Star, Lite
September 3, 2010 |  by Guido Veloce

It doesn’t take much to be a “star” today.

Precipitating that comment was a grizzly murder, bizarre even by Southern California standards. The killer stabbed his victim to death and wounded two colleagues using a sword that was his trademark as an actor. The press described the murderer, whose professional name was Steve Driver, as a “porn star.” It is difficult to gauge Mr. Driver’s cinematic achievements without arousing suspicions about one’s computer use, but according to a Los Angeles police officer his employers “weren’t happy with his product.” What made this guy a star of anything?

At least he had the adjective “porn” limiting his stardom. The late Anna Nicole Smith appeared in the media as a “star” without any kind of qualification, in all senses of the term. Although her credits included Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult, hers was not an extensive body of work and mostly involved playing herself. The same is true of three current “star” reality-show sisters, Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney Kardashian. In fairness, Kim’s reality “star” credentials soared when her sex tape began floating around the Internet. Khloe, at last word, was considering making one. (Remember when sibling rivalry was about who mom loved best?)

In Hollywood’s glamour days stars had their scandals, but they also had charisma, a solid list of movies behind them, and a lot of us wanted to be just like them. It’s different in this time of promiscuous starring. Many new “stars” haven’t done much except attract attention, and most of us either don’t want to be like them or don’t want to be caught being like them. What parent hopes a daughter will say, “I want to be like Kim and pose nude when I grow up?” Or wants to hear a son declare, “I’m going to be Ashton Kutcher and star in cool stuff like Dude, Where’s My Car? and marry some hot old lady who used to be in movies or something.”

This is an era when, according to the press, Meryl Streep is a star, but so is her former co-star, Lindsay Lohan. One has a long, distinguished acting career. The other appears more regularly in mug shots than movies.

Curious to find out who the real stars are today, I went to the logical place, the popular television show Dancing with the Stars. Anyone appearing on it has to be the genuine article. Would television lie? Over the show’s five-year run, half the victorious stars were athletes. At least they won something in the past. Here are the names of the five triumphant stars from the world of entertainment: Kelly Monaco, Drew Lachey, Brooke Burke, Donny Osmond, and Nicole Scherzinger. These may be everyday names in your household, but I only recognized one, and “star” wasn’t the first word that came to mind. Research on their credentials revealed a few television and movie credits (including Baywatch and a couple of soap operas), a little work in theater, some Playboy modeling, a series of infomercials, a role in a video game, and fronting the Pussycat Dolls. And Donny Osmond.

Jimmy Stewart and Katharine Hepburn, we need you now more than ever.

Just as I was writing this essay, The New York Times ran a front-page article reporting that so many stars were in court that it was straining the Los Angeles legal system’s budget. The story, bearing the headline “Stars, Cameras, and Theatrics: It’s All at Court,” included among the “stars” Don Johnson, Ken Osmond, and Leif Garrett, at least two of whom are answers to trivia questions. Has the word “star” lost all meaning? Case closed.

About the same time, Lindsay Lohan, bearing an obscene message on her fingernail, was sentenced to 90 days in jail. The good news? Meryl Streep remains at large. There is hope.

Guido Veloce is a Johns Hopkins University professor.