No Such Nonsense

A little of this, that and... what was I talking about again? It's TV, sports, pop culture and politics - all the stuff that really matters in life.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Celebrity PR 101

So, you're a famous pop-tart a few years past your sell-by date. Your last hit song was in 2004 - and that was a cheesetastic remake on a greatest hits album.

It's been a rough ride since 2004. There's the quickie marriage and annulment. The knee surgery and tour cancellation. Luckily, you meet the love of your life - the man of your dream - a knight in low-riders and wife-beater. He already has a girlfriend? And a kid? And the girlfriend is pregnant again? Well, naysayers be damned - it's true love and that's all that matter right? A few make-out sessions on public beaches and hotel balconies and the world will forget all about his old family.

Next marriage, then a baby of your own. Then it really hits the fan. Your husband parties. A lot. He makes an "album" while you're home changing diapers. He's accused of leaking personal stories the tabloids. Just as you start work on a comeback album comes word that you're pregnant again. But the real problem is that the media sets out to portray you as the world's worst celebrity parent (and given that Tom Cruise was promoting a movie halfway around the world just seconds after the birth of the alleged Suri, that's a high honour). You drive with the baby on your lap (to "flee" the terrifying paparazzi). You almost drop the baby on a New York street (do to uneven cobblestones). The young tot takes a tumble from a high chair and makes a visit to emergency (damn nanny). You change his diaper on the floor of a lingerie store (well who doesn't?). And the media gleefully document and dissect every moment.

It's all way worse than that time you were photographed leaving a public bathroom in bare feet (by the way: ewwww). It's a PR crisis. The world thinks you are Bad Mother(TM). What to do, what to do?

Well, if you are Britney Spears, you launch a full-on media blitz asking for the media to leave you alone. You sit down with Matt Lauer to explain what a good mom you are. You project a wholesome maternal image by wearing a low-cut top, short skirt, scarecrow hair and lots n' lots of make-up. You cry. You defend the state of your marriage. You defend driving with a baby-cum-projectile of your lap by explaining that "we're country." (Way to get the red states on your side Brit; imply that they all endanger their children a part of their rich and wonderful "country" culture).

Then, you pose nude in the pages (and on the cover) of Harper's Bazaar, projecting your very best Demi Moore. You, Brit, are no Demi Moore. The shots come out looking like rather strange quasi-porn as opposed to a celebration of the pure beauty of pregnancy and the joy of motherhood. It's something about the vacant eyes. At least your false eyelashes stayed in place for the whole shoot.

Best of luck on getting the world to leave you alone Brit. But I gotta ask: how can we miss you if you won't go away?

Monday, June 26, 2006

Best... episode... ever!

There are some shows I can watch over and over in reruns without tiring of them. One of those shows is, of course, The Simpsons. Yesterday, CBC aired one of my all-time favourites (Hurricane Neddy), and in honour of that occasion, here is my own very definitive list of The Simpsons' Best Episodes Ever:

1. Marge vs. the Monorail (season 4)
Inspired by the classic musical The Music Man, this send-up finds Springfield with $3 million in environmental fines from the nuclear plant. A wily stranger named Lyle Lanley turns up and convinces the town to build a monorail (monorail... monorail... monorail). Lanley makes Homer the monorail conductor and gets ready to skip town with the cash. On the monorail's maiden voyage (with grand marshall Leonard Nimoy aboard), the train races out of control. Of course, the day is eventually saved by Marge, Homer and a well-placed giant donut.

Homer: Donuts. Is there anything they can't do?

2. Cape Feare (season 5)
Sideshow Bob at his greatest. The murderous sidekick is released from prison, sending the Simpsons into the Witness Protection Program. They become the Thompsons of Terror Lake (complete with a new theme song). Of course, Bob follows the family and plots to kill his nemesis, Bart. Bart outwits Bob by asking him to sing the complete score of the HMS Pinafore. Also, Sideshow Bob is hit in the face by a whole bunch of rakes.

Lawyer: But what about that tattoo on your chest? Doesn't it say, "Die Bart, Die?"
Bob: No, that's German for "The Bart, The."
Spectator: No one who speaks German could be an evil man.

3. Hurricane Neddy (season 8)
A hurricane destroys the casa de Flanders. At his lowest moment and in a crisis of faith, Ned arrives home to see the house the town has rebuilt for him. The house they rebuilt very, very badly. Flanders loses it and winds up at the Calmwood Mental Institution. There, he is reunited Dr. Foster, who knew Ned when he was an angry, angry child. We learn the source of Ned's diddily-iddily-speak and about the revolutionary spankologoical protocol. Finally, Ned learns to express his inner rage thanks to Homer ("I engaged in intercourse with your spouse or significant other. Now that's psychiatry!) and the U.S. postal office.

Homer: We may not have had all the right tools, but we did have a wheelbarrow full of love. Apu: And a cement mixer full of hope and some cement.

4. Homer's Enemy (season 8)
Frank "Grimey" Grimes arrives in Springfield and finds he really, really hates Homer. Having slaved for everything he's got (which includes an apartment above a bowling alley and below another bowling alley), he resents all that Homer has and raises a really good question: How does Homer keep his job, anyway? Also, Bart buys a factory and hires Milhouse as night watchman.

5. Life on the Fastlane (season 1)
Homer gives Marge a bowling ball for her birthday, even though she doesn't bowl. An annoyed Marge decides that rather than let Homer use the new ball (which he has already had engraved with his own name), she will learn how to bowl. Marge very nearly ends up in the amorous clutches of her very suave instructor Jacques. I mostly like that Jacques thinks Marge has named the bowling ball Homer.

6. Kamp Krusty (Season 4)
School's out and Bart and Lisa are off to Kamp Krusty, which is a lot less fun than they imagined. They are faced with slave labour, Krusty-brand imitation gruel and, instead of Krusty, the sinister camp director, Mr. Black. This show makes my list for the camp song alone (Hail to thee, Kamp Krusty, Below Mount Avalanche. We will always love Kamp Krusty, A registered trademark of the Krusty Corporation, All rights reserved!). Plus, the images of the nearby "Image Enhancement Camp" (where Martin "daddy's chubby little secret" Prince is sent) are disturbingly funny. Ends with a redemptive trip to Tijuana, Mexico: the happiest place on earth.

7. Krusty Gets Kancelled (season 4)
Driven to cancellation by a new afternoon-show sensation (Gabbo!), a down-and-out Krusty launches his comeback with the help of the Bart, Lisa, Sideshow Luke Perry, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Carson and Bette Milder. Notable for the extreme abuse of Luke Perry, who is launched from a cannon through the museum of sandpaper, through a display of acid at the Kwik-E-Mart, finally landing in a pillow factory just before it is demolished.

8. You Only Move Twice (Season 8)
A spot-on Bond spoof with my all-time favourite throw-away line. Homer accepts a job at the nuclear plant in Cypress Creek, working for super-villain Hank Scorpio. Homer finally excels at his job, but the rest of the family struggles to find happiness. Particularly Bart, who is placed in the elementary school's remedial Leg-Up program with arsonists and kids who wear mittens pinned to their coats all year round.

Bart: So, what are you in for?
Gordie: I moved here from Canada, and they think I'm slow, eh?

9. Lisa on Ice
Turns out Lisa is a phenom on hockey skates. Bart and Lisa compete for their parents' love the old fashioned way - through Canada's beloved national pastime. Plus, it features the single Simpson's line I quote more than any other -

Uter: Don't make me run, I'm full of chocolate!

10. Homer and Apu
Homer gets a nasty case of food poisoning from eating expired ham at the Kwik-E-Mart. After a complex sting operation involving a very large hat, Homer gets Apu fired from his job. A guilty Homer then agrees to help Apu get his job back by visiting the CEO at the head office (and the world's convenience store) on a mountaintop in India. In the meantime, James Woods takes over management of the Kwik-E-Mart.

Note: When Entertainment Weekly made their list of top Simpson's episodes a few years ago, "Last Exit to Springfield" was their favourite. That's the one where Homer becomes the plant's union negotiator.

Lance Armstrong, American Hero

Lance Armstrong is arguably the greatest cyclist ever. I don't know all that much about competitive cycling. But you don't win the Tour de France - one of the most gruelling athletic endeavors in the world - seven years in a row without being a supremely talented athlete. Add that to fact that Armstrong first had to overcome testicular cancer that had metastasized to his brain and lungs. He overcame brain surgery and intensive chemotherapy to reach the loftiest heights of his sport. With his seven victories and the sale of millions of Livestrong bracelets, Armstrong brought untold attention to the Tour de France and much-needed funds to cancer research. Armstrong has thus been celebrated as an American hero and a sporting god.

Which doesn't mean he is a nice guy. Or that he played fair. Allegations of doping by Armstrong and his team have dogged him since he returned from his illness. During his triumphant reign as champion, Armstrong never once tested positive for a banned, performance enhancing substance (though there is some debate about one test that showed a faint positive in 1999). All around him, fellow riders on the Tour tested positive and were banned, and even fans of the sport acknowledged that cheating was rife on the Tour. But Armstrong continued to dominate - and to insist that he was clean. Critics could not believe that a man who had been a strong but not overpowering rider could return from cancer and proceed to dominate a dirty sport while staying clean himself.

Armstrong's defenders say he was the most tested athlete in the world, that allegations of drug use were really evidence of nascent anti-Americanism amongst European media and racing fans. But whispers of cheating grew louder when, last August, French newspaper L'Equipe reported that frozen urine samples from 1999, Armstrong's first Tour victory, had recently been retested and were positive for EPO. The reason for the new tests was that EPO was undetectable in 1999 but can now be detected with new, more sophisticated tests. An investigator, appointed by cycling’s governing body to investigate the handling of the urine tests by the French anti-doping laboratory, cleared Armstrong of wrongdoing on the basis that the tests may have been conducted incorrectly. Armstrong declared himself vindicated and demanded the resignation of world anti-doping agency chief Dick Pound, who has been one of Armstrong's harshest critics.

Over the past few days, new allegations have emerged from a French court case. First, the wife of a former teammate alleges that, during Armstrong's cancer treatment, she heard Armstrong admit to using EPO and other drugs. Then, cycling legend Greg LeMond stated that he testified on Armstrong's behalf in a doping-related case only after Armstrong threatened to destroy LeMond's business, family and reputation. In the past, LeMond had questioned whether Armstrong's achievements could be possible without the use of performance enhancers.

Sour grapes? Anti-Americanism? Legitimate suspicion? Armstrong loudly denies cheating (as, it should be noted, do Barry Bonds and Raphael Palmero). We can likely never know for certain. Do the allegations take the luster from Armstrong's achievementt? I believe that on some level, they must. But at the same time, I think back to Ben Johnson, the disgraced Canadian sprinter who had his Olympic gold medal stripped away after testing positive for steroids. In the subsequent 20 years, it has become clear that almost all of Johnson's contemporaries, including U.S. rival Carl Lewis, were juiced as well. So Johnson won on what was, in some sense at least, a level playing field. His mistake was that, unlike Lewis and Armstrong, he was caught.

Sometimes, Business is Better than a Soap Opera

I know a lot of people who avoid the business pages of the paper at almost any cost. They figure that the ROB or the Financial Post are full of dusty, dry stories about finance and accounting and other dreadfully dull subjects. And sometimes they are dreadfully dull. But, having just finished my MBA, I can tell you that sometimes business can offer the best drama going.

Everyone knows about the sinister doings at Enron and the other big scandals of the past few years. From Dennis Kozlowski's $6000 shower curtains at the expense of Tyco shareholders to Martha Stewart's infamous stock deal and prison term, we've spent the past five years learning about the levels of corporate malfeasance.

But even without the dirt and grime of corporate misdeeds, business can be an intriguing place to be - and two recent stories are particularly good examples.

Inco weds Falconbridge weds Phelps Dodge

Polygamy is so hot right now.

Earlier this year, Canadian mining giant Inco made a play for fellow Canadian firm Falconbridge. The marriage, if given the government's blessing, would have created the largest nickel producer in the world. But, just as Inco made it's overture, another suitor appeared, fighting Inco for the love of Falconbridge's shareholders. The dashing foreign stranger was Swiss-based Xstrata. And then, kids, things get interesting. Inco and Falconbridge reach an agreement to merge, Xstrata tries to get in the middle and steal Falconbrige and a new player, Teck Cominco, makes an unsolicited offer to buy Inco, but only if Inco would promise to jilt Falconbridge at the altar. It's enough to make one feel dirty all over. Finally, today comes news that Inco has agreed to merge with American copper giant Phelps Dodge, combining Inco, Falconbridge and Phelps Dodge into a happy blended family called Phelps Dodge Inco, worth about $56 billion overall. Congratulations to the bride on keeping her own name.

Warren Buffett Makes a Small Donation

We all give to charity from time to time. Whether it's making an annual contribution to the Red Cross or handing a few dollars to the guy sleeping on the subway grate, giving can make a real difference in the world and it's good for the soul. So imagine how good Warren Buffett's soul must feel today. Over the weekend, he announced that he would be giving the bulk of his fortune to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Just how bulky is that fortune? Well, as Chairman of investment conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett's personal fortune is estimated to be about $44 billion. That makes Buffett the world's second richest man, just behind his good pal Bill Gates. And, rather than bequeath his fortune to his children and grandchildren, Buffett has decided to use to money to help the Gates' change the world. Remarkably, as a recent Oprah Winfrey show detailed, Buffett chose not to offer any on-going financial support to his grandchildren - paying for their college education but then encouraging them to make their own way in the world. On Oprah, his grand-daughter seemed resigned to the decision, if obviously not thrilled about it. Which does make you wonder what Thanksgiving at the Buffetts must look like.

Family drama. Hostile takeovers. Billions of dollars. Beats the Young and Restless any day.

Free to be...

In the early 1970s, Marlo Thomas (yes, That Girl) discovered to her dismay that the bedtime stories available for her young niece tended to reinforce old stereotypes of sex, class and race. She found that, in these stories, the boys wanted to be doctors and policemen and the girls wanted to be nurses and ballerinas. Diversity was nonexistent. She wanted stories where girls could be police officers and daddies could stay home with the kids. She wanted to see kids of many races in the stories.

Since no such stories existed, Thomas decided to create a collection of skits, songs, stories and poems with a group of celebrity "friends". The result was the unusual, unforgettable Free to Be... You and Me. Diverse, politically correct, yet charmingly dorky, the one-hour program was a staple in my elementary school.

It hasn't aged perfectly; some of the fashions are amusingly era-specific and the "we're all equal and special" message gets a bit heavy-handed at times. But Free to Be... You and Me remains a cheerful and funny experience. Highlights include Mel Brooks voicing a newborn baby puppet with some gender identity issues, notorious football tough-guy Rosey Grier singing "It's all Right to Cry" and, surreally, a teenage Michael Jackson singing about how he doesn't want to change when he grows up. The true cultural high-point, though, is Alan Alda's narration of "William Wants a Doll" about a little boy who desperately wants a doll but can't seem to convince his parents and peers that there is nothing wrong with that. This particular story was even refenced on Sex and The City - Stanford tells Carrie that he played the scene so much "I almost turned my little sister into a gay man." Clearly, we've come a long way, baby.

Friday, June 23, 2006

The Campaign for Real Honesty

Earlier this year, as part of one of my MBA electives, I spent some time looking closely at Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty. The campaign, originated in the UK but now used around the world, encourages women to look at beauty in a different way. They use 'real' women - still very attractive, but with curves, or wrinkles, or grey hair. According to Dove's marketing materials, the campaign is meant to challenge stereotypes, "to celebrate the diverse, the healthy, the real, the truly beautiful."

Taken at face value, the Dove message is uplighting and welcome in an age where so many young women face crippling body image issues. And the company seems to walk the talk, creating a foundation to help boost esteem in young girls. All the same, our group was curious what women thought of the campaign. Was the idea of real beauty attractive?

Overall, the women we spoke to like the campaign. Some loved it -- and said they would buy Dove products because of it -- others liked the message but weren't as ready to change their buying habits. We didn't discover anything particularly earth-shattering. Until one of the participants in one of the sessions told us a friend had told her not to buy anything by Unilever. The reason, she said, was all about Axe.

Axe, like Dove, is a Unilever product. At the time of our discussion, the Axe ad campaign revolved around young men who found that Axe could make them irresistable to women. The women in question were almost anamatronic. Stick thin and expressionless, the women were objects in every sense. The campaign, like the Dove campaign, seemed perfectly suited to the target demographic. The problem, our participant explained, was the utter contradiction between the two efforts. Dove told women they should embrace their own unique, if imperfect, beauty. Yet the Axe campaign used the very types of unachievable 'beauty' that Dove seemed to want to eliminate.

When Axe was mentioned in the focus groups there was unanimous agreement that the ads were offensive to women. When the women were told that Unilever makes both Dove and Axe, the negative reaction was immediate. The women who had been most positive about Dove reacted most extremely. They were horrified, and felt that they had been lied to. They felt duped.

I'm not sure I would go so far. It is just advertising, after all. But Unilever may want to think about the backlash. By tieing Dove to esteem and real beauty, they set an expectation for who they are as a company. It is therefore incumbent upon the parent company to hold all their brands to a higher standard. I'm not saying to ax Axe - just give the women in the commercials a brain and a voice. Some guys may even be into that.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Anderson Cooper on the Daily Show

Anderson Cooper sparred with Jon Stewart last night on the Daily Show. That's right - the world's top two candidates for the 'thinking girl's sex symbol' in the same place at the same time*. Somehow, the world stayed on it's axis, unaffected by the panting desires of women across America deciding which one they'd rather have give them the news. (Ahem.)

While he kindly avoided mentioning Anderson's days as a game show host (ah, The Mole), Stewart didn't give Coop a totally free ride. He pushed him on CNN's lack of mission and inclination to drop stories quickly due to viewer 'fatigue'. Anderson also spoke about wanting his viewers to see him as apolitical, as a blank slate. Here, I think Stewart missed the key question. At this point, I might have asked why Cooper would then write a book about his life as a Vanderbilt, his father's early death and his brother's suicide. It seems like he is creating a very strong public perception of himself - to garner ratings and book sales. Surely this will inform how viewers see him and interpret his stories - and do much harm to his ability to be a blank slate.

*Sorry, John Cusack, you've been overthrown in this category - Lloyd Dobbler was a long time ago!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Aaron Spelling: TV Genius

There are reports today that veteran TV producer Aaron Spelling suffered a stroke at his LA home this weekend. Though Spelling, 83, is expected to recover, the news reminds us just how much Spelling has given us (not counting daughter Tori, that is).

Here, then, are Spellings greatest contributions to entertainment:

1. Beverly Hills 90120. Brandon and Brenda Walsh made their way from suburban Minnesota to the wilds of Bev Hills, where they found more than just swimming pools and movie stars. As they moved from wide-eyed teens to jaded college grads, Brenda and Brandon faced very-special issues including gun violence, teen sex, drugs, sororiety house fires, stalkers, epic sideburns and Ian Zierings white boy 'fro/mullet. The spritual godparent of the OC, Dawson's Creek and so many others, 90210 was the ultimate in high-school drama. That's right, without Dylan Mckay, there could be no Ryan Atwood. No Shannon Doherty, no Misha Barton. (Ok that last one may not count as a contribution.)

2. Girl Fight! Crystal and Alexis. Brenda and Kelly. Heather Locklear and, well, everyone. From Dynasty to Melrose Place, Spelling gave great girl-on-girl, hair-pulling, pool-falling-into, dress-ruining cat fights. Not to mention all the ass-kickings doled out by the girls of Charlie's Angels - in platform heels and bikinis no less. And let's not forget that he gave us the greatest girl psycho of all time too: Dr. Kimberly Shaw Mancini (a pre-Desperate Housewives Marcia Cross).

3. Charo, Charo, Charo. Saturday nights in the 1970s meant one thing and one thing only - at least for those of us waaaaay to young for Studio 54 - it was time for Love Boat! The cavalcade of guest stars (Ethel Merman! The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders! Florence Henderson! Come aboard, they're expecting you!), the cheesy acting and the coardboard sets all added up to pure TV genius. But The Love Boat's greatest contribution to pop culture was that it offered semi-regular employment to one of the strangest entertainers ever to become (in)famous. Charo's lack of the ability to speak English or, well, do anything other than shimmy couldn't stop her. There she was, entertaining Doc, Isaac and Gopher on the Lido deck. It proved that anyone would make in Hollywood if they really tried (and if they had nice ta tas).

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

"New York Tops Toronto"

That's the headline found today on Yahoo News. What's next, one asks? Headlines proclaiming "Sky found to be blue" or "Moon not made of cheese"?

New York tops Toronto? C'mon! Other than minor things like arts, culture, restaurants, nightlife, skyline, sports and business, what could they possibly beat us in?

Reading on, the article explains that a 'secret' survey was conducted to determine which cities had the most polite, courteous citizens. I'd have though Canadians would be shoo-ins. After all, most of us say 'excuse me' when someone has bumped into us. It's our thing.

But no, we come in behind both New York and Zurich. Per the article, by Lorrayne Anthony, "Undercover reporters - an equal number of men and women - recorded more than 2,000 tests of behaviour to come up with the list. Seventy per cent of those tested in Toronto took a moment to do the courteous thing, compared to 80 per cent in New York and 77 per cent in Zurich. Montreal was the only other Canadian city on the list, and ranked 21st, just below Amsterdam and slightly more polite than Helsinki and Manila. Fifty per cent of Montrealers tested were courteous."

The 'courteous' things involved holding doors, helping pick up dropped papers and saying 'thank you'. Apparently, the anxious use of 'excuse me' wasn't measured, explaining our poor showing. That, or the testers made the mistake of taking the TTC.

Whoa Nelly

Nelly Furtado has a new album out; it's her post-baby, post-break-up, no-longer-like-a-bird third album.

I caught her live performance on So You Think You Can Dance last week (that's right, it's high culture or nothing for me). Nelly, wearing a strange sort-of onesy-culotte thing busted a move with Timbaland on Promiscuous. Lots of cooing and flirting and very little actual, um, singing going on.

Here's my question: who decided it would be a good idea to turn sweet little Canuck Nelly into a cheaper version of Fergie from the Black-Eyed Peas? Seriously, what the hell happened here? If she starts singing about her 'lady lumps', it's time for an intervention! Get that gal some timbits and a double-double, pronto!

Monday, June 19, 2006

Welcome to the blogospere, slowpoke!

Blogs have always struck as a tad self-indulgent. Not the serious blogs by journalists and pundits, but the ones by regular folks who one day decide they like the sound of their own voice and proceed to pontificate.

So, I hestitated to enter the fray. Then, one day, it occured to me... I really like the sound of my own voice. I like to pontificate on random and inconsequential ideas. And sadly, the world is missing out on all of this. How can I keep my deep thoughts to myself and my weary, weary husband.

So here I am in all my egotistical, solipsistic glory for the whole lucky, lucky world. Or the three people who actually read this. It feels good in theory.

Solopsism: n. The theory that the self is the only thing that has reality or can be known and verified.
(Use it in a sentance today!)