In 2003, Buffalo native Jake Halpern wrote a clever and plucky book about people obsessed with living in almost uninhabitable places. There was polite response, some artistic acclaim and life went on.
Then Halpern aimed his Ivy League-brain and down-to-earth charm at another American obsession -- the culture's preoccupation with fame and celebrity. And then things got crazy.
"Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America's Favorite Addiction" has received a pre-publication buzz that is generating a life of its own. Entertainment Weekly -- that holy book of American fame -- published an eight-page excerpt. ABC's "20-20" based one of the longest segments of its season-opening show on the book last Friday. USA Today ran a feature story that touted Halpern's theory and will surely sell books.
Halpern's latest effort articulates the dark elements in our addiction to fame. The book is an in-depth exploration of the levels people go to in order to be around fame, or to be famous themselves. And -- only in America -- he's been embraced and promoted by the celebrity subculture he criticized.
"It's crazy," said Halpern in an interview last week. "My phone didn't ring when I wrote about poor and middle class living in flood plains or fire corridors."
The last time Halpern was in New York for a book-signing he slept on a friend's couch, waking up with "bread crumbs pressed into my cheek." This time, Halpern was getting back to his interview requests in Manhattan from the Waldorf-Astoria.
Then there was the non-sensical part. Reporters started calling about things Halpern knew nothing about. A reporter from Raleigh, N.C., wanted Halpern to comment on the technique used in a painting someone did of Angelina Jolie.
"There was an exponential effect," he says. "People have an insatiable appetite for celebrity, so they're looking for any fodder to fill it."
Thursday, Halpern will bring his celebrity buzz to Buffalo. He'll return to his alma mater, City Honors, where he'll talk about the writer's life. Then he'll sign books and share tales with fans and friends at a free publication party 7 p.m. that night at the Church on Delaware, 341 Delaware Ave., co-sponsored by Talking Leaves, Hallwalls and Righteous Babe records.
Expect a large crowd. If there's anything people embrace more than fame, it's a winner.
>Local model featured
Halpern is a born storyteller, and "Fame Junkies" -- despite its stern admonitions -- is a lot of fun. Halpern's moxie and literary sensibilities produce a wild ride of a book.
Halpern captures the essence of unusual characters. His portraits of crazy and poignant people who have clearly flown too close to the celebrity sun, are unforgettable.
In the first chapter, there's Amy Lumber, one of the aspiring models at Personal Best by Susan Makai, the local modeling school that produced Sports Illustrated model Jessica White and where Halpern begins his book.
"Amy's biggest fear," Halpern wrote, "was that her teenage years would slip away and she would somehow fail to make a name for herself." Clearly, Amy's desperate need for fame and a modeling career stemmed from a need to please her father, a retired U.S. Army captain who kept a "spooky" shrine dedicated to Marilyn Monroe in their home.
There's Marcy Braunstein, the Rod Stewart fanatic from Pittsburgh who led a campaign to get her favorite singer a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. "I guess Rod just makes me feel important," she says. "Like when he acknowleges me at a concert, or I get a picture of him. On the other hand, if I'm trying to give him flowers at a concert and he doesn't take them from me, or takes them from someone else, I'm crushed."
Her "Rod Room" is not as dark as Lumber's shrine to Marilyn. But Braunstein struggles with her obsession and how it compares with her passion for her religion.
"When I first came to Christ, back in 1992, I felt inner peace," she told Halpern. "I realize that God loves me just the way I am. Whereas Rod wouldn't. Rod loves tall blonds."
Halpern's cast is rich with these funny, sad, sometimes frightening and always human characters. There's the ruthless and unapologetic agent prowling a modeling convention in New York. And 12-year-old Eddie Powell, who roamed the convention with his father desperately hoping he could come home with some way he could impress his classmates.
Makai comes across as a relatively benign and soulful figure. "She's honest and straightforward," Halpern said. "In the spectrum of these schools, Susan's is as good as it gets."
And like he did in "Braving Home," he finds his characters in their most defining hours. A short but essential section of the book describes an encounter with Stewart and a ride in his limo after the Walk of Fame induction ceremony.
>Some names changed
Throughout the book, Halpern mixes in dramatic and damning studies. A survey he helped design for Rochester middle-school students shows many kids would rather be famous than smart, strong or better-looking. This obsession with stars, according to Halpern's research, is at least slightly physically addictive. Americans are lonelier than ever, and developing an imaginary relationship with someone famous is one way to fight this loneliness.
"Fame Junkies" comes up short in two ways. Halpern tells readers he needed to change some of his characters' names and hometowns (Amy Lumber supposedly was from Elma). It's an understandable concession, but it still weakens the impact.
And Halpern does seem to get some gratuitous shots at his hometown. Yes, he says, there may have been a local stereotype or two. But he chose to begin his story here out of "love and pride," Halpern said,
"I poked fun at it a little, but I chose Buffalo because it was always a place where people had their heads screwed on right," he said. "They see things for what they were. It was all the more surprising people there got caught up in the craziness."
Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America's Favorite Addiction
By Jake Halpern
226 pages, $23