Dr. Oz & the epidemic of reality TV stars in politics
The nation seems to be in the midst of yet another contagion — not the Omicron variant, but reality celebrities convinced they should be high-profile political leaders.
Talk-show host Dr. Mehmet Oz is the latest mutation in this epidemic, announcing his candidacy in a crowded field for U.S. senator from Pennsylvania. The doctor follows in the footsteps of two unsuccessful candidates for California governor: Kardashian cast member Caitlyn Jenner and radio provocateur Larry Elder. Each one is Republican — and no doubt encouraged by another GOP reality star, former President Donald Trump, whose election in 2016 seems to have prompted a lot of celebrities to look in the mirror and ask, “Why not me?”
This extraordinary epidemic traces its origins to Hollywood and the unique place that reality-show personalities have in the show business petri dish. It’s a special strain of celebrity which seems to encourage bold overreach.
Names of movie and television stars are often tossed around by political parties in search of viable candidates: They have built-in name recognition and substantial bank accounts on hand to jump-start campaigns. But for talk show hosts and reality stars, the temptation to see themselves in high office directing the futures of millions is far stronger.
That’s because, unlike actors, these personalities are famous for actually being themselves. In scripted movies and on TV, stars pretend to be other people. The audience may confuse fiction with reality — we believe Tom Hanks is a really nice guy because he always plays really nice guys — but the actors themselves ultimately understand they’re famous for working behind a mask.
A TV host like Dr. Oz is different: He’s famous because he’s the one-and-only Dr. Oz. There is no mask. The adulation he receives — cheering studio audiences and substantial ratings — is direct and unfiltered. He is out there on a talk show set as himself, not a fictional character, basking in the attention.
This can lead to a condition known as “the very big ego.”
It’s not a huge leap from there to thinking you can be governor of the largest state in the nation, or U.S. senator from a key swing state. Only one thing gets in the way: Politics is not exactly show business, even in our media-soaked era.
Celebrities build bubbles of flattery around themselves that are hard to penetrate; producers, publicists, agents and managers are paid to keep bad news out. Oz’s announcement is a strong example of that bubble. Most political pros would enter a Pennsylvania race in front of a steel mill, or on a farm, or at the very least standing near the Liberty Bell. But Oz released a highly scripted video instead, shot on what looks like his talk-show set, with a campaign logo based on his talk-show logo. And the doctor doesn’t even mention Pennsylvania. It all felt hermetically sealed, protected from the outside world.
But in big-time politics, the rough-and-tumble of competitive campaigns breaks through even the hardest of bubbles — and often shocks newcomers who aren’t prepared.
Oz already is facing some of that rude awakening.
Concerns about carpet-bagging were quickly raised because the doctor lives in New Jersey and tapes his show in New York. He’s only been a registered voting resident of Pennsylvania since December 2020, and uses his in-laws’ house as his official address. Oz’s candidacy also has resurrected controversies surrounding his on-air endorsement of questionable diet pills and products; those controversies eventually landed him in front of a Senate health and science committee.
The North Star for all these reality celebrities remains Trump — the man who went from “The Apprentice” to the White House, who withstood all the cracks in his reality-star bubble to win the biggest prize in politics. If he can do it, so can they.
But they seem to have forgotten something: The cracks did eventually get too big for Trump. Starting on Election Day 2020, unwelcomed real life intruded on a bubble built with billions of dollars, reinforced by family and friendly media. An aggressive manipulation of reality has been the only way for this particular former reality star to cope.
If anything, the Trump experience should serve as a severely cautionary tale to other over-indulged celebrities with outsized ambitions.
At least so far, Dr. Oz doesn’t see that — and he may turn out to be right.
But Pennsylvania’s primary day is May 17, a long way off. Time enough for plenty of bubbles to burst.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.
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