Maybe you’re an auto mechanic who dreams of restoring a 1934 Fiat Balilla Coppa d’Oro for Jay Leno. Or a caterer who’d love to manage the canape flow at Katie Couric’s next party. Be careful what you wish for! As Ellen DeGeneres has demonstrated, it’s a dangerous pastime to disappoint celebrities in the Web 2.0 era. Like tiny, salty, crystalline Judge Judys banging their gavels on the benches of public opinion, their tears demand justice! And the Internet is crawling with thousands of volunteer psychopaths eager to deliver it.
Until last week, Ellen wore her fame like a pair of luxuriously low-key Ralph Lauren sneakers. She was rich, she was brilliant, she was a Clooney-caliber ladies’ lady, and yet she seemed so approachable, so grounded, as placidly upbeat as a hip youth minister. Then, when her new foster-pup Iggy failed to interface with her existing pets in sufficiently harmonious fashion, she forwarded the problem pooch to her hairdresser’s two daughters without alerting Mutts & Moms, the nonprofit rescue agency from whom she’d obtained the dog approximately 10 days earlier. That was a breach of contract, so the organization repo’d Iggy.
Nonfamous jerks respond to such tribulations with e-mails and voicemails that escalate from officious legal threats (“If you fail to comply with my wishes, expect litigation!”) to insane fury (“When I’m through with you, ass-roach, you’re gonna have to crap through your ear!”).
Ellen had a more potent means of coercion at her disposal. “Today is a hard day for me, today is bad,” she blubbered in her opening weepologue last week, in the wettest three minutes of television since Jacques Cousteau went off the air. “And I am not capable of coming out and pretending to be funny and on when things are going so terribly wrong right now ... ”
Viewers must have been momentarily terrified. Were Chinese missiles sailing toward Burbank? Had Osama bin Laden blown up Jil Sander’s pantsuit factory? When Ellen finally explained the reason for her meltdown, relief hardened into rage. We’re not going to die! It’s just a dog she’s bawling about! What kind of dog-loving monsters would do this to America’s nicest talk-show host?
Ellen, of course, is no dummy. She knew exactly what she was doing. “Some of this will be edited out,” she explained to her audience. None of it was edited out. “I’m sorry I didn’t call you,” she eventually fauxpologized, pretending to address Mutts & Moms directly as her megalomartyrdom crested like a tsunami on the verge of wiping out an unsuspecting village of nonprofit dog rescuers. “I’m sorry I did the wrong thing. Just give it back to the family. Please please please!”
Had Ellen really wanted to have this conversation with Mutts & Moms, she would have simply had her assistant fax them a note she’d initialed. But Ellen didn’t want to negotiate with the women running the agency. She wanted to shame them. Humiliate them. Make their lives uncomfortable.
It worked, too. Her meltdown was posted on YouTube. Picked up by TMZ. Replayed on Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC. Linked on every gossip blog. The Mutts & Moms moms were carpet-bombed with invective. E-mailers threatened to torch their houses. A phone-caller told them they were “Nazi scum-sucking pigs” who would pay for their misdeeds. Eventually, Ellen condemned such efforts, but not before insisting that “the dog needs to go to the family.”
Tony Soprano himself could not have said it more politely, but so far, Mutts & Moms has refused to roll over and play dead. Iggy has been placed in another home. Ellen says she’s through talking about the story, unless a heartwarming reunion transpires.
In the short run, her public shaming campaign failed. In the long run, it stands as a victory, a warning to heed, a tactic to emulate. To date, the Internet has mostly been bad for stars. It takes money from their pockets. It amplifies the surveillance they live under. It forces them to hug Perez Hilton on occasion. But what Ellen has shown is that celebrities can harness its power in ways that benefit them, too.
If you’re an ordinary person and you post a teary, ludicrously over-the-top tirade lamenting the tiny wrongs that have been done to you on YouTube, expect indifference and abuse from semi-literate 13-year-olds. If you’re famous, it’s a much different story, sort of like the Bat-Signal in reverse. Within hours, all of Gotham City will be volunteering to help you vanquish your enemies. It’s the best thing to happen to stardom since the invention of photo retouching.