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Famous… for 15 Seconds

MitchWhen I was a kid, I went to Times Square and looked up at the billboards. They were massive. Biggest signs I ever saw.

"How do you get up there?" I asked my grandmother.

"You have to be famous," she said.

For the rest of my childhood, that was the mountaintop of celebrity. A billboard in Times Square. The fact that you had to crane your neck to see it, to squint into the blinding sun of fame, well, it was literally, figuratively and physically the top of the heap.

On every visit, I took notice of what ruled the Times Square roost. Was it a new Broadway show? Was it someone modeling low cut jeans? Was it that famous coffee pot for A&P that opened and emitted steam? Whatever loomed, it was larger than life.

And now?

Now it could be Phil. Or Jane. Or Irv.

Or Tyler, Max, Freddy or Sam, your little brother, your next-door neighbor or the mailman.

Thanks to a new promotion, you can be the giant face in Times Square -- for 15 seconds.

Andy Warhol was only slightly off.

What a great concept

This new 25-story opportunity comes courtesy of American Eagle, the clothing chain, which is opening a store in Times Square and is offering anybody who buys anything from that store the chance to be on their massive billboard for 15 seconds.

You don't even have to buy something expensive. A shirt. Pants. Even a pair of socks will do. You fork over a few bucks, they take your photo, you run outside, and within 15 minutes, there you are, larger than life, for 15 seconds -- which, of course, is long enough to snap a gazillion photos, send them out all over the Internet and live in your moment of fame forever.

On the one hand, it's a brilliant marketing idea. Who wouldn't buy a pair of socks for a chance at the Mt. Olympus of commercial exposure? This is the air space that once featured a giant winking penguin or a billboard of people's butts adorned with smiley faces.

"We'd love this to become the newest landmark in Times Square," the marketing chief for American Eagle, Steve Kubinski, told USA Today this past week.

What a stupid concept

On the other hand, if everyone is literally famous for 15 seconds -- and for nothing more than buying a flannel shirt -- how famous is famous?

This is all part of the narcissism culture that moved from T-shirts with your kids' faces to chest thumping to celebratory rap lyrics through Me Cameras, reality TV, YouTube postings and now, the last pinnacle, a Times Square billboard.

You used to have to do something to become famous. Now being famous is doing something. The most important currency in this country is not measured on green paper. It's measured by how many people point at you and say, "Aren't you...?"

I have this vision one day of a world where it is so easy to be famous, that the only really celebrated person will be the one who escapes attention, like some fugitive, a dark knight, a Batman of anonymity.

Of course, that will be hard to do when everyone gets his or her 15 seconds. Twenty-five stories high.

It makes me wonder what my grandmother would have thought. Walking through Times Square, holding her grandson's hand, seeing him look up, eyes wide, and ask her, "Who's that?"

And she'd say, "That's Phil. And they were ugly socks."

(C) 2009 BY THE DETROIT FREE PRESS DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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