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Wheel of Misfortune

Drew Barrymore
Kimberly Wright

Luck of the Drew: If it hadn't been for her Lolitaesque turn in 'Poison Ivy' with Tom Skerritt, Drew Barrymore would probably be flogging motivational tapes at 3am.

For every performer it elevates to the empyrean of celebrityhood, television condemns ten more to the lower rungs of infomercials

By Zack Stentz

THE LIFE of an ex-celebrity is in many ways an unenviable one. A decade ago, I found myself attending college in the company of a former star of the Voyagers and Bad News Bears television series. With a winsome smile and a distinctive mop of dark, curly hair, he was nearly ubiquitous on the youth-oriented shows of the late '70s and early '80s, was the subject of fawning profiles in the Tiger Beat-ish press and even got to date Lisa Marie Presley.

When his lovable moppetness--along with the choice roles--evaporated with the onset of puberty, however, he was reduced to tooling around campus in his TransAm and living off his wisely invested childhood income. Cupping the dying embers of celebrity between his hands while hitting on every attractive female within a three-kilometer radius, he became a figure more of amusement than envy to his fellow classmates (though one fellow student frequently expressed the desire to pummel him "just so I can say I beat up that damn kid from Voyagers").

But since the advent of new networks, cable TV and other media developments that have expanded the spectrum of available programming, I wouldn't be surprised to see that faded star again, playing a killer of coeds on some cheesy USA network detective series or shilling for relationship videotapes on a late-night infomercial.

Aside from giving this nation of couch commandos countless new excuses for postponing that long-overdue home-improvement project, the vaunted 500-channel universe we're entering has had the unintended consequence of breathing new life into the stalled careers of many a former star.

So, what distance can one fall and still get work as a celebrity? Quite far, as it turns out, even farther than Lucifer tumbled in Paradise Lost. One Sunday morning, while wading through the bog of talking-head political shows and prayer revivals that clog the airwaves whenever ad time is sold in 30-minute blocks, I chanced upon three old TV friends.

Sitting on comfy sofas in an airy TV studio, like some laid-back SoCal variation of Macbeth's witches (as do Fates, Furies and Musketeers, former celebrities typically come in threes), the women discussed the amazing toning and cardiovascular strengthening potential of a product called the Space Mate.

The contraption itself was basically a treadmill with ski handles, a slight variation on the exercise machines one can pick up cheaply from the for-sale section of the classifieds ("Only used once!"). More interesting than the Space Mate, though, were the identities of the three stars, MIA for many years from the world of prime time.

They were Susan Lanier, who played Bambi on Welcome Back, Kotter; Jill Whelan, a.k.a. Vicki from The Love Boat; and Lisa Whelchel, whose megafeathered hairdo as Blair on The Facts of Life inspired countless imitators and ruined more high school yearbook photos than all the orthodontists in the world (Jennifer Aniston wannabes, are you listening?).

Aside from their starring roles on hit network shows of yesteryear, the three women shared the experience of struggling with their weight under the harsh glare of the camera. Having become stars in the unforgiving era of tube tops and skintight designer jeans, Whelchel, Whelan and Lanier all endured the misfortune of watching every battle against caloric temptation fought and lost get taped and broadcast into millions of homes every week.

In the strange world of former celebritydom, however, this very public process had the salutary effect of giving the women ample material for discussion and made their newly slender selves the perfect pitchwomen for the Space Mate.

Nothing makes a collapsing star shine again like the fuel of disease, disaster and personal demons wrestled with and overcome, especially with People and Entertainment Tonight there to chronicle every fist-pumping triumph. To stretch the astrophysics metaphor even further, scandal and embarrassment are important as hydrogen in reigniting stellar activity.

The public's propensity first to idolize celebrities and then to revel in their misfortunes has been well documented. Princess Diana's J.G. Ballard-like demise and Marv Albert's trial (was that him inside the Gimp costume in Pulp Fiction?) are only the most recent manifestations of the cyclical phenomenon of pulsating stardom.

What's new, though, is how the celebrities themselves have figured out how to harness this initially unwelcome publicity to fuel another attempt at fame. Some get enough momentum out of their offscreen tragedies and triumphs to boost themselves into the high orbit of feature-film or prime-time stardom. John Travolta and Brooke Shields come immediately to mind, and Diana herself cannily used her marital woes to burnish her public image.

FAR MORE COMMON, though, are the humbler but still remunerative uses to which celebrities put their misfortunes. Susan Lucci loses the daytime Emmy yet again? Those beauty-care infomercials must soften the blow. Danny Bonaduce chases a transvestite prostitute down the street? His agent probably visited him in jail with the talk-show contract before his defense attorney did.

Hell, if Drew Barrymore hadn't restarted her career by doing the nasty with Tom Skerritt in Poison Ivy, she'd probably be flogging "You can beat alcoholism" motivational tapes at 3am.

It is unfortunately true that even in the midst of this explosion of opportunities for the likes of Judd Hirsch, the Cassidy brothers and the cast of Different Strokes, a few once-reliable sources of employment and exposure for celebrities on the wane have disappeared.

No more does Jamie Farr appear in the coveted special-guest-star porthole of The Love Boat, and Murder, She Wrote's cancellation has deprived Tom Bosley, Julia Duffy and Anthony Michael Hall of much needed income and residuals. (On the bright side, Charles Nelson Reilly's eviction from his Hollywood Squares spot resulted in his guest turn as addled author José Chung on The X-Files.)

And if all else fails, the safe haven of infomercial-dom beckons those former stars not fortunate enough to get stalked by William Katt or Harry Hamlin on the Lifetime channel or play second banana to Jan-Michael Vincent on a soft-core Showtime movie.

Like The Simpsons' resident washed-up actor, Troy McClure, these has-beens will have to introduce their appearances with a memory-jogging "You might remember me from ...," but it certainly beats wearing a hairnet and asking former fans if they'd like fries with that Jumbo Jack.

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From the Dec. 4-10, 1997 issue of Metro.

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