A Culture of Extraordinary

By Stacy London


You may or may not know that I spent 10 years on a TV show or that I wrote some books or that I did some other stuff. But I can tell you I spent the last 10 years of my life without ever looking up. That isn’t bragging; it’s an admission. I was going so fast for so long, I didn’t even know the velocity at which I was operating.

But after 10 years my full time stint on TV has come to an end and for the first time, I have not accelerated the pace of my life but decelerated it. It is the first time I have “looked up.” It is the first time I have looked around. I have spent my life becoming a career woman and being a self-sufficient one at that (mom was a frontline feminist.) Let’s face it; we all deserve a rest at some point. (A funny thing about rest: people don’t know exactly what to say to you. There is usually a pause of some kind, just a beat or two, before a reply. Some have overly agreed with me that I need a break; some stare in disbelief; some take it as an opportunity to tell me all their problems.) And it is the first time I have wondered whether some of this dismay doesn’t stem directly from the shift in our culture to always being “on,” and that taking time “off” doesn’t even make sense in a world of instant connectivity.

Now, everyone thinks they should be on TV.

I realize that taking a rest takes a certain amount of resolve on my part. When one has access all day long to text and Twitter and Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest (haven’t even gotten to Snapchat yet), it can quickly feel like what you have accomplished isn’t enough to stand (still) on. To wake up and look around at a world so very different from the one I entered when I started television has been startling. Now, everyone thinks they should be on TV. It is not to say that our society hasn’t always put a certain amount of value in the concept of fame but now, the desire for it seems to have grown in direct proportion to the ease with which one can acquire attention. To have “more” when it comes to almost anyone is to be more known, more recognized, indeed more famous. The bar of notoriety has been lowered since I started in television. You don’t need actually need any kind of expertise; you just need to be noticeable: beautiful, funny, crazy etc. and for that, you are quantifiably rewarded with hearts and retweets. Of course in a world where Housewives and Kardashians are idolized, I can see how TV actually set the precedent.

Somewhere in the past 10 years, the pace of content has replaced the quality of the content. It no longer seems to matter if it’s good or helpful or valuable. It just has to come out constantly. Because if you don’t have anything new to say (or a new way to say the same thing), go ahead and make some shit up. Who will know the difference?

When I started in TV, it was the era of learning that things you aspired to (a nice home, good style) were not outside the realm of possibility any longer. Trading Spaces and While You Were Out showed us HOW to furnish our lives, and style programs showed us HOW we could dress without having to be skinny, rich or young. Reality television burst in the door and introduced you to experts who were there to help YOU. But the how-to advice of television is no longer a necessity. How-to is a click, not a day away. And while there are kajillons of TV channels, there are kajillion more digital outlets. Now, you can watch a fashion show live streamed AS Anna Wintour is watching it. Anyone, everyone (including Ms. Wintour) can be his or her own brand of expert because immediacy of information disallows for exclusivity of that information.

You don’t just have to be the woman who does everything; you now have to SHOW that you are. Welcome to the new résumé.

The fact is being on TV somehow gives people a halo of authority and they were not picked by accident. Someone decided they could be authoritative and entertaining and gave them a platform. By comparison in the digital world, everyone is an expert not only by what they say but how often they say it. They are not chosen by the few, they become respected by the many. Reality television “experts” gave birth to the modern day blogger. In this new world order, you can interact with your idols directly and you can gain power and expert status by creating a following.

I woke up after my 10 years on TV and now the,number of Instagram followers one has seems to determine one’s worth, both personally and commercially.

I am literally awed by bloggers who post 10 times a day, astounded by huge Internet giants like HuffPo, Yahoo!, and AOL who, with all their divisions, tweet some piece of content every thirty seconds. (It’s worth noting that AOL actually has a division called AOL On. I follow them on Twitter, natch.) The fact that good information retains its value is now a handicap. In order to be an online expert/celebrity, MORE information has more value. Constancy is the hallmark of expertise, not the content itself.

My point here isn’t actually to say I don’t belong in this Brave New World any more or less than anyone else, but arriving late to the party has given me a bit of perspective: we are a civilization that exceeds at excess. We consistently hold ourselves to such exhausting standards that it is easy to lose confidence in who we are. We, as a culture, have a deep-seated need to be liked, validated, and prized, even to the point of being willing to turn the most mundane or the most private of things into grist for the digital mill. And the demands of social media have reinforced this cultural neurosis even further.

I am beginning to wonder if we’ve become more unabashed about our behavior, not because we are any freer or less judgmental as a society but because any attention is now good enough to posit a claim of expertise and a bid for celebrity. Perhaps in this day and age, we can’t appreciate the talents we do possess unless we feel they have been acknowledged by an “audience.” (There is no IMMEDIATE reciprocity in print, or TV for that matter) Magazines know they are doing well by circulation numbers and maybe a few letters to the editor. Television shows know their ratings the following day. It’s no wonder media giants like Conde Nast, Hearst and Time Inc have upped their game online or that networks are all now scrambling for second screen engagement.

This is the ta-da jazz-hands moment, and this is something you need to create ten times a day, every day.

This is the age of personal branding and everyone is a star. It is no longer as simple as dressing ourselves well and baking cookies or nailing a deal; it is proving how clever we are, how much fun we are, how busy we are, how witty we are, even how vulnerable we are. This is the ta-da jazz-hands moment, and this is something you need to create ten times a day, every day. You don’t just have to be the woman who does everything; you now have to SHOW that you are (EVEN IF YOU AREN’T.) Welcome to the new résumé.

I experienced some degree of fame in in a post-feminist pre-Internet age, and perhaps that is why I experience such a sense of confusion (even anxiety) over this digital one. Sharing constantly feels like oversharing to me. Total transparency is the new black. And the burden of constantly sharing seems to add exponentially to an already exhausting culture.

I question whether the immediacy of social media makes our need for recognition and validation no longer about those few who truly know and love us, but from the masses that don’t. Are transparency and constancy the ingredients of what authenticity looks like? Self-deprecation and sharing moments that were once considered private has suddenly become the new currency of “honesty.” In an effort to be more popular, are we trading in who we are for who our “audience” wants us to be? Is controlling one’s image online any different than having a publicist in real life or keeping your addiction the zooborns.com a secret? (Oh come ON, you already knew that about me.)

As Lena Dunham so interestingly said in a recent Vogue article:

“I have a really great private existence, almost more like a memoirist or a columnist would, and less like an actor would,” she says. “Which I enjoy, because I can’t overstate how much I hate leaving the house.” Dunham sees her apartment as an extension of herself: She couldn’t undertake bold feats of self-disclosure in public—the stories of her sexual history, the portraits of her family life, the nakedness—if she didn’t have it to return to. “No one would describe me as a private person, but I actually really am,” she explains. “It’s important for me to have a lot of time alone, and to have a lot of time in my house by myself. My entire life sort of takes place between me and my dog, my books, and my boyfriend, and my private world. To me, privacy isn’t necessarily equated with secret-keeping. What’s private is my relationship with myself.”

There is a particular and intentional genius to Lena Dunham. Everyone relates to the person she puts out there: a new kind of anti-heroine. But one might suggest that her true brilliance is in getting people to identify so wholly with a persona she is not solely. To give the appearance of authenticity both on a scripted TV series and by taking and posting pictures on Instagram of her boyfriend, her dog, her “so-called life,” is an intentional and crafted exercise in supposed intimacy. We think we know the real her. But this quote would suggest just the opposite. While she did not begin her career with an Instagram account; and she possesses talent with or without social media.

Having been a host on TV for 10 years does not hold the same value it once did.

Honestly, I don’t know whether we’ve raised or relaxed the cultural expectations of achievement in this viral age. The game is open to all, and the playing field is level. (As long as you can be funny in 140 characters or less.) But the competition feels no less intense from where I’m standing. Perhaps by allowing everyone the chance to brand themselves publicly, we diversify the ideals of our society. Perhaps by becoming the new voices of the next generations, sharing (even everything) is the next stage of feminism: to rid ourselves of secrets and hiding and shame and any sort of inequality? Or do we simply enter into a more savage display of one-upmanship?

Lately I’ve been told repeatedly that my livelihood depends in part on my online engagement. Having been a host on TV for 10 years does not hold the same value it once did. Having 2 million followers on a social media platform does. Frankly, some days I’m not sure I’m up to the challenge. Will the skills that made me successful on television serve me at all on another media platform? Will the skills of social media stars serve them anywhere else? I suppose we’ll all have to wait and see.

I would argue that if we become paralyzed by the myriad choices in front of us, the need for experts, at least, aggregators becomes important and relevant once again. So I, humbly, predict there will be shifts. With all the people branding themselves, we’ll eventually need people to help us navigate these choices. There will always be voices that rise above the others. Those people may be viewed and valued experts once again and the playing field will change. I wouldn’t be surprised if digital magazines become the leaders in information: print, reimagined. And I won’t be surprised if how-to TV comes back into style when audiences are fed up with women having plastic surgery and throwing tables just to stir shit up. You will have heard it here first, people.

Stacy London is an author and TV personality, and the former host of TLC’s ‘What Not to Wear.’ This is an excerpt from her essay, “A Culture of Extraordinary,” from The 10 Habits of Highly Successful Women on Amazon Kindle.