The Commodification of Reality Stars: Interview with Brittany Flickinger
OVERSATURATED is a 6-part interview series by independent filmmaker, Ashley Good.
Through a series of interviews with individuals in front of, chasing, or inspired by the limelight, OVERSATURATED will explore a ménage of topics including: self-commodification, the chicken and the egg situation of the teenagers influencing celebrity culture and celebrity culture impacting teenagers, and the use of celebrity stories as a political distraction.
My first OVERSATURATED interview is with Brittany Flickinger, the winner of the first season Paris Hilton’s My New BFF, an MTV reality show in 2005.
As a filmmaker, I usually share my ideas with my friends so that I am “forced” to see my projects through. I tell people that I am working on a new project (even when it is in its very early stages), because I believe that it will prevent me from backing out of it because once the idea is out in the universe, my ego won’t let me quit, lest I be seen as a quitter… Since deciding to conduct these interviews though, I made the decision to keep the details to myself, so that I could work on things at my own pace without friends checking in on my progress. However, on the day I was set to speak with Brittany, I began to re-evaluate my plan to keep this project secret. I began to panic and my mind raced with superficial thoughts: “Should I make an Instagram post announcing the project to start growing buzz? Should I create a hashtag to subtly hint that I was working on something new? Should I post a selfie? If so, should I do my make up? After all, branding is vital to any project that is intended for a larger audience, and if I am writing a book, the book’s brand should represent my brand…” Looking back at my (painfully basic) panic attack, I have realized that everything that I was worried about was connected to self-commodification.
Self-commodification refers to act of branding/labeling yourself, usually as a way to make yourself be understood and accepted by others. As an example, take a look at your social media accounts. Look at the words you are using in your posts, the style of your pictures, the way you describe yourself… Do you know any consistencies or a specific style? That is your brand. In short, you are making yourself a product to be consumed in society, rather than being an idol consumer (like “everyone else”).
The trend of self-commodification can be looked at in a few ways. Some might consider it as the disgraceful end-result of capitalism where everything, even our own selves have been turned into a product. It could also be argued that self-commodification is a form of empowerment in a capitalist society; where by “branding” yourself, you are taking control of your own image and are controlling how others see you, before someone else (possibly a corporation) decides who you are first.
I would argue that the merits of self-commodification fall somewhere in between the result of late-stage capitalism where everything must be labelled and sold, and as a form of and self-empowerment to those that exist within a capitalist society. Whether self-commodification is “good” or not comes down to what an individual’s goals are, and what pressures they are responding to, and what your overall thoughts about capitalism are.
But, I digress… Here is my interview with Paris Hilton’s ex-BFF, turned creative director and author, Brittany Flickinger!
Disclaimer: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
With this project, I really want to explore the throw away nature of pop-culture. How society is so quick to idolize people, but also quick to tear down those idols.
It’s such a sad industry. I mean, [reality TV] has such a crazy perception. … It’s literally another scripted show, like the office, you know, mockumentary style. Except the characters are based on [the contestants]. So when you do your casting and all of that stuff, the characters, the people that want to be cast on the show, that’s what the character is inspired by. They sort of build character[s] around the basic idea of what they need. The Villain, the Good Girl, the Martyr, the Troublemaker and all of the stuff. And then they find those people and let them talk and they base a character around that person to make it seem like it’s “real,” and it’s not.
… It is all about the throwaway culture and disposable people. [Being famous is weird] because you’re a person but you’re not a person anymore. It’s like you’re a toy at that point, you know what I mean?
Like you’re a commodity.
Yeah, literally like the in-season Barbie. A plastic toy. That’s what you become. Then the new barbie comes out and they (society) throws the old Barbie away. Like an iPhone… An iPhone is great and it responds and does everything that the commercial says it’ll do, then the new iPhone comes out and it’s like “fuck the old iPhone.” It’s the same thing but with people, which I think is so interesting and kind of scary. First of all that people are dumb enough to believe it’s (reality TV) real and secondly awful enough to treat people that they’re just another object like an iPhone.
It is pretty disturbing. I have a friend out here that worked on a few episodes of The Bachelor and he was saying that they would make it seem like there was so much drama between the women but off camera they were best friends. They were more sad when one of them got sent home than anything, not because of the guy.
You don’t even know the subject, you don’t say hi to them or anything. And everyone is like wait, don’t you spend time with them at all? It’s like, no you don’t. Towards the end you get to spend some time together, but it’s not what the show is about. It’s like “actors in their off time hanging out” kind of feel.
Did you know that the show (Paris Hilton’s New BFF) would be like that when you applied to be on it? What was your expectation?
I didn’t have any. I was a “band person.” I went into the show, and everyone knew that I was in the band and that was my main focus. My band members and I thought it would be so funny if I was on a reality show with someone (like Paris) that was like the complete opposite of what we were all about. And we were like, “Wouldn’t it be so funny if I was on this, because I don’t belong there because I’m not an actor and I’m not like part of this floofy sparkly pink world?” … And everyone was like, “Oh my god, you have to do it” so I [thought], I’m going to do it and I’m going to win. So I went and auditioned and I got cast to be the winner. And I could tell (that I was cast as the winner), because it was different than what the other cast members were asked. They got auditioned in a completely different way than I did.
But I had no idea it would be like that. I just figured it would be a fun job to do. And it was! [Well] it was fun until it leaked out into real life and the general public thought it was real and they idolized me for a couple of minutes until they didn’t want me to be idolized anymore… After the hype and the positivity went away, it was something that I wouldn’t wish on anyone to deal with. They twist things and make it look the way they want it to, in your real life too, and you have no idea that’s what you’re getting in to when you go in to it. … I am not the same person as I was ten years ago. Can you imagine, if you today had to make the same decisions as kid you did ten years ago today? Not knowing what you know now?
What did the people in your band think when you got in to the show and were thrust into that spotlight?
They didn’t want me to ruin the integrity of the band. Understandably. I really didn’t get it at the time… They were really about be true to yourself, be true to your music, like, don’t sell out. Don’t make it something that it’s not. It’s about the music and the friendship. … They said that they didn’t think I should do it (be on the show) because they thought it was going to break up the band. And I was like, no it won’t… It won’t… And it did.
I understand you’ve stayed involved in the entertainment industry since leaving the show. Did you feel like you had to? Like now that you were involved in this world, you couldn’t leave?
I was involved in the entertainment my whole life, like before the show. I was a model, I was a creative director. I went to school for art and design. So I was already in it. I’m just a creative, like either you’re right brained or left brained and I am completely on the creative side. I don’t think I would ever not want to be in the industry. …[As a writer and creative director], it’s been a challenge, because of the reputation that you get being on a reality show. … People think it’s real and people in the industry have their own opinions about the reality show industry, so it has been hard to prove myself as a creator… It’s like I have to always strive and go the extra ten miles compared to if I had never done it. … It really does create obstacles and challenge you in the industry, because of the opinions people have of you.
What do you think of the men and women that try to get on reality shows to try to boost their Instagram followers so that they can become influencers? Do you think that they are savvy doing that, or is that just a terrible, terrible idea?
I think it depends on what type of influencer they are. I think being an influencer is similar being on a reality show, but in a “you get to control your character” kind of way. So it really just depends. I wouldn’t suggest doing it because once you’re in the media you have to stay in the media or else you’re not credible if you don’t keep up with it. Or if you switch careers or anything. It’s like, once you’re there, you have to stay there to stay in people’s minds.
It’s weird because they say, “Oh everyone loves a comeback story” but that seems very few and far between.
I don’t know if it’s [always] a comeback…but that’s what it’s perceived as. You’re doing nothing with your life unless you’re in the media still. What about all of the people not in the media, are they doing nothing with their lives too? I just want to be a regular person and enjoy my behind the camera life.
It’s like the guy from the Cosby show that they found working at Trader Joes or something and everyone was like “Oh my God, he’s so pathetic.” But he’s out there living his life, and there isn’t anything wrong with that.
Yeah, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Like work where you want, do what makes you happy. Sometimes I feel like the people with the strongest opinions are the ones that don’t feel good about themselves. Like it makes them feel good to attack people. It’s the same thing with an iPhone, like that iPhone is so shitty. It’s the last model. You must be poor if you’re carrying that around. You must be a loser if you’re supporting this old actor that’s now working at Trader Joes… Have some integrity.
And in today’s economy, it’s like everyone is a temporarily embarrassed millionaire, you know? Like, we’re all faking it, but god forbid you have an old iPhone when no one can really afford a new iPhone anyway. It’s just sort of ironic.
I know, it’s living in LA too. Peoples priorities here are just… It’s all a façade. And I’m from a small town, I’m from Boston, I’m not from Vegas like my character was.
They changed your hometown?
Well, I lived in Vegas because I was in a band so [my character] was like “the emo kind from Vegas” when I was really a creative director from Boston, just living my life… parents right down the road.
That’s actually hilarious. I can’t imagine dealing with all of that. So I found an article, and I guess, Paris said that you were too fame hungry?
It’s so weird too, because in real life she was like “I want you to make it, I want you to be a rock star… How cool would it be if I was best friends with a rock star?” Because after the show we became friends in life and we traveled together and we were hanging and stuff, like we clicked. But then we stopped being friends when she did another show, because they had to make the show seem real for the general public. She’s a reality star, that’s what she is, and she just had to pick her career otherwise how is she going to make a living if she doesn’t pick her career, you know? … I don’t have any hard feelings, it’s just unfortunate. It’s such a weird and powerful industry.
It’s like… [Back in the day] with a show like Lizzie McGuire. Everyone would be like “Oh my god, it’s Lizzie! Lizzie!” And Hilary Duff would be like “Oh my god, I’m not Lizzie. It’s a character, are you kidding me?” But [with actors] the media isn’t saying “Lizzie McGuire seen at The Grove, Lizzie McGuire seen with this person, doing this thing…” [There’s a separation between character and person]. … When [your reason for being famous] is personality based though, it becomes who you are for a while.
Outside of your band, did other people that already knew you start treating you differently? Like, they thought you were your character?
Kind of. Some people were mad at me when they found out that wasn’t who I am, and some people were like, “Oh that’s so you…” … [Reality TV] is like improv acting. … It’s called loose scripted. …
I suddenly had a lot more friends at the time, I’ll tell you that much. I had family I didn’t know I had… I don’t know if it’s because people think they can get something from you, or if you’re in their mind because they’re seeing you (in the media) and they’re like, “oh I wonder what she’s up to?” I’m not really sure what it is. It feels weird though to feel so loved because the media is like “love this person” and then the media is “don’t love this person, hate this person!” Or “forget about this person” and it’s like you don’t have control over your own image and who you are. It’s like someone else is controlling that.
You mentioned having a lot more friends… Did you hang out with the other contestants at all?
Oh yeah! Like any other cast, we hung out all of the time. The crew was actually a little annoyed because we hung out all of the time we got so best friend-y that we couldn’t get in the zone. They had to be like, “Alright, go take this toothbrush, put it in your butt crack, go!” But yeah everyone was really good friends. We still keep in touch.
I’d really rather not have a “reality” reputation. I’d rather be behind the camera. Writing, directing… making and creating, you know? I’ve always been a creator. I love acting, but I’d just rather not do it in the reality industry. I’m kind of in a way glad I did it so that I know, but also I think I would take a different route as an adult. Knowing the industry and being here…
I know a lot has changed since 2008… Songs use to be a lot more slut shame-y back in the day and that was “totally cool…” but in retrospect, I’m wondering if you feel the show was kind of sexist? Just because the show so overly commodified female friendships and treated them like a product?
Now looking back, it is really strange. … Just, as someone in the industry, I think it’s a cute fun concept, but also really pathetic that people would think it was real… Like, “I have a chance to be best friends with this person, because they’re famous and they’re pretty!” That’s weird. I don’t think it’s sexist, but it is weird in a “What the heck” kind of way. Like, you have to crawl over people and to be “best friends” with someone? Like you’re for sale? Like you’re picking a car? It’s weird, but it’s also [like The Bachelor]. If shows like that are okay, then something like this can be cute and fun. … It’s a cute fun stylize gimmick. It good for entertainment purposes, because it’s a fake world. … If you know that it’s just for entertainment purposes and it’s all scripted for fun and to be funny and weird, and really bizarre, then it’s really okay.
I think you’re right when you compare it to The Bachelorette and shows like that. It’s more weird when people take it seriously.
It’s weird and disturbing that the general public has been deceived in a way into thinking that it is true and real when it’s just another form of TV entertainment — fake, like anything else. I watch The Office and I’m like “Oh my god” it’s kind of the same, because of the interviews and coming up with stuff on the stop, and being fed lines when you don’t know what to say, and having a topic for the day, and just going with it… And that’s why I love improv and think it’s so fun. … It’s fun for entertainment. If everyone understands and respects the people working on the project, rather than judging the shit out of them and dehumanizing them, or being overly involved in a weird personal way [it can be fun]… I just want people to know that it’s purely for entertainment and it’s all planned and it’s all carefully picked.
It sounds like the issue isn’t the show, it’s how the public reacts to them.
Right, but the whole magic is that people think it’s real. And people have been tricked into thinking that this is real and this is how it is. That’s why it works and that’s why people watch it, because they’re thinking it is real. … The [conversations] like “Is it real, is it fake?” is what kind of makes it fun.
I wish it didn’t destroy lives and pigeon holes people and traps them the way that it does… I have been on the opposite side. I am a story producer. I’ve done story producing on these shows too. It was another eye opener and learning curve too. Like, you’re really willing to go to any length to get good rating and to make a good story and to make a good show and make a good character… You know, so people keep watching. You have to keep pushing the envelope and ignoring integrity… I don’t like the industry that much. *laughs*
It sounds like a love hate type thing.
Yeah. If it’s all in good fun, then it’s fun. But if you’re playing with people’s lives, it’s not fun. And I feel like that’s what people need to know. So people don’t end up… Like some reality stars are not doing very well at all.
I couldn’t imagine going through all of that, I am pretty private and don’t take a good picture. I’m like you in that I prefer to be on the other side of the camera.
Yeah, it’s way better there! Because you’re still creating and you’re having a good time with this group that’s like a family and you’re working on this thing together and you’re making something really cool. And it’s safe back there. And people don’t even know that you’re doing the job — [most] people don’t even know what the difference between a producer, a creative director, and a director is! People don’t even read the credits — they don’t care, they care who is in front of the camera.
That is so true, I actually spent the weekend on an indie film set — actually just producing a friend’s feature — and it was pouring rain and we’re trying to shield the cameras, and we’re all exhausted but we’re all having the time of our lives. I was joking that we’re all a bunch of weirdos for enjoying it and one of the actors piped up with “See, individually we’re weird, but together we’re normal.” You’re right, it’s like a little family on set.
You’re right, that’s so true! I think that people just don’t realize. They don’t give the credit to the right places. It’s like sometimes behind the scenes people work so hard. Do you even know who produced the Paris show?
I’d have to look on Wikipedia.
Exactly! I’m not the one that should get credit for my character. I had help. Like yeah it was me, but the intensity and the drama and some of the lines, it was completely credited to the people that made the show a hit. The people behind the camera that made everything work.
It’s like, at a photo shoot, when you’ve brought everyone and everything together and your vision comes to life. … And then the credit all goes to the photographer and the model!
There’s much to be said about giving credit to people that create the whole thing. And whoever created reality [shows] in the first place! Probably the person that created Laguna Beach. I wonder what that [person] is doing.
I love art, and I think reality [tv] can be a form of art, if the audience understands it.
You’ve inspired me to change the entire project into a book called “Producers Don’t Get Enough Love.”
It’s so true! I’ve been producing projects and people will ask me to get them coffee because they don’t know what I do. And I’m like, of course I’ll get you coffee because it’s my job to help out and keep people happy, but then at the end of the project everyone is like “Let’s do a big round of applause for… the camera man…” And you’re like what? And then everyone leaves and you’re like, “You’re welcome, I just paid for everything, It’s fine…” *Laughs*
What are you currently working on?
I am a creative director, so I work on film ads and film shoots and stuff. I am also writing a book series, a fantasy adventure. … It touches on science, art, and magic. It’s beautiful, very visual.
Do you have anything else that you would like to add?
I just want people to be nicer and more respectful to the artists that put their lives, literally on the line, so that they have fun things to watch and enjoy. … Art is what makes the world go round, and without the artists, there would be no real life. Everything would be boring. There would be no [beauty]. … [Artists] are doing it for you. … Showing respect to everyone equally, and not judging people. Just being kind, loving and selfless, is the best thing you can do. You don’t know what people are going through. People aren’t toys, and you need to treat everyone with equally. …Even if it seems perfect from the outside, there could still be something that they are hurting for. … We’re all just people.