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How To Be Barely Famous and Super Successful

Forbes Forbes 28/12/2015 Steve Denning, Contributor
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This is a guest post by the daughter of Steve Denning, Stephanie Denning, who writes about leadership issues from a Millennial perspective. The views expressed here are her own.

With the holidays in full-swing, you get a guilt-free pass to watch an unhealthy amount of TV. As it so happens, the only TV I like to watch is reality TV. Like Rich Kids of Beverly Hills. And Keeping Up with the Kardashians, or KUWTK for us regulars. My latest addition to this list is Barely Famous – a reality TV show about reality TV.

Before you begin to judge me, let me just preempt you. I am aware I have terrible taste in TV. Embarrassingly bad.

But back to Barely Famous. The show follows Erin and Sara Foster who, as the title suggests, are barely famous. And that’s just how they like it.

Barely Famous

Unlike many of their L.A. counter-parts, Sara and Erin Foster never sought to be famous, let alone appear on a reality TV show. While they grew up the daughters of famed music producer David Foster (I also had no idea who he was,) they lived with their mother who didn’t care much for Hollywood. In an interview, Erin said: “We weren’t raised around an obsession with fame, it’s so destructive. If anything, we were raised to believe that’s NOT what success looks like. It’s not everyone knowing your name.”

Instead, they grew up in the margins of fame.

But this show is likely to change that. The premise of the show is to poke fun of the reality show craze; more broadly, it parodies L.A. culture. Sara’s take is, “We really wanted to exploit the hypocrisy of this town — how people are sort of willing to do anything.”

Erin gets straight to the point, “Everything’s status related and you can be made to feel like a real loser!” Moreover: “Everyone in this town says one thing and does another, and we wanted to embody all different types of those girls — and make it funny.”

And they succeed in doing just that. On the show, they play their alter egos. Sara spoofs the average L.A. lady looking for fame. Think all body and no brain. Erin’s character, on the other hand, is the everyman. And she’s deadpan funny a la Amy Schumer. In keeping with the dialect of reality TV, the show is laughing-so-hard-I’m-crying emoji.

The idea for the show has been brewing for a long time. Erin performed standup and wrote a blog – ingeniously titled Totally Confident and Completely Insecure – for several years satirizing the same material. For some flavor, here is an excerpt from a post in 2012:

From Erin’s post, Another Person I’m Not Happy For:

“I’m not sure who Jessica Alba thinks she’s fooling, but this is not what a body looks like after you’ve pushed two normal sized children out, in the last four years. I’d officially like to start the rumor that she paid her housekeeper to carry her children.

This type of body is reserved for Victoria Secret robots and the reason why I’m not jealous of any of them is because when they open their mouths to try speaking English it sounds like they’re coming off of a big dose of Anesthesia. None of the vowels work, and the more they talk the better I look next to them.”

For anyone who missed it, this is a joke.

Celebrity Culture

L.A. is an easy target to ridicule, especially reality TV. In Sara’s words, it embodies “The obsession of becoming famous with essentially having no craft.” The whole thing is a little absurd. That someone will actually pay these soon-to-be celebrities to have a camera follow them around all day.

But the chase for fame and celebrity is a disease that is much more widespread than just in L.A. Celebrity can take on different shapes and sizes and most sub-cultures suffer from it too. Silicon Valley, which likes to pride itself on being “above all that,” is a victim to this same celebrity culture. Y-Combinator, an early stage VC has it’s own kind of celebrity status. So do the PayPal Mafia. And Elon Musk is basically the Brad Pitt of Silicon Valley. Finance is no different. Neither is any other industry. What counts as “celebrity” may change, but the nefarious nature of it stays the same.

Society conflates fame and success. So much so that it’s hard to distinguish the two. The question that interests me is whether celebrity is necessary for success? I have no interest in being on a reality show, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hope to gain traction in the writing world one day. I often wonder what I would think fifty years down the line if I spend my entire life pursuing a career in writing, only to find I was never able to get published. Does this make me unsuccessful? It would certainly feel that way. Because the reality is everyone likes a little external validation.

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Of course today, social media has only amplified the pursuit for celebrity. Today, success is often quantified by social media metrics; you are reduced to the number of followers you have on social media.

I bump up against this trend all the time in writing. When you apply for writing jobs, what magazines want to know is how many Twitter followers you have. I have a total of 100. (Are you laughing right now?) In social media speak, Kim Kardashian is 550000x more successful than I am, with 55.3 MILLION followers. Which means Kim could get any writing gig, any time, even if she can’t spell Amish (“Omish”) or Giorgio Armani (“Georgio.”)

Erin and Sara Foster’s charm is that they also find this to be a fluke:

Erin: “We personally don’t value success by visibility. The world does right now, but I don’t think you’re successful based on how many Instagram followers you have or how many people know your name.
Sara: It’s like Monopoly money!


If you Google the definition of success, you get two different answers: 1) The accomplishment of an aim or purpose; 2) The attainment of popularity or profit. But if you polled a pool of people, I would bet the answers would overwhelmingly fall in the latter category. In our society, success is defined by celebrity. I like what Sara Foster said: “We’re at a time now where little girls aren’t saying anymore I want to be a ballerina or I want to be a doctor but instead I want to be famous.”

What society forgets to mention is that #1 is a lot more rewarding than #2. In my own experience, the most rewarding articles I’ve written are not the ones that got the most pageviews, but the ones that were the most challenging to write. John Gardner, a well-known fiction author, wrote: “It is far more satisfying to write well than simply to write well enough to get published.”

In an interview, Erin said: “I feel like people look at me as this unfinished sentence that they want to try and figure out. But I think “figuring it out” is figuring out what happy looks like for you.”

While Erin was talking about starting a family, the same is true for fame. No one understands when you say you don’t want to be a celebrity, or you don’t want your company to be the next unicorn. Is it that outrageous? About Thoreau, Emerson once wrote: “He chose to be rich by making his wants few.”

Follow Stephanie Denning on Twitter at @stephdenning

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