Two soap opera stars, a couple of obscure rockers, a drag racer, or a guy who writes basketball newsletters
"Hi," Victoria Principal
whispers in my ear. "I've been waiting for this all day!" Instantly, her presence transforms my office, making it less shabby and drab. The dim yellow light cast by my lamp now beams muted and golden. My tattered travel posters become memories of exotic, romantic places. In the distance, music heaves.
Okay, maybe I exaggerate. She's not really whispering to me; her words march across my computer screen. And we're certainly not alone. More than a hundred others around the country are simultaneously reading her electronic comments. All of us are hunkered together in America On-Line's Oldsmobile Celebrity Circle to share this very special experience.
It's a feature offered by AOL, Prodigy and other network services that you won't find on the Internet. Several times a day, the famous and not-so-famous appear in "auditoriums" or "forums" to banter with subscribers. Sometimes, it even makes news; Vice-President Al Gore made a celebrated appearance last year, as have many other swells.
But on this Wednesday evening, the offerings are more typical fare. While Hugh Downs and Wynton Marsalis are available to chat with fans, most of the celebs aren't so well known. You can visit two soap opera stars, a couple of obscure rockers, a drag racer, or a guy who writes basketball newsletters. To straddle the chasm between the famed and obscure, I decide to look in on TV demi-star Victoria Principal.
Before Victoria arrives, our AOL online host fills us in on tonight's guest: "Victoria Principal who is best known for her portrayal of Pamela Ewing on the long-running hit series Dallas will next be seen starring in the psychological drama Dancing in the Dark for LIFETIME television. Victoria portrays a dance instructor whose struggle with depression leads her life into a living nightmare."
Such introductions are helpful. Like many who appear in these forums, I know of Victoria Principal. Her name blips on our collective pop-culture radar, but it's more difficult to recall her claim to fame. Should I pass her lovely face while channel-flipping, I'd probably say, "Look, there's Morgan Fairchild!"
"Hi there, Victoria," types a member of the audience.
"She can't see it unless you press 'interact,' " suggests UncleSteve, another in the audience. (Names of all AOL subscribers have been changed.)
At times, it has a Zen-like quality
how it works: on your screen is a small, two-line box where you enter text. Want to ask the guest a question? Type it up and press a certain button to send it to the moderator, who in turn presents it to the guest. Such filtering is important; when Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide appeared online, more than 500 questions were submitted, far more than he could possibly answer.
Besides the typings of Principal and the moderator, you also see comments from 15 other AOL'ers in your "row." Breaking the audience up into small chunks like this lets subscribers comment on the interview in progress. The guests see only the selected questions and none of this chat -- a point that many subscribers don't seem to understand. Some apparently believe Victoria Principal is scanning everyone's questions and comments, her eyes frantically ping-ponging over the screen as she follows dozens of simultaneous conversations.
Listening to row chatter is somewhat like being in a noisy movie theater, where people talk back to the screen, throw popcorn and loudly carry on private chats. But instead of being annoying, it's the most fun. At times, it even has a Zen-like quality as the guest plows ahead, oblivious to comments from the peanut gallery.
Question: "What advice can you give to someone who doesn't know where to begin in the business?"
"Is she really typing her answers?" wonders Logjam2.
"Be sure you have talent," Victoria answers.
"She may have a professional typist," writes UncleSteve, who seems to be a old hand at this stuff.
Says another, " Yeah, she's supposed to be typing."
"And perseverance," Victoria concludes.
"I wonder??" types Logjam2, unconvinced.
It's hard to predict the tone of these sessions. When law professor and feminist Catharine MacKinnon appeared in late June, questions were thoughtful and serious. But an appearance by actress Catherine Bach a few weeks earlier was less focused. While Bach seemed to want to discuss her work with the World Wildlife Fund trying to save endangered African species, the audience kept asking about her years playing Daisy on the Dukes of Hazzard.
"Must not have been natural nudity, huh?"
minutes into the show, it's clear Principal is not going to be wrestling with weighty issues. She plugs an upcoming movie (Platinum Bandit), gives her agent's address to write for an autographed picture (twice), plugs an 800 number for her line of cosmetics ("Principal Secret") and advises working moms on the best ways to slim down (fast walking or swimming). My row mates begin shifting in their cyberseats, restless. "///W" someone types without explanation.
"Is this for real?" Complains Kletsy8.
Logjam2 gripes, "I am starting to get bored."
Suddenly, an interesting response wakes up the row. Question: "Victoria, Who is nicer, Pat Duffy or Larry Hagman?"
"Personally," says Victoria about her hunky Dallas co-stars, "I'd like to be a Duffy-Hagman sandwich."
Question: "Will there ever be a Charlie's Angels reunion?"
Row comments tumble out as several people type furiously.
Logjam2: "Hey wait-what did she mean? Go back to that one!!"
"Hi, Victoria. I saw you on TV last night. Your new hairstyle really becomes you," Borkie981 says to the row, clueless.
Plunkt45: "V.P. in a sandwich."
Logjam2: "She was on Charlie's Angels??"
Oblivious to the fuss, Victoria graciously replies, "Thank you very much, but you should wait until Jaqueline Smith is on line to ask her those questions!"
When this reply is followed by another self-serving question about her beauty products, the mood of the row becomes ugly. "Okay, how much is she paying that guy?" Snarls Logjam2. Enough about the toll-free number for cosmetics; we want the poop on this sandwich stuff!
"Yeah, like these are real questions ... I bet," Kletsy8 gripes.
Our crew is not mollified even when the topic again turns racy. Question: "Saw you in Playboy some years back. Was that you? If so, when were the pics taken?"
"Great question," types cynical Logjam2.
Mutters Plunkt45, "Now we'll get the truth"
Victoria is unfazed. "The pictures were taken in 1972, and I've never stopped regretting it. Although I think nudity is ..."
"I wonder if she know about the cyber pics that are going around?" Logjam2 interrupts.
"... perfectly natural, one should use good judgment as to where you choose to exhibit it."
"LOL," sneers Plunkt45, using the online shorthand for "laughing out loud."
"For me, Playboy was not a good choice," Victoria types regretfully.
Logjam2 cracks, "Must not have been natural nudity, huh?"
Like a surly mob, the row has turned against her. Question: "TV Guide says making your new movie was very emotional for you. Why?"
Plunkt45: "She didn't know what she was doing."
"In order to portray the character honestly," Victoria explains, "I had to go to some very dark, unhealthy places in my mind and stay there for many weeks."
Logjam2: "Why are the answers so slow??"
Kletsy8: "She's thinking."
Most newbies don't understand the concept, and seem to think she sees every word
half-hour mark, more than 250 people are in the auditorium. Some in our row have departed for more interesting places, only to be replaced by newcomers. Curiously, most newbies don't understand the row-chat concept, and seem to think Principal sees every word that appears on their own screen. After Logjam2 snaps, "How much are they paying her to use up our time?" a new row mate rushes to her defense shouting, "VICTORIA, PLEASE EXCUSE THOSE WITH SUCH POOR MANNERS."
Some in our row begin bickering amongst themselves, forgetting about Victoria Principal entirely. Question: "What is your feeling about aging actors or actresses using cosmetic surgery to prolong their careers?"
VGER: "This room is a little lame. Sssllllllloooooooowwwwwwwwwwww."
Zildge87 jumps in: "VGER, you're a little lame."
"My feeling is that cosmetic surgery should be a personal choice," Victoria types, "not based upon anyone else's opinion or feelings other than your own."
"Hey John, kiss my butt," VGER parries.
"If you weren't an actress, what would you want to do?" Our moderator asks.
"Sure won't be hard to find it!" wisecracks Zildge87/John, apparently a good pal of VGER.
"I'd like to rule a small country!" says Principal.
Always careful to leave a party before the drunken brawl begins, I decide it's time to depart. But one task remains. Many of the questions and answers seem canned: two requests for her 800 number, bland exercise and beauty tips. Are these questions really coming from the audience? Some in our row are skeptical. To test this hypothesis, I must ask a question myself. But what does one ask a TV star like Victoria Principal? Her opinions on the future of mass communications? The federal deficit? Strife in Bosnia? After pondering myriad choices, only one meaningful question comes to mind, given the tenor of the interview.
And sure enough, the moderator presents my question a few minutes later: "If you could be any kind of vegetable, which would you be?"
"Hey, good question," Logjam2 compliments. "Wonder if it's a cucumber."
"Cumquat," Victoria answers.
"Close," says Logjam2.
"Close," agrees another.
The kumquat, of course, is a fruit, not a vegetable. And it's usually spelled with a "k," unless you're having scatalogical fun. Later, I looked up the humble citrus up on the Internet, discovering it is quite pretty and used mostly for decoration. Why would Victoria Principal choose a fruit whose primary appeal is its superficial beauty? A few days later, I watched her TV movie, "Dancing in the Dark." All two agonizing hours.
Then I understood completely.
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