Swelter 42

The NATPE convention, turbocharged and running wild down the info superhighway wasteland, the week of a thousand stars you never really thought about but suddenly had to meet. A glorious idyll in television heaven with the National Association of Television Programming Executives, fame fever spreading all over the city like a mutant plague. Warming up with a sighting of game-show host Wink Martindale and exchanging professional courtesies with Doppelg„nger/TWN columnist Robert Levy, the wired-up Levy reminiscing about having once been cruised by the late Telly Savalas, both of us breathless amidst the All-American opulence of the Miami Beach Convention Center. The three-story Paramount booth looming like a juggernaut over the adjacent Viacom headquarters, endless food and freebies flowing to the valid and useless alike, celebrities popping up like radioactive appetizers in a surrealistic dreamscape.

Plunging straight into sitcom paradise, jump-starting the fame game with the cast of Seinfeld, the ugly-but-profitable public everywhere at once. Brushing past a stymied local newscaster ("God, I hate you print weasels") and doing a Where's Waldo routine on the stars, sneaking photo ops. Michael Richards checking his trademark Eraser Head coif in a mirror ("Does anybody here give haircuts?"), Jason Alexander a far cry from George-the-neurotic: "I'm doing three movies this year and the numbers on our syndication deal look very good. Everyone should be very happy for me." Julia Louis-Dreyfus glumly confronting a line of executives waiting for photos ("What do these people do for a living?"), Jerry Seinfeld giving a terse "No more books" to a question about his writing career and welcoming a name-lobbing fan: "Part the waves; this guy has got connections." Out again into the killing grounds, trolling down the celebrity scale. Regis Philbin saluting a godhead-of-Oprah poster, Burt Reynolds looking like a collapsed wedding cake left out in the rain, Rikki Lake leap-frogging to the big time: "I got my own talk show by appearing on other shows, and of course, sucking up to the right people." A series of C-level moments -- Lorenzo Lamas posing on a motorcycle, Montel Williams hustling beside a covey of Baywatch girls -- and gradually regrouping with A-list survivor Suzanne Somers: "I'm doing a line of Thighmaster accessories and a new celebrity-driven talk show. Of course, since I've written three books about the human condition, there'll be lots of talk about the private side of celebrities." Infomercial diet queen Susan Powter striding by, Joan Crawford circa 1948, a vortex of energy, egoism, and rampant vulgarity, truly a star: "Hey, it's USA Today -- let's kiss their ass for fifteen seconds."

Home to a flurry of social-climbing phone calls, our hookup to Hollywood maddeningly skipping a smallish Seinfeld reception and opting for the Rysher Entertainment beach party at the Doral Hotel. Lasers sweeping overhead and etching program emblems on the walls, Glenn Frey and Joe Walsh hashing out Eagles standards, Robin Leach and David Hasselhoff providing limited firepower to a sea of TV executives in Nicole Miller ties, cavorting like frat boys. Drawn into the homosexual matrix, tossing our deranged mane of hair around like a winsome young colt, the nauseating spectacle of mutton parading as lamb catching the eye of a bewitched producer: "Have you ever done any television? I have a project that might be right for you."

Day Two, everyone pitching frantically in convention paradise, the Australian personality Gordon Elliott watching himself hunt down Dr. Ruth on a huge video monitor: "Well, that was a shameless but effective bit of self-promotion. This country is wonderful to immigrants: You step off the boat, get your green card, and they immediately give you a talk show." Ivana Trump, another emigre made good, signing copies of her book Free to Love at the no-frills Home Shopping Network booth, surrounded by adoring fans and the Gay Entertainment Television network, represented by Christopher Makos of Makostyle and Linda Simpson of Party Talk: "I think I'm the only drag queen here, except for Ivana." Trump, the rags-to-riches legend, accepting her station as an "inspiration" to American women and hitting on all cylinders: "To write a whole book -- in English -- was a big challenge.... You like this dress? It's from my HSN line, like this jewelry, only 180 bucks." On to actual face time with Susan Powter, no doubt destined for a very special installment of the Howard Stern show one day, the living metaphor for television oddly diverting, riveting at times, and then finally intolerable: "Women are becoming empowered in this country, and that's what my show is about.... My next book is called Food -- just Food -- with everything you ever wanted to know about the subject.... You're from what paper? New Times? As if that means anything."

Attitude goeth before a fall, the insanity never stops, and the important demarcations of life blur before the unblinking eye of the camera. Another pitiless evening program, commencing with a sloppy King World mess at the Fontainebleau, the Brothers King chanting from the stage: "Do we want Barry to have Paramount? No way." Over to Vizcaya for the Telemundo reception, the best party of the week: civilized and perfectly tuned, wonderful food and nonpsychotic Latin stars. Tapped out the following day and stumbling through a luncheon at the MTV Latino studios, secret sharer Levy carting around a tape-recorded insult from Joan Rivers: "Face it, you're just as addicted to all this as I am." Slipping away for more fixes, the preternaturally pleasant Jane Whitney dealing with a publicity-crazed psychic: "No more entertainment topics now; the talk shows are all about relationships." Whitney not processing our destruction-of-the-American-psyche speech, the sinister effects of squabbling trash unveiling their private lives for fall-of-Rome style amusement on junk TV. The true pro opting to address mere pleasantries: "Of course I'm sweet in real life -- as if I'd be something different on television."

Convention overdose setting in, not even mobilizing for Xuxa, the former Brazilian soft porn actress turned kids show star, pouting for the cameras like a sex kitten. Winding down at the Clevelander for the Twentieth Century Fox party, John Walsh of America's Most Wanted traveling with bodyguards: "I've got four: two black and two Hispanic, depending on the circumstances." Into the Tribune affair at Paragon, desperately scrambling upstairs for VIPs and fresh air, soul legend James Brown ruinously trivializing his act with Dance Fever routines. And then it's Ocean Drive at 2:00 a.m., running into our new producer friend and eagerly professing undying devotion to the cool fire, Mr. Television beatific as an oracle: "Of course you love TV. And trust me, it will love you back.

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Tom Austin