CALL HER SIDNEY. Call her Sidney because for a short time that's what she called herself, spelling the name as a man would. It was her stage name, adopted on the spur of the moment after seeing a Sidney Greenstreet film, and intended for a day that would never arrive-her opening as a singer in a club owned by a guy she was dating. He must have given her that line with a wink, but Sidney never caught on. She had a lot of names in her career but none of them made her smart.
She was, however, an old high school friend. She would drop over from time to time to chat with my roommates and me and one night she came over to sing. She walked into a corner of the room and waited while we doused the lights. We turned one on her, a lamp with a shade forming a spotlight of sorts, and she sang to break your heart. She was awful.
The moment stays with me and I was reminded of it recently after having seen something on television called "The $1.98 Beauty Contest." It is yet another brainchild of Chuck Barris, the creator of "The Gong Show" and "The Dating Game" and the man about to bring to television a show in which a wife and a secretary vie to see who knows more about the man they both know. Barris is the Larry Flynt of the tube.
Anyway, I watched the show. The night I saw it was, I'm told, fairly typical. Six women compete in a bogus beauty contest. They come out first for a small chat with the emcee, return for their talent number and wind up with a parade around the stage in a swimsuit while the announcer makes some mildly insulting statements about them. The show I saw featured women of no discernible talent, not to mention looks. One of them was plain obese and one of them was in dire need of a bite plate.
But I watched. I watched the whole thing and after a while I started to take notes. I wrote down the age of one of the contestants-44-although as I remember her, it might also have been her bust size. Her talent, if you can call it that, was to sort of bounce around the stage to music in the manner of a child to dance. She was, though, no child and terrific though she was, she was not the winner. The judges-one of whom was Billy Carter-picked the lady with the bad teeth.
A bit later, I went to a dinner party and found that everyone there had watched the show. It was, in fact, the reason some of us were late, something that would not have surprised the producers. The show is popular and has been renewed for next year. Locally, it can be seen on WJLA-TV, Saturdays st 7:30, a perfect time for kids to catch the show. It is, after all, only about sex, sexism and ridiculing people.
The show, it turns out, is not exactly as it appears, the rapid-fire disclaimer at the end notwithstanding. It is not a contest at all since the judges don't pick the winners. The producers do. They make their choice on how the "winner" reacts to the news that she has won. If she goes to pieces in the proper manner-shrieks and cries and has a fit-then she's won. If not, they go on to someone else. On one show, they had to pick three winners. Only one, of course, was broadcast.
There are lots of way to explain the show's popularity. It does give you a chance to see some terrific and some hideous bodies, and it does give you a chance to see some pretty corny talent acts. But mostly it is compelling viewing because you watch people make obsolute fools of themselves. In this sense, it's "The Gong Show" but with less clothes, yet another breath of what passes for fresh air on a medium dominated by taped programs of incredible slickness-canned jokes, canned laughter, canned people.
And this, more or less, is what the producers would like you to believe. A spokesman for Barris made the show sound like it should win a Pulitzer Prize for public service since it opens the television medium to ordinary people with no particular talent. All they have, he said, is this inordinate desire to either get on television or break into show business.
This is why I think of my old high school friend, Sidney. There is really nothing voluntary about "The $1.98 Beauty Contest." What the contestants want is to be on television or break into show business, not make fools of themselves. They'll do what they think they have to do, but this is only slightly different in gravity and style, from the old casting couch. People are performing the way they think they have to perform, yet another example of a deal struck between the powerful and the powerless. The producers of the show call it a spoof, but I know someone who might disagree.
Sidney would call it real life.