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No Assembly Required
For Ikea's Live-In Weblebrity, Reality Comes at a Discount

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 17, 2008

PARAMUS, N.J.

Mark Malkoff is asleep in his affordable Swedish bedroom at 7 a.m. It is three hours before the Ikea store opens, and his wire-rimmed glasses rest on the "Malm" bedside table. His producer, Brian Stankus, gently taps him on the shoulder.

"Mark?" Stankus whispers. "You have a visitor."

Mark Malkoff lives in this Ikea. You may have heard his story -- apartment being fumigated, filmmaker needs home for six days, Ikea says yes. You may have even been one of the million daily hits on his Web site.

In case you aren't, Malkoff, 31, is really excited to grant total access to the experiment:

Can you . . . have breakfast with him?

Try the French toast sticks!

Rummage through his dresser?

Here's where I keep my socks!

Eat the leftovers you found in the fake fridge?

Please! I've been on a raw kick lately!

What's happening now, Mark? Bathroom? Let's go!

A bathrobed Malkoff leads the way out of his 700-square-foot faux condo, one of several walk-through displays in the store. It's like a people exhibit in a zoo. It has two bedrooms, a living room with a fake flat-screen TV, a bathroom with a fake toilet and a kitchen with a fake sink and Swedish pasta in the cupboard.

He enters the men's employee locker room, stripping down most of the way before stepping behind the shower curtain. After a few minutes, he peeks out again: "Did you want to get me shampooing my hair?"

It is not that he lacks privacy. It's that he repudiates it, denies that there is any cause for it to exist.

Is he genuine? Oh, you bet. But it's a sly sort of genuine, the kind that perhaps can't be bothered with what "real" means anymore. The kind that asks "Is it okay if I . . ." before making the slightest move. Permission to brush my teeth now? I hope you're getting what you need for your story.

Living in an Ikea. It's funny, no? It's also the type of publicity stunt that was once a means to a bigger, more traditionally famous end -- and has now become its own professional genre.

* * *

Malkoff is a Weblebrity, the guy who gained online status by being The Guy Who.

He was the guy who visited all of Manhattan's 171 Starbucks outlets in 24 hours.

The guy who got Broadway stars to ride a Ferris wheel with him.

The guy who put together a Guns N' Roses tribute band composed entirely of children. Now this was genius.

Each of these endeavors has its own Web site, all linking back to the mother ship, www.markmalkoff.com.

"This is all real," he says earnestly, recounting how he ended up in the store. His apartment really was being fumigated. Hotels really are expensive. Ikea was dubious at first, but once they got to know Malkoff -- realized what squeaky, G-rated videos he made and what a good, unpaid spokesman he'd be -- they opened the doors and made a little placard reading "Mark's Apartment" to go outside his living space.

The videos posted daily to the Web site? Real, too! "We sketch out some scenes," says Malkoff, "but the interactions are all real. We haven't faked anything."

Like right now in the editing room, two sleep-deprived guys piece together footage from the goldfish funeral Malkoff held a few days ago when his pet, Abraham, died. The guys are volunteers who know Malkoff from "The Colbert Report." They're interns; he's the audience coordinator, the guy you need to know to see the show.

So, they really did have the funeral. They really did hire a bagpipe player to play "Amazing Grace." The video captures, exactly, what a real Ikea goldfish funeral would look like. Or at least as far as you can guess. Because real Ikea goldfish funerals are an entirely fake construction. (That, and Abraham didn't die. When the team decided a goldfish funeral would be funny, they got a little piscine cadaver from Petco.)

Other videos have included Mark taking his wife, Christine -- who stayed with friends for the week -- on an Ikea date, Mark getting an in-store workout from his personal trainer, Mark playing Nerf tag with the night security guard.

The goldfish funeral is real because it's been made into a reality; like "Punk'd," it's about real people responding genuinely to fake situations, which is to say, it isn't real at all.

No matter.

Malkoff wanders through the store with a Q-tip, left over from the shower, sticking out of his ear. He greets all of the employees by name, cheerfully waves to customers, most of whom wave back. Finally a guy stops him and says, "Man, you got a Q-tip in your ear."

"Really?! Thanks. I was not aware of that." He leaves it in.

Shtick? Hard to tell. He talks the way that lots of young people talk now, carefully and with awareness, as if even the off-camera bits might be recorded for posterity.

"Ikea is such a global entity" -- to a TV crew.

"Ikea is such a global entity" -- to a group of visiting middle-schoolers.

"Ikea is such a global entity" -- to an old friend who comes for lunch.

It began with -- when did it begin? With Instant Messenger, and its ability to save even the most mundane of conversations ("ROFL!" "NTTAWWT" )? With the rise of reality TV and ordinary citizens learning the proper way to deliver catchy lines? Even before then, in the Gen X formative years, with Ethan Hawke and his mid-1990s self-awareness? Reality bites, so let's improve upon it with slacker-smart "spontaneous" monologues.

When the team behind Lonelygirl15 created the first viral YouTube sensation in 2006, it was to get popular on YouTube, sure, but it was also to launch the quartet's film careers: Star Jessica Rose later scored a role on an ABC sitcom. Other Weblebrities, like sketch comedian Lisa Donovan, also used the Internet to score studio contracts.

But as YouTube becomes, essentially, its own network with loyal viewers, and as those viewers grow more accustomed to unscripted content, Internet shtick becomes its own endgame.

When Malkoff is asked what his dream career would be, he gestures around to the store, to his cameraman. "This!" he says. His own production crew and enough of a budget to make more wacky content with glossy production values.

Video after video, Web hit after Web hit.

The guy who became the guy who became the guy who.

With that desire comes the tightrope walk between Internet real and really real. The appeal of Malkoff is that he is "on" all the time: When visitors come to his Ikea pad, they see the same eager, goofy guy whose films they've been watching online. He needs to be what they expect. Is it okay if I take a nap now?

He's pleasant to be around, but boy, is he exhausting to watch.

"Mark is so genuine," says Marty Marston, the Ikea corporate employee who okayed Malkoff's stay and stops by occasionally to check on her charge. "Just like the boy next door -- a little nerdy, but so nice and genuine." A few minutes later, she says, with no sense of the contradiction, "But sometimes it's hard to tell when he's being real."

* * *

People come to visit Mark in Ikea because it makes sense to them. Not the older people; they come because they want a spectacle. But the Web gen visitors, they come because they wonder why they didn't think of this first.

They come bearing coffee -- they all saw the Starbucks video -- and then hang out to chat. Pam Irwin, dressed all in black from a morning funeral (real, not goldfish), brings Malkoff a bag of tacos, thinking he might be tired of cafeteria food.

"I came to see the crazy Ikea guy," says Sally Drew, peering through Malkoff's paneless bedroom window. Inside, a stranger casually checks Malkoff's used bath towel for a price tag. "But now I see it's not crazy at all."

"I basically live in an Ikea anyway," says Tom Dawson, loitering around the living room. "I mean, my house isn't blue, but everything inside is Ikea."

A young woman repeatedly prompts her toddler to approach Malkoff. "Say, 'I'll clean your room for a piece of gum!' " she instructs. Malkoff thinks it's a great idea, but when the woman realizes no crew member is around to videotape it, she and her son wander away.

Malkoff is unfailingly enthusiastic to meet all of his guests, inviting them to visit his Web site, jump on his bed, send him e-mails -- he'll answer every one.

At the beginning of the week, he was putting out two or three videos of filtered reality a day. But now it's nearly 2 p.m., and no filming has begun, mostly because in the five days he's been here, he's become too famous to do the antics that made him famous to begin with. He gave three phone interviews before breakfast. He took a call from Sally Jessy Raphael -- he'd interned for her show when he was at NYU and is trying to get her to come visit him at the store.

At one point, Stankus, the producer, confides that he won't let Mark read any online commentary about the project, to keep the stress off the star.

He is already brainstorming his next project, to keep the momentum going, before everyone forgets about Ikea: He might have a second bar mitzvah. (Aha! A hint of the ordinary boy he was, growing up in Hershey, Pa., with a financial planner dad and a real estate agent mom.) He might do something with Anne Geddes, the photographer who does the stuff with the naked babies. He might go on a quest to be awarded a key to the city.

In the early afternoon, a group of junior high students from a Hackensack school come to visit Malkoff. They are taking a videography course, and all are armed with tiny digital camcorders, which they use to film Malkoff and each other. They have visited Malkoff's Web site and think it is the most awesome thing in the world.

At the end of the Q&A session ("Do they let you eat whatever you want?" "Do you get lonely at night?") the teacher poses a final question: "What advice would you give for these aspiring filmmakers?"

Malkoff thinks about it and stares squarely into the teacher's camera. "If you work really hard," he says, "someday you, too, can grow up to live in a store."

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