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My 15 minutes (with Vicki Gunvalson)

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“In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” said artist Andy Warhol, uttering the greatest quote of the 20th Century. Okay, maybe “I have a dream” has it beat and possibly “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” but in the Age of Kardashian is there a quote more appropriate for our times?

I think not.

My 15 minutes of fame began when I interviewed Vicki Gunvalson, owner of Coto Insurance & Financial Services. But this was no ordinary interview with an ordinary safe money advisor. Vicki is the star of Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Orange County” and a film crew from the show was present.

When I walked through the doors of her Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. office, a producer met me and handed me a contract to sign. I ignored advice my lawyer father gave me long ago and signed the paper without reading the fine print, hoping later I hadn’t agreed to appear on “Naked and Afraid: Death Valley Edition.”

The producer then gave me a mic to thread under my shirt and told me what I’d be doing. “You’re going to walk down the hallway there,” he said, pointing, “and hang a left at the last door. When you get inside, tell Vicki, ‘the photographer is ready for you.’”

It’s not exactly Brando’s backseat confession scene from “On the Waterfront”, but you gotta start somewhere.

I leaned against the wall for a moment, considering my motivation, how I wanted to say my line, what word or words I wanted to emphasize and began remembering my first acting job. It was the spring of 1979. The Coneheads had debuted on SNL earlier that year. My youth director at the Oxford University Methodist Church, whose brother, Bob Pittman, was the founder of MTV, thought it would be a great idea to shoot our own version of the skit and named ours The Phoneheads.

At one point during the shoot I would answer a ringing phone and say, “God? Is that you?” Except the phone I picked up wasn’t real. It was one of those plastic phones that toothless babies gnaw on and when I picked it up, I could smell baby spit on the mouthpiece and I slammed it down and started hollering as if the phone were on fire or like I was one of the ape-men at the beginning of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

I must have been standing there for a long time because another of the producers poked his head around the corner and said, “Hello? Whenever you’re ready?”

I walk the line

When I turned the corner I saw the cameras pointing at me from the other end of the hall. They looked about a mile away and for a moment I forgot how to walk. My legs and arms were moving, but I was conscious of them moving instead of letting it happen naturally. I thought of swooning like Fay Wray when she saw King Kong for the first time. With hand to brow, I could stagger my way to Vicki.

Somehow I made it to her office without swooning and positioned myself between Vicki, two cameramen, and a makeup artist. I was about to tell her “the photographer’s ready for you.” Seriously, I was. I’d even decided to punch the word “ready” and thought I had it down pat when she said, “I hear a Southern accent? Where are you from?” That wasn’t in the script. I wasn’t ready to improvise. I shouted out, “Alabama,” even though I’m from Mississippi, as if the first 18 years of my life had been erased with a single question.

The hot, cramped room suddenly got hotter, making me dizzy. I wanted to touch my face to see if it was actually melting or if it only felt that way. I wondered if the cameramen were capturing the vacuous look on my face. I wondered if the people in the room smelled fear. I wondered why Andy Warhol had to get my hopes up. In my mind, I was cursing Warhol and his stupid Campbell’s Soup cans when a producer walked in and told me I’d broken the fourth wall by looking into the camera and that I’d have to start over and walk down the hallway again.

As I began the walk of shame, muttering my crummy line to myself, I realized my 15 minutes were almost up, and I had to admit a sad truth: I wanted to be back in Mississippi, away from the lights, the cameras, the action.


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