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Reality Bites

Actors used to perform on television shows to become famous and get on the news. These days, people put on acts in real life in order to become famous so they can get on TV.

Look at the so-called White House crashers, Tareq and Michaele Salahi. The Salahis enjoyed a glamorous evening at President Obama's first White House state dinner, which was held in honor of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Like the other guests, they mingled with the Washington elite and shook hands with the president and vice president. Vice President Joe Biden said that they acted “like they were my old buddies.”

But, according to the Secret Service, no one had invited the Salahis to the gala. The two claim that an acquaintance at the Pentagon had told them that they would be on the guest list. The alleged acquaintance was Michele S. Jones, special assistant to the secretary of defense and the Pentagon-based liaison to the White House. Jones says that, while she did exchange emails with the Salahis regarding the dinner, she clearly told them she did not have the authority to authorize admission.

The Salahis are apparently not the first to finagle their uninvited way into a White House event. On Dec. 31, 1938, Beatrice White and Joe Measell, both 16 at the time, attended the White House New Year’s Eve party on a dare as part of a scavenger hunt. Eleanor Roosevelt gave them the autograph they sought but scolded them for “barging into people’s homes.”

The Salahis’ motives apparently were less wholesome. Ms. Salahi was being considered for a role on the reality television show The Real Housewives of D.C., and probably thought a Facebook profile boasting pictures of her schmoozing with the president would help her cause. The Salahis may not have planned on getting caught, but this opportunistic couple has a history of ending up in court after getting, or taking, what they want. They have already used their most recent caper to gain an interview on the Today show.

As reality television with its self-made stars increasingly blurs the line between life and entertainment, an interesting personal story can now be a valuable commodity. Nadya Suleman, the woman known as the Octomom, has turned being a media sensation into a full-time job.

Those who don’t have the good fortune to survive a dangerous multiple pregnancy sometimes manufacture their own stories to become reality stars.

On Oct. 15, the nation was captivated by the story of Falcon Heene, the 6-year-old boy who reportedly floated away in a basket tethered to a giant helium balloon. When the balloon landed, young Falcon was not inside. After an agonizing search, the boy was found...safe at home, hiding in the garage.

While the nation breathed a sigh of relief, the Heenes were interviewed by reporters. They claimed that the balloon had accidentally come untethered during a test flight and that they had believed their son was inside. However, when the family was interviewed by Wolf Blitzer on CNN's Larry King Live, Falcon told Blitzer that he had remained in hiding because his parents had told him to do so “for the show.”

The Heenes, who had already appeared twice on the reality show Wife Swap, were apparently seeking to star in their own reality show. After the incident, the producer of Wife Swap admitted that a show had been in development. It was, however, called off after the balloon incident was revealed as a hoax.

For people like the Salahis, Suleman and the Heenes, the news is a stepping stone on the way to the lucrative world of reality television, book deals and based-on-a-true-story movies. These pseudo-celebrities actively seek to parlay an appearance on the Today show or a profile in US Weekly into money in the bank.

As people become products, they learn to market themselves with the same tools that are used to sell sneakers and soft drinks. One of those tools is product placement, or embedded marketing, as the advertisers like to call it. Celebrity wannabes use every trick they can think of to get on TV for the same reason advertisers pay television producers to write their products into the script. It would not surprise me if, in the future, some people buy their way into interview slots or other broadcast appearances to propel themselves forward on the path to fame and, through fame, fortune.

Will Face the Nation sell its Sunday morning hot seat? Probably not, but I can think of plenty of other talk shows that might.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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