by Steven M.L. Aronson
Morrow, 399 pp., $15.95
“People no longer do anything with respect to what they’re doing,” writes Mr. Aronson, “they do everything with respect to that third eye, which is the eye of People magazine.” Our culture is “sorely menaced” by what he calls “hype,” “the merchandising of a product—be it an object, a person, or an idea—in an artificially engendered atmosphere of hysteria, in order to create a demand for it or to inflate such demand as already exists.” Hype is a “conspiracy” against a gullible American public, “a force that makes a mockery of the human essence”; it debases our language and “manipulates taste as it vitiates our power to discriminate.” These claims raise serious questions: How are careers and reputations inflated by publicity and promotion? Are critics of American culture correct that our conceptions of status and power are shaped by press agents and public relations men?
Mr. Aronson tells us that his task is to inspect and “eviscerate” the phenomenon of hype. He sees the “hyping” of a career as a kind of contest: behind the players eager to promote themselves, he says, there generally stands a “super” who manages, or somehow advances, their careers, usually with the help of publicists and promotional “representatives.” Then there are what Aronson calls “referees” of the game, gossip columnists and others who dictate what is in, out, chic, tacky. Aronson claims to construct an “inductive model” of hype by offering the reader portraits of representative stars, supers, and referees.
His book begins with an account of how the model Cheryl Tiegs became Middle America’s sweetheart. There follows a series of chapters describing how the “What becomes a Legend most?” ad campaign for Blackglama mink resuscitated some older stars. Several chapters are devoted to “supers”—hairdressers like Kenneth, plastic surgeons (Dr. Thomas Rees and others), and publicists and agents (such as Irving Lazar, Herb Schmertz, and Bobby Zarem). The book describes self-promoters in architecture (such as Philip Johnson, Richard Meier, Robert Stern) and medicine (Dr. Denton Cooley). As for “referees,” Aronson examines the careers of the restaurant owner Elaine, the food critic Mimi Sheraton, and the gossip columnist “Suzy.” The book’s last chapter is a portrait of the “empress of hype,” the romance novelist Barbara Cartland.
Mr. Aronson is a skilled interviewer; he has a flair for inducing his subjects to hang themselves with a maximum of embarrassment. One unfortunate subject is the plastic surgeon Dr. Howard Bellin. He is the author of Dr. Bellin’s Beautiful You book, from which Aronson quotes such opinions as the following: “Eventually we may be able to develop an electrical device that can be worn at night to enlarge the chin and cheek bones, or even to provide additional height. Redesigning the entire body could be done by feeding personalized contour information into a computer.” Bellin was recently sued by an abdominoplasty patient who charged that he had shifted her navel two-and-a-half inches off center; a Manhattan court awarded her over three-quarters of …