lips, Jackie does not, at the moment, look like a star.
But that hasn't stopped her from hoping, or dreaming, or driving, in the rainy
wee hours of the morning, from Kearny, N.J., to Times Square for
MTV's second annual "Wanna Be a VJ" contest.

Understand that MacMillan, like most of the other 2,000 people in line, plus the
thousands more who turned out in Chicago and Los Angeles, does not
necessarily wanna be a VJ, per se. Sure, she likes music, and yes, she watches
MTV and she even cops to a major crush on Nathan, from "The Real World" Seattle
cast. But that's not really why she's here. Jackie wants to be famous. Seen.
Admired. Adored. Paid. Well-paid. And she wants all the benefits that fame
and money can confer: namely, the ability to visit pain upon her enemies. "I was
put on this earth to be famous. I wanna be known," she says. "The people who I
hate, I can shove it in their face," she says, staring off into the distance with
her eyes squinched into slits. "Like my ex-boyfriends. Look what you gave up, ya

And MTV, she knows, can make it happen. MTV turns regular people
into superstars and grants them their fondest wish: an audience that will watch
them just basically being themselves. Didn't the music network pluck 19-year-old Jesse Camp from
obscurity and homelessness and give him a job and the $25,000 prize, which he parlayed into
a recording contract? Isn't David Holmes, last year's wannabe runner-up, still
on the air? Isn't former "Real World" cast member Rachel Campos currently in
contention for Debbie Matenopoulos' old job on ABC's "The View"? And so what if
Rachel's castmate Puck is in jail in California, and New York "Real World" homeboy Eric
Nies went from co-hosting "The Grind" to ... well, nothing? It can happen. It's
happened before. It could happen to them.

"It's destined for me to be famous,"
says 20-year-old Cole DiBiaso from Rehoboth Beach, Del., a community college
student with big blue eyes and a spill of honey-blond curls. She doesn't
dance or sing or act. She just wants the world to watch her, and she thinks
that someday soon, it will. "I believe in creating your destiny," she announces
proudly. "I just created mine."

You would like to believe that you are different from Jackie, and from the rest
of this crew of wannabes who have driven and flown and paid all kinds of money to
be in Times Square to court the network's gaze. You would like to think that you
have more reserve, more dignity and, dammit, more pride, than this cavalcade of
exhibitionists, this parade of the pierced and tattooed that have waited like so
many punked-up sheep for hours and hours, all for the privilege of a purple
wristband, a packet of forms and two minutes of Viacom's videotape.

You - OK, fine, enough with this Jay McInerney second-person stuff, I - would
hope that there was a vast and yawning chasm separating me from the giggling hordes of
19-year-old, Britney Spears-listening, WB-watching, butterfly
hairclip-wearing starry-eyed wonders who, if they found themselves in their own
version of "The Truman Show," would be perfectly thrilled. And really, I was doing
OK, until I got in front of the camera with that MTV microphone in my hand.

Here's how the "Wanna Be a VJ" search works. You show up. But if you show up after
8 a.m., forget about it, because MTV had its designated 2,000 contenders by 8.
(By the end of the second afternoon, the network will have auditioned 4,000 wannabes.) Then you wait. And wait.
And wait. The whole process can take more than eight hours, which means auditioners
can be on their feet for more than 24. You fill out a bunch of forms, forms
that seem to peer directly into the innermost souls of anyone who's ever been convinced of their own
fabulousness. "There's something about you that people flock toward," the first
one begins. Then you go up an escalator, five at a time, and
it's star treatment time. Somebody powders your nose. Somebody else snaps a
Polaroid. And you sit in a small booth with those bright lights beaming down
on you and a camera trained on your face, and you do your thing.

Lucky for me, I know what MTV is looking for, because I watched "Young, Loud and
Skinny: A Year in the Life of Jesse," a half-hour exegesis on the life and times
of outgoing "Wanna Be a VJ" winner Jesse Camp. Perhaps you've seen
Jesse. He looks like a younger, cuter Keith Richards after a radical starvation
diet, and he sounds like he might either be drunk or mildly retarded, possibly both. All
tattered rags and spiky hair and androgynous Leo-charm. Jesse is the
quintessential rags-to-riches boy, the show says, the perfect example of a
young lad who was plucked from obscurity, met his idols, lived his dreams and walked
away with a million-dollar recording contract.

In fact, Jesse's
story might not have been so simple. After his win last April, friends and
neighbors gave interviews saying that MTV's anointed slack-jawed superfan was
actually a former prep school drama geek, and that his homelessness was more a
matter of choice than sad circumstances. No matter, said MTV executive vice
president David Sirulnick. "With Jesse, I felt that it was not a shtick. It
wasn't: Let me do all this stuff to get a job.' If he didn't win, he'd be
walking down the street, looking just like that."

Sirulnick was absolutely full of encouraging advice. It's not about looks,
he said, but "watchability" - that ineffable something that MTV, like a Supreme
Court justice, will know when it sees. "It's somebody who can express their passion for music. Somebody with lots
of personality. And somebody who can be on TV, and you want to keep watching. You
want to see what they'll do next."

So, OK. Watchability might be out of my reach, but I could do rags to riches. Instead of Jennifer, reporter and dog owner, I tell MTV that
I am Jennifer, dog walker/writer. Let them groove on my humble beginnings, I think. MTV has dictated
that you must "appear between the ages of 18 and 28." I pin a small
rhinestone barrette in the shape of a ladybug in my hair to make up for the two
weeks that have passed since my 29th birthday. My disguise is complete. "Why do you
think you'd make a great VJ?" asks the form. "Because I am bitter and disaffected,"
I scribble, "and there should be more people like me on television." "What makes
you stand out? What do you do better than all the other people in line?"
"Put-downs," I write. "Also, I think I'm older than most of them, and I know more words."
"Without swearing, give us your favorite term for sex," asks the survey. "Breading the love
cutlet," I invent. Hee hee! Now I'm having fun ... until I come to the section of
"last five CDs you've bought." And even though I pay more to Columbia House than
to, say, my electric company every month, I go totally blank. Liz Phair, I
finally come up with. Then it's time to submit to my destiny.

"So, you're a dog walker," says Robin. "That's right," says I. And technically, it
is. I have a dog. I walk him. I occasionally walk the dogs of others. "See,
here's the thing," I say, leaning toward the camera as if I've been magnetized.
"Once you've had to cope with a big Rottweiler taking a dump on a rich person's
lawn, and you've got the rich person on one side and the Rottweiler on the
other ... well, you can pretty much cope with anything. Like rock stars." Robin is
smiling. I'm on a roll. "Dogs are great training for life," I tell her. "You've
got your big dogs, your little dogs, your poofed-up Pomerainians, your dogs that
basically just want to hump your leg ..." And suddenly I don't even know myself.
Suddenly I have morphed into this performer, this glib, chattering, gesturing
extrovert. It's like I'm channeling Oprah. Or possibly Janeane Garofalo. Things
are coming out of my mouth that I have no control over, but I guess at least a
few of them are amusing. "Have you ever done stand-up?" asks Robin. I say other
stuff. I remember singing a snippet of "Summer Lovin'" from "Grease." I introduce
a video by Korn. I do not know if Korn is a band or an invidual. I hope MTV can't
tell. Then it's over, and Robin is ushering me not to the exit, but to a secret
back passageway where eight or so other people sit. "Good luck," she tells me.
I've made it to Round Two.

Of course, the high doesn't last long. Sitting next to me in this narrow
passageway is Daniel J. Kerness from Florida, who works for a television station
and looks a bit like a younger, shorter Tom Cruise and can belt out a cappella gospel.
On my other side is Jennifer
from Long Island, tall and thin and gorgeous, who is wearing a Scary Spice-style
catsuit cut low enough to display the heart tattooed on the small of her back.
Next to her is a girl in flared snakeskin hip-huggers, wearing not one but two of
my exact same barrettes. Everyone looks at least five years younger than I, plus
three points more attractive on the 1-to-10 scale. Be myself? Forget it. I want
to be Jennifer in the catsuit with the tattoo. Funny, I think, isn't going to cut
it. In short, I am screwed. And, predictably, I choke. I can't think of a thing
to say about Stevie Nicks, even though I put her down as one of my favorites.
When the camera starts rolling, I can't think of anything to say about Rick Springfield, my professed guilty
pleasure. The lights are blinding, the producer looks bored. I read a cue-carded
intro for a Joey McIntyre video, then slink out to the sidewalk. Jackie
MacMillan is still in line when I leave. "I can do this," she says, her lips set
in a tight line. "It's about being yourself, and getting paid."

And really, I think as I walk away, if she can't be herself, who can? So I'm not
going to be famous. I'm not going to be the next Jesse, or even the next Dave
Holmes. This, I decide, is probably OK. I've done my part. I've made my
contribution. I've looked that big camera in the eye without flinching (much).
I've passed for younger than my actual age. And if the kids start talking about "breading the love cutlet," just remember:
You've got me to thank.

By Jennifer Weiner

Jennifer Weiner is a novelist.

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