A series dedicated to explaining Britain's manufactured celebrities to an American audience.
Far be it from me to inject a note of alarmism into this barely launched year, but have you noticed that absolutely nothing is real anymore? Bikini models are actual hungry teenagers only from the chin up, marriages arranged in good faith by Ryan Seacrest Enterprises are not, it turns out, sacred and everlasting unions, and each day that passes sees Photoshop and plastic surgery opponent Kate Winslet looking more like a cyborg who’d like to offer you a Lancôme gift bag with a $35-or-more purchase. We do, it is some consolation, still live in a world where ensnaring innocent animals in our Baudrillardian web is deemed to cross the line: last month, when a BBC nature show used fake snow and interspliced shots of the Arctic to pass off captive newborn polar bear cubs as having been filmed in the wild, there was a national outcry and a stern official reprimand issued. Idiot homo sapiens can be manipulated and placed in faked-for-TV situations and no one really cares—well, a few journalists are pretending to care that “The X Factor” might be fixed, probably because Simon Cowell told them to—but we will not stand for our baby bear reality shows to be corrupted in this way.
Which brings us, conveniently enough, to the case of a young TV star so cherubic, so snub-nosed and fluffy and altogether adorable, so incapable of forming anything resembling regular adult speech, so helpless and irresistibly doe-eyed, that she has transcended the derided category of docusoap performer to occupy the same place in Britain’s creaky old heart as those tiny endangered species. Amy Childs, a 21-year-old Jessica Rabbit lookalike, shimmied into the UK’s collective consciousness in late 2010 as a cast member of “The Only Way Is Essex” (“TOWIE” in its affectionate acronym), and then appeared alongside friend to this column Kerry Katona on last summer’s “Celebrity Big Brother,” expanding her fan base far and wide. The usually acerbic writer Giles Coren, for instance, drooled in the pages of Vogue that Amy is as “exotic and unattainable as a princess,” which is certainly one way of putting it.
Nevertheless, after Amy's moonlight stint on "CBB," the “TOWIE” string-pullers ruthlessly exiled her from subsequent seasons of their human puppet show. “Apparently,” relayed the Daily Mail-anointed Best Loved Essex Girl, “they said that my life wasn’t real anymore.” Somewhere, in whatever simulated celestial order he has ascended to, Professor Baudrillard is smiling wryly at this very 21st-century perplexity, and at Amy’s brave attempt to prove her own existence—or, in paradoxical truth, further erode her realness with more fame—via a new show. “It’s All About Amy” debuted on December 1st and is depicting “the real Amy Childs,” as opposed to the wantonly distorted version seen on “TOWIE.” “People will see the real me in my new show,” she has poignantly vowed, “whereas in 'TOWIE' I was edited to look stupid.”
One can sympathize with Amy’s desire to set the record straight, looking stupid on “TOWIE” being the converse equivalent of looking clever while debating string theory with Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene. Of course, intellectual stimulation is (stratospherically) far from the point of this highly rated “structured reality” show, whose characters, catchphrases, customs and landmarks are now so tightly woven into the fabric of British society, it’s almost impossible to believe that it only hit screens a little over a year ago.
The London-adjacent county of Essex has always been notorious for the status symbol-laden style and cheerfully brash behavior of its denizens—the image of New Jersey, including the relationship it shares with its more sophisticated neighboring metropolis, is remarkably analogous—and now, with “TOWIE,” Essex Boys and Essex Girls are finally enjoying the kind of adulation they know they deserve. Even the poshos of “Downton Abbey” couldn’t compete with Essex at the 2011 BAFTA Awards—“TOWIE” beat “Downton” and other shows including “Sherlock” and “The Killing” to carry away the YouTube Audience Award, voted for by the public. (Lady Mary, aka Michelle Dockery, is herself a proud Essex Girl so she probably didn’t mind too much.) In further confirmation, Claire Danes, whose stunning performance on 2011’s best US show—as well as her marriage to a Brit—imbues her with the greatest authority, recently came out as a “TOWIE” aficionado: “They’re definitely tacky and a little, I don’t know, maybe morally questionable,” she opined of the cast, “but they all have a kind of charm, too, and a sense of humor that I just really appreciate. They’re very amusing people.”
Perhaps I should defer to the show’s opening disclaimer to evoke the universally spellbinding “TOWIE” quintessence: “This programme contains flash cars, big watches and false boobs,” viewers are warned/promised. “The tans you see might be fake but the people are all real—although some of what they do has been set up purely for your entertainment.” Focusing on the romantic travails of a group of oddly weathered early twenty-somethings as they exchange inconsequential confidences in wine bars, have pseudo-dramatic confrontations in glitzy nightclubs, and fret about whether or not their tans need topping up, the phenomenal success of “TOWIE” has proven to television networks once and for all that paying for scriptwriters, set designers, wardrobe stylists, and trained actors is utterly unnecessary—just find some suitable members of the public, pour the drinks, tell one of them that her frenemy has totes just walked in the bar with her ex who, as it goes, babes, is well narked off about what she’s been going round saying, and yell “Action.”
To give credit where credit’s due, the “TOWIE” cinematic method is not entirely freeform, existing as it does in a tradition originating way back in 2004 with Lauren Conrad’s media debut, the MTV game-changer “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County.” The Guardian’s Stuart Heritage beautifully summed up the formal markers of such shows thusly: “All the conversations on 'The Only Way Is Essex' are full of weird little pauses, as if they’re all communicating via a faulty 1970s satellite link-up. It’s like watching an old Open University programme on Advanced Pointlessness.” Quite so: those weird little pauses, typically accompanied by a glassy-eyed stare, are to this genre as existential angst is to French New Wave, or irritating hipsters are to Mumblecore. And while the characters on “Laguna Beach” and “The Hills” baffled viewers born before 1980 with their stupefying sub-Bret Easton Ellis inarticulacy and murder-inducing repetition of “like” every other word, “TOWIE” also fascinates and appalls with its lexicon (“nicking a bird”=wooing a young woman; “well jel!”=very envious; “well reem!”=absolutely excellent; “you going to Marbs, then?”=might you be vacationing at our favorite Spanish resort? “slated!”=humiliated) and glottal-stop accents (“Slay-id!” “Shuu-up!), which would likely necessitate subtitles in the US.
Endearingly, Amy gives the impression of being entirely unaware that her way of speaking is, shall we say, distinctive: when she was mimicked by a fellow contestant on a quiz show, she set everyone straight by divulging that at school, she “come top of elocution.” And when her friend apprised her of the disparaging definition of “Essex Girl” in the dictionary, she airily dismissed the insult to her tribe with her now famous retort, “The person that, obviously, done the dictionary, is he from Essex, or is he from wherever?” Just as some people are lucky enough to be born with a gift for music, or science, or athletics, God blessed Amy with the talent that Britain expects—nay, demands—from its young reality stars: an effortless knack for Olympic-level ditziness.
Nor is Amy’s casual relationship with the English language any impediment to her extra-TV careers. In “TOWIE” we saw her working as a beautician and glamour model, and her new show is following the realization of a lifelong dream: her own beauty salon, where as well as the usual spray-tanning, waxing and facials, she’ll be offering the treatment which, thanks to her, is le dernier cri in Essex: vajazzling. She’s also the face (breasts?) of a lingerie line, and sells Amy Childs-branded clothes, tanning products and a “fantastically diverse”—the mind boggles—range of false eyelashes. Her fitness DVD, as it completely goes without saying, is coming soon. The combined profit of all this entrepreneurial zeal will exceed £10 million, reckons a coyly anonymous “showbiz insider” quoted by that august journal of fiscal forecasting and boobies, the Sun.
One quick glance at Amy is all it takes to understand that in the role of beauty salon proprietress, she has found her divine calling. Always resplendent with mahogany tan, acres of shiny hair extensions, false lashes so thick and sweeping she seems to have trouble keeping her eyes fully open, and enough make-up to fuel a small non-hybrid vehicle, she’s a walking, breathing advertisement for her business, even if she appears to some people—those who don’t obviously know nuffing about being proper glamorous—to be getting way too high on her own supply. She does, however, take an admirably restrained view of plastic surgery, notwithstanding her own generous breast enhancement. “You can get addicted to surgery,” she sensibly averred, before adding, entirely without irony, “but I prefer the more natural look.”
Amy’s thoroughly wholesome look is much appreciated by her discerning male fans, for whom 2012 heralded welcome news: no longer must they gloomily struggle along without an Official Amy Childs Calendar featuring “a sexy and sunkissed Amy Childs in exotic locations such as Europe and the Far East.” Readers of a prudish disposition—and I know there are many of you—will be relieved to hear that in each month’s portrait, Amy’s modesty is fully maintained with bits of lace or fabric; as she often mentions, elegance and refinement are her bywords. “I didn’t do it because I wanted to get them out all the time,” she has said of her decision to acquire silicone implants, “I just thought it would be nice to show a little bit of cleavage…I love modeling underwear and bikinis but the classy side.” (Whether posing for a tabloid newspaper with nothing but crystals between oneself and a chilly draft quite qualifies as classy is a gray area into which your columnist demurs to wade, especially since the malevolent octogenarian Countesses who ran her Swiss finishing school neglected to cover The Etiquette of Vajazzle Display.)
Despite the wealth of romantic possibilities conferred by her newfound sex bomb status, Amy is currently single and still lives with her doting parents. Commendably, the media is taking very seriously its responsibility to document her every brush with the opposite sex, so we know she’s been flirting on Twitter with rapper Professor Green, is maybe linked again to “TOWIE” castmate and former fling Kirk, spent New Year in Dubai with a group including her management stablemate (and Jordan’s ex-husband) Peter Andre, and is contemplating getting back together with her ex-boyfriend, a banker named Joe who, with a mystifying lack of ambition, declined to take part in “TOWIE.” (Although he did find time to pose with Amy for a tasteful photoshoot reprising the iconic Calvin Klein ads featuring Kate Moss draped over Marky Mark.) But all this conjecture, albeit scintillating, is basically moot, because Amy has consented to star in the new British iteration of “The Bachelorette,” where she’ll get to choose from twenty-five hopeful suitors, only a handful of whom will be transparently gay if the US version is anything to go by.
Still, if Amy’s got any sense (bear with me, it’s just a turn of phrase) she won’t stay with the lucky recipient of her final rose a second longer than is contractually mandated, because bigger and better opportunities are bound to arrive. She recently returned from a trip to Los Angeles, where her busy schedule included a meeting at A-list talent agency CAA. Were she to sign with them, the likely first order of business would be setting her up with another client for a mutually beneficial and exhaustively photographed courtship. With nothing but dear Amy’s happiness in mind, this column hereby proposes “Gossip Girl” dreamboat Chace Crawford for the job. The poor love will be needing a British palate cleanser after his onscreen kisses with Liz Hurley (which, according to showbiz lore, curse an actor to seven years of roles Josh Lucas passed on unless an antidote is swiftly administered) while Amy would achieve instant stateside coverage as Chace’s latest borderline-convincing gal pal. No need to thank me, Hollywood Directorate of Fauxmances, we’ll just call it my good deed for the decade.
Previously: Jordan and Boris Johnson.