I Like to Watch

It's Comeback Week! Starring "Fat Actress" Kirstie Alley, "Bachelorette" Jen, Jennifer Love's Hewitts and "Top Model" rejects. Plus: The joyless evil of "Stars Without Makeup."

By Heather Havrilesky
Published March 7, 2005 11:21PM (EST)

Comeback in black

Remember when rock stars and actors would fade out of the spotlight, never to be heard from again, at least not until they reappeared decades later, disoriented and disheveled, in someone's backyard, Margot Kidder-style?

That doesn't really happen anymore. Between A&E's "Biography," "The Surreal Life" and guest spots on "Will & Grace," former stars have countless opportunities to reinvent themselves and reappear, 20 pounds lighter, with a different hair color, a different mate and a brand new song and dance.

But let's face it, it doesn't take much to stay in the spotlight these days. For Paris Hilton, a sex tape, a hacked T-Mobile and a secret vendetta did the trick. Nicole Richie stays front and center by dropping half her body weight. Stephen Dorff sneaks back into the frame, for the umpteenth time, by hanging close to the hem of Pamela Anderson's half-shirt. Whether it's more dignified to introduce your moody Doberman to the clairvoyant on "Pet Psychic" or play Karen's ex-boyfriend's new wife on "Will & Grace" is, of course, anybody's call. After all, shamelessly pandering for the paparazzi is hardly frowned upon during an era when the term "sellout" is as outdated as the McFeast. Basically, stars are free to wrest their way back onto the media radar any way they see fit, even if it means "misplacing" their laptop filled with sensitive e-mails, cozying up to an Osbourne or taking more extreme measures, like skipping their lithium for a few weeks, sleeping with Fred Durst or hiring a "deranged stalker" to set their Hollywood Hills bungalow on fire.

This morning, on my way through the Krispy Kreme Doughnuts drive-through, I was thinking that, really, this is all Madonna's fault. I mean, sure, you can say that about most things -- it was probably Madonna's fault that I was ordering custard-filled doughnuts for breakfast in the first place, and I'll bet Madonna was to blame for the Krispy Kreme guy giving me an extra glazed doughnut for free, no explanation offered. That's right! No excuse at all, just: "Threw in an extra doughnut for ya, chubs! Enjoy!"

Madonna isn't just the mother of our Lord and Savior and therefore omnipotent, she's the mother of reinvention, too. If not for Madonna, do you really think Bono would still be gracing magazine covers? I mean, he looks kinda big and weird these days. So does John Travolta. And is it likely that Sting and Prince and P. Diddy would still be floating around, if not for Madonna, she who packs at least three Big Life Changes into each year, from giving birth to finding religion to riding bicycles around town with her stupid family. Paris and Britney and others like Madonna whose talents have always been eclipsed by their knack for hiring good publicists and image consultants know just how to mimic the mother hen, getting "caught" eating burgers in their sweat pants or chain-smoking cigarettes or making out with Colin Farrell.

These days, in fact, the more of a wreck you are, the more press you get. What else could possibly explain Brittany Murphy? Being a total wreck is suddenly considered absolutely adorable. A nation of messy, unstable sluts rejoices!

Ring around the final rosie

Just look at Jen Scheft, America's so-called sweetheart, a perky blonde who I would never, in a million years, guess was complicated enough to have a nervous breakdown. But if it's good enough for Mariah "The Tragic Mulatto" Carey, it's good enough for chirpy Jen, who, after spending time on "The Bachelorette" romancing a bevy of man-tittied bland boys with all of the spontaneity and charm of a teleprompted Kathy Lee Gifford, sunk into an unexpected funk during the "fun girl shopping for wedding dress and diamonds!" segment. In a bizarre and heretofore unseen twist on the show's season finale, instead of gushing predictably about how excited she was to make either dorky John Paul or pretty-but-tedious Jerry an honest man, Jen suddenly misplaced her last custard-filled cruller as the cameras rolled. Without any warning, she broke into tears and said, "This sucks! I just wish I had never done this!" and "I feel awful, I feel terrible!" Yes, Jen was as giddy as a puppet on a string, just like you'd expect someone who's head over heels in love to be!

Naturally Jen assumed, when she signed on to the show, that she would be ready to make a lifelong commitment to one of these pretty strangers after a few weeks. But there she was, in the back of the limo, on a day that was supposed to be absolutely magical(tm), and instead Jen just felt ... confused.

"I'm scared, I'm sad, I'm so sad!" she said. "It sucks, all of this, it's just so ridiculous right now!" Ah, the heady thrills of true love!

Her fun-girl girly girlfriends were no help at all, staring blankly at her as her eyes welled up with tears, offering little more than weak little pats on the shoulder. They weren't that nice about it, either. Their eyes spoke volumes: "What is wrong with you?" Remember the golden rule of "The Bachelorette," Jen: When in doubt, marry the hot one.

Jen didn't look much better the next day, donning her white wedding-dress-like gown. After she sent John Paul packing, she didn't seem ready to fall into Jerry's arms either. In order to prolong the agony, ABC cut straight to the "After the Final Rose" post-show idiot-fest, where Jerry supposedly was still waiting for an answer.

Jen entered, and told Jerry, "Hey, let's just be friends!" and Jerry said, "Swell!" and then they both looked over at host Chris Harrison like, "Can we go home now?" The audience was in shock and Harrison was having none of it, pressing Jen and Jerry on what had happened, but receiving a lot of talk-show "It's better this way" vagaries in the place of real answers. Obviously annoyed with their Bachelorette's unprecedented wishy-washiness, the producers sicced a member of the studio audience on the couple, a woman who asked if the problem was that the sex was bad.

But like miniature toy-breed Ari Fleischers, Jen and Jerry were determined to offer not a single fact, insight or unguarded comment, and Jen roundly rejected the "rumors," cited by Harrison, that she'd begun seeing someone new in the meantime. (But it was in "In Touch," so we already know it's true!)

As with Melinda Lira, indignant "American Idol" rejectee, I have a few words for our most recent "Bachelorette": This is television, sugar. As questionable as your decision to trot yourself in front of the cameras a second time may have been, you knew what you were getting into from the start. And as much as I applaud you for saying no to a second ill-fated TV engagement, it is absolutely ludicrous, nay, even irresponsible of you, after stringing us along all season, to refuse to offer a single honest word about your decision. Wait, what did you say? It's nobody's business but yours? Exsqueeze me, honey hole, but you're wrong. You made it our business, and after a long, hard season of tedious dream dates, you don't just snatch the whole thing out of our greasy hands. Nay. Again, let me remind you: This is television. Televised entertainment. We've made an investment, we were with you through the hard times, and ...

You owe us. A bare nipple, a misplaced Blackberry, a teary-eyed confession on "Oprah" -- take your pick, but you owe us and you'd better pay up before we ignore you forever and ever. Oh yes, I'm sure you imagine that's exactly what you want right now, but $10 says you'll be trotting around town with a lampshade on your head the second "People" passes you over for yet another Ashton and Demi exclusive.

Fat farming

Which reminds me of another good way to stay in the spotlight: sleeping with someone 15 years younger than you. That's one of the finer ways of sticking around, far more pleasant than passing out in a pool of vomit or nose-diving your private plane into the Atlantic.

Kirstie Alley may have chosen one of the more arduous routes to rediscovery. Having been continuously featured on the covers of tabloids as her weight ballooned to 200 pounds over the years, Alley got fed up and decided to take her big-girl status into her own hands with a brand new show, "Fat Actress" (10 p.m. Monday on Showtime; will also stream on Yahoo, available until March 12).

Although the show is the most blatant rip-off of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" yet and Kirstie Alley has always struck me as a flatly annoying, whiny, screechy personality with little to offer, the show is remarkably entertaining, and Alley is fantastic. From the moment she steps on a scale and then collapses on the floor, crying hysterically, I loved this show. Next we see Alley shoving down a burger and shouting at her agent on the phone, "How about James Gandolfini? He's like the size of a whale. He is way, way, way fatter than I am!"

See, that sounds awful, but it's ridiculous and funny and Alley really, really makes it work. I mean, really. From urging John Travolta, "Let's do 'Look Who's Talking 4'! Come on!" to squealing, at a soul food restaurant, "I love black people!" Alley is really perfect for this format.

And yes, I know. For the entire first episode, the word "fat" is repeated over and over and over, with everyone going on and on and on about how disgustingly fat Alley is, over and over. But it works, because this is how people feel about fat women, and that's messed up, and it's about time it was exposed so baldly and ruthlessly. Alley's confidence in taking on this role not only demands respect and admiration, but makes you want to keep watching. That, and the fact that, upon hearing that Jenny Craig wants her as a spokeswoman, Alley blurts out, "Jenny fucking fuck-me-in-the-ass Craig!" and then fumbles for her misplaced French fries. The irony? Alley has since become the new spokeswoman for Jenny Craig.

Next? Next?

America's next Next Top Model is certainly not going to be a Jenny Craig spokesman, thanks to the fact that only rail-thin freaks made it past the first cut. I found that one plus-size model, called back from the very beginning of last season, particularly devastating. Then again, we can see very clearly from the follow-up on the girls from "Cycle 3" of the show that Toccara, beloved large-ish girl from last season, now has a vibrant career as a plus-size model and sitcom extra. Cassie, on the other hand, is still being told her hips are too wide. The fates seem to really want her to fulfill her destiny as a tormented bulimic.

Meanwhile, Brita, who's got the best body of the new bunch, is already being told that she's too fat. Look for yourself. Does she look big to you?

Oh, ANTM, but I love you, toxic messages for America's youth and all!

Party of two

Needless to say, Jennifer Love's Hewitts are on full display in her upcoming made-for-TV romp, "Confessions of a Sociopathic Social Climber" (Saturday, March 12, at 8 p.m. on Oxygen). In fact, Jennifer is wearing a bra through about 90 percent of the film, and while it's a nice ploy to keep us distracted from just how bad a movie this is, ultimately it fails.

"Must quit smoking -- again," J.Lo Ho breathes in a voice-over, and somewhere, Bridget Jones is rolling over in her four-poster bed, haunted by a nightmare in which she inspires an unseemly herd of snarky, facile, pointless boy-meets-girl stories weighed down by soggy dialogue, idiotic twists and a climax stolen straight from an '80s-era teen film.

Hewitt's sociopath is threatened by an upstart at work -- guess where? -- at an ad agency! Then she falls for some stranger who works in her office. Later, he takes her on a date to a hot-dog stand -- earthy! -- and tells her he comes there "to think." I love it when screenwriters steal dialogue from Barbie-and-Ken scenes improvised by 7-year-old girls!

Ken ditches Hewitt because she's shallow. Then Hewitt crashes a big-deal party and has a cat fight, spitting at her enemy, "Let's face it, you've always been jealous that my boobs are bigger than yours!" Groan.

Next, she admits all her faults in front of a big crowd, and it's like I'm back in 8th grade, picking lint off my Forenza V-neck sweater and hoping my dark-blue Maybelline eyeliner isn't smudged. As a stunned crowd gathers, Hewitt tells us, "I climbed all the way up the social ladder and figured out it was ... lonely." Awww! Ri rove roo, Jennifer! Instead of being so bad it's good or even so bad it's bad, "Confessions of a Sociopathic Social Climber" is just plain bad. And that's sad, because the title just sounded really promising.

You're, like, old

Speaking of promising-sounding, it's not that hard to see why Fox's "Stars Without Makeup" would make me perk up my ears. Stars. Without. Makeup. What's not to like?

Almost everything, as a matter of fact. Aside from a few shots of Ryan O'Neal looking chubby and Jennifer Aniston putting on lip gloss in her car, the vast majority of the show focuses on women over 40. Ooh, look how crappy Barbra Streisand looks just walking around in a T-shirt! Hey, Goldie Hawn isn't 22 anymore, that's gross! And look at her saggy butt -- it's almost like she's mortal or something! Nasty!

Not surprisingly, the most satisfying clips of the show are those of Bjork physically assaulting a reporter with a microphone and Cher telling a photographer that he's the scum of the earth. As much as the insipid voice-over tries to convince us to take the side of the reporters, mostly we marvel at just how violent we'd become if we were mobbed by professional stalkers every day.

Of course, by creating a market for more pictures of stars without makeup, the stalking is going to increase with the advent of this show. And so, once again, Fox brings us two clicks closer to the apocalypse!

Martha, Martha, Martha

Speaking of the apocalypse, Martha Stewart's third act has officially begun! Yes, sir, she's home from jail and instead of having a haunted look in her eyes, she's making it sound just like a yoga retreat. She made great friends! She'll never forget the bonds she forged! I'm not sure how you can forge bonds without a vase of gardenias, a pitcher of mimosas and a few whimsical place settings, but Martha's sure to tell us in her next issue. For now, she'll be relaxing at home, pretending she's not still in captivity. Here's how the local Fox News channel called it:

"Of course you guys know, the latest accessory, it's not the shoes or the bag you're talking about, it's an ankle bracelet that Martha will be wearing, it weighs about 10 ounces, you can wear it on your wrist or your ankle, and it's tied to a phone and if you leave the area, the feds know it."

Which just goes to show that no matter how masterfully crafted your reinvention is, there's always someone there to rain on your parade.

In summary

Stars: Who cares?

Next week: The demented genius of "House." Plus: "The Venture Brothers." I really mean it this time.

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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