The nation appears to be in the midst of yet another contagion – not the Omicron variant, but reality celebrities who believe they should be high profile political leaders.
Talk show host Dr Mehmet Oz is the latest mutation in this outbreak, announcing his candidacy in a crowded field for the United States Senator from Pennsylvania. The Doctor is following in the footsteps of two unsuccessful California gubernatorial candidates: Kardashian actor Caitlyn Jenner and radio provocateur Larry Elder. Everyone is Republican – and no doubt encouraged by another GOP reality TV star, former President Donald Trump, whose election in 2016 appears to have prompted many celebrities to look in the mirror and ask, ” Why not me ?
This extraordinary epidemic has its origins in Hollywood and the unique place occupied by reality TV personalities in the petri dish of show business. It’s a peculiar variety of celebrities that seems to encourage bold overtaking.
The names of movie and television stars are often tossed about by political parties in search of viable candidates: they have built-in name recognition and large bank accounts to launch campaigns. But for talk show hosts and reality stars, the temptation to be in high office directing the future of millions of people is much stronger.
This is because, unlike actors, these personalities are known to be themselves. In scripted movies and on television, stars pretend to be other people. Audiences can confuse fiction with reality – we think Tom Hanks is a really nice guy because he always plays really nice guys – but the actors themselves ultimately understand that they’re famous for working behind a mask.
A TV host like Dr. Oz is different: he’s famous because he’s the one and only Dr. Oz. There is no mask. The adulation he receives – studio audience applause and substantial audiences – is straightforward and unfiltered. He’s there on a talk show posing as himself, not a fictional character, basking in attention.
This can lead to a condition known as a “very big ego”.
It’s not a big step to think that you can be a governor of the country’s largest state or a US senator for a key state. There is only one thing against it: politics is not exactly show business, even in our media age.
Celebrities build bubbles of flattery around them that are difficult to penetrate; producers, publicists, agents and managers are paid to keep bad news out. Oz’s announcement is a good example of this bubble. Most political pros would race in Pennsylvania in front of a steel mill, or on a farm, or at the very least standing near the Liberty Bell. But Oz instead posted a heavily scripted video, shot on what looks like his talk show set, with a campaign logo based on his talk show logo. And the doctor doesn’t even mention Pennsylvania. Everything seemed hermetically sealed, protected from the outside world.
But in big political affairs, the tumult of competitive campaigns shatters even the toughest bubbles – and often shocks unprepared newcomers.
Oz is already facing some of this rude awakening.
Concerns about the carpet bags were quickly raised as the doctor lives in New Jersey and is recording his show in New York. He has only been registered in Pennsylvania since December 2020 and uses his in-laws’ home as his official address. Oz’s candidacy also resuscitated controversies surrounding his on-air approval of questionable diet pills and products; these controversies eventually brought him before a Senate health and science committee.
The North Star for all these reality celebrities remains Trump – the man who went from “the apprentice” to the White House, who weathered all the cracks in his reality star bubble to win the biggest prize in politics. If he can do it, so can they.
But they seem to have forgotten something: The cracks eventually got too big for Trump. From election day 2020, unwelcome real life burst into a bubble built with billions of dollars, bolstered by family and friendly media. Aggressive reality manipulation was the only way for this former reality star to cope.
On the contrary, the Trump experience should serve as a stern warning to other overly greedy celebrities with disproportionate ambitions.
At least so far, Dr Oz hasn’t seen it – and he might turn out to be right.
But Pennsylvania’s first day is May 17th, a long way off. Enough time for many bubbles to burst.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and reporter and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was news director for NBC, writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on twitter @ ironworker1.