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Image: Spencer Pratt, Heidi Montag Pratt
Tyler Golden  /  AP
Real stars don’t talk about how famous they are in public. Spencer Pratt, left, didn't get that memo when he and his wife, Heidi, signed on with “I'm A Celbrity ... Get Me Out Of Here!”
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/9/2009 2:33:53 PM ET 2009-06-09T18:33:53
Commentary

Staying away from Spencer and Heidi Pratt has gotten even harder than it used to be in the last week. Since the debut of the NBC reality show “I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here!”, the Pratts have moved from easily ignorable, MTV-only ubiquity to a day-by-day, far more overwhelming news presence.

Increasingly, their every move within their usually sealed-off universe has dribbled over into actual news: They quit! They’re back! They quit! They’re back! They can’t come back until they spend a day in an isolated cabin! Heidi went to the hospital to be treated for something that was maybe exposure to spiders, or possibly an ulcer, or maybe she’s just lazy!

It’s easy to make of this a lot more than there is. For the most part, this is a squad of publicists working in concert to make a barely functioning Bic lighter look like the burning of Atlanta. So far, because of the sheer level of “interest,” everybody’s winning — the show, the Pratts, MTV, everybody. It’s not a real feud. It’s like a rotten log with bugs in it. The log isn’t mad; the bugs aren’t mad — it’s the rest of us who think it’s gross, and only if we’re choosing to look.

What makes it interesting attention-seeking behavior is that they didn’t have to do this for attention. Spencer and Heidi could have come on “I’m A Celebrity” and not been awful, and they still would have gotten the spotlight. The repeated fits, the trip to the hospital, the claims of torture passed along by the oh-so-reliable source that is Spencer’s sister’s Twitter feed? It’s overkill, even for them. For once, they actually seem nervous. They seem to fear that by coming on a show that contains a heavy dose of self-deprecation about the patently limited celebrity of its participants, they have burst their own bubble.

The last thing you want to do when you are trying to remain famous without accomplishing anything is to point out what you’re doing. This kind of notoriety has to seem breezy, like people just can’t stop paying attention to you. You can’t get caught grasping. You have to possess perfectly untouchable shamelessness — almost like dignity’s evil twin.

Spencer and Heidi have a highly specific desire to be rich without doing anything of value, but the minute you see them worrying about it, rather than pretending that they were just out here, living their lives, and the rest is history — they look a whole different sort of stupid than the kind of stupid that fits into their image, and they put their surprisingly fragile brand in jeopardy.

Don’t underestimate that brand — think about how well they’ve done, for people without achievements. They’re ordinary people you could meet in any bar that serves overpriced liquor to guys who think drinking overpriced liquor makes them look tough. You can’t swing a casting director in Los Angeles without meeting people just like them. Ten Spencer Pratts walk by in the background of every establishing shot of Hollywood. Ten Heidi Montag Pratts sue their ex-roommates every month on “Judge Judy.”

Nonetheless, they’re getting by so far without doing anything. And everything they do — or rather, do not do — makes perfect sense when you assume this goal: How do we, as uninteresting people without any visible talents or distinguishing features, get people to pay us not to do anything?

Slideshow: Young stars of reality TV In fact, it could be the very fact that “I’m A Celebrity” places any demands on them whatsoever — even just participating in challenges and sleeping on cots — that seems to be taxing their control over their own images. Perhaps they only know how to play pointless inertia. Maybe this actually is, sadly, too hard for them.

Think about it this way: Even with reality shows based on gawking at people in unusual circumstances, at least there are unusual circumstances. Paris Hilton really was born freakishly rich. Jon and Kate Gosselin really did have sextuplets. They’re capitalizing, but at least they have something to capitalize upon.

With Heidi and Spencer, how would they be different from any other vapid jerks of your acquaintance if they weren’t on television? What would they do with themselves? Attention is their flock of sextuplets; their freak show is its own freak show. If there were no cameras on them, ever again, what would they do? Imagine a gossip apocalypse as Day Zero; how would they spend Day One? Where would they go without cameras following them? Can they drive? Can they operate a microwave? Can they read?

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It’s a distant fantasy, but the fact is: they’d get jobs. Not fake “The Hills” jobs like Assistant Attender Of Parties, but jobs. You know ... bosses, lunchrooms, performance reviews. It wouldn’t be that bad. But they want desperately to avoid it. They are living their particular dream: they are famous, and they are rich, and they do nothing. Ironically, only protecting the illusion that they are special will pay the bills, but the minute they proclaim their own specialness, it shatters.

That’s what happened when Spencer got on the phone and yelled at NBC’s Ben Silverman about just how famous he is — something a person who is famous for something rather than for nothing would never have to do. A musician might brag about the arenas he’s filled, and a movie star might tell you how much money his latest picture made. But they don’t let you see them talk about how famous they are. The most expensive menus don’t list prices; real stars don’t discuss their celebrity in public.

Spencer and Heidi practice a sort of reverse ambition. They represent life without work; attention without purpose. They’d rather look like complete potato-heads in front of the entire country than earn a living. They don’t even seem to want anything except to crank up the volume knob. They want to be nothing. They want to be this. They think this is great.

Slideshow: Welcome to the jungle Even other shows aren’t like this. People on “Survivor,” people on “America’s Next Top Model” — they aren’t like this. It never feels like the primary reason for going on “Survivor” is to ensure that you never have to work again as long as you live. Those people aspire to a windfall, yes, but they don’t specifically seek idleness, as if it proves a point to become famous for no reason.

That’s what Spencer and Heidi have. It’s not just that there’s “no there there,” as people say. With them, there’s no anywhere. None of the usual quasi-celebrity goals seem relevant: This isn’t a way to get a talk show; you don’t get your own talk show by being universally despised. Yes, Heidi has a sort of goofball music “career,” but it looks more like she releases terrible records to hold her position as a hated laughingstock than like she’s leveraging her notoriety to become a singer.

What makes the Pratts so creepy isn’t the awfulness or the obviously ginned-up controversies. It’s the white-knuckled manner in which they are hanging on to this odd sort of fame that flew past them when Heidi met “Hills” star Lauren Conrad, determined to use it for nothing except its own perpetuation.

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