In the early '70s Italian philosopher Umberto Eco toured America, searching for what he called "hyperreality," imitations of reality that don't just re-create life, but make it more appealing in the process.
If Eco were searching for hyperreality today, he wouldn't have to leave his house. He'd flip on almost any TV station and find a culture obsessed with so-called "reality," from talk shows with dysfunctional families throwing elbows to shows about competing castaways or immature roommates forced to get "real."
Following Eco's idea, reality TV doesn't just imitate life, it improves on it, sending the message to viewers that anyone, anywhere can be a star. Life becomes appealing, after all, with a makeover from Maury. Who knows? You may be the next American Idol. Or maybe you can get a tan on Temptation Island.
Umberto Eco, meet Jonathan Jaxson. The 18-year-old Kennesaw resident could be the voice of a new era, our first glimpse of a generation that grew up watching "The Real World" and "Rosie" and whose concept of celebrity -- and reality -- might surprise you.
Jaxson, a slender teenager with boy-band hair and a face made for "TRL," isn't shy about telling the story of his made-for-television life: his hard-knock childhood, his rounds on the daytime talk show circuit, his public-access cable show, his near miss at the "American Idol" auditions. He also has a talent for convincing people of much more. Jaxson has an understated charm that just might win you over if you don't dwell on the details.
After hearing his tales of life on the fringes of celebrity, you may start to suspect that Jonathan Jaxson isn't for real because, in a basic sense, he isn't.
Like any good TV show, Jaxson's story begins in Hollywood. Jonathan Lewandowski was born there on Valentine's Day, 1984, to a father he never knew and a mother he says was "very unstable." (Jaxson is a stage name that came later.) His family moved frequently, from L.A. to Arizona to Tennessee. It seemed like every year he was in a new school, he says, always starting over. The family lived in hotels, even in their car at one point. They finally settled in with his grandmother in northeast Georgia when Jaxson was in ninth grade.
As long as he can remember, Jaxson has wanted to be famous. Every day he would come home from school, turn on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" and dream of being on TV. He fantasized of imitating his idol and hosting a talk show like hers where he could chat with movie stars and lavish gifts on the downtrodden.
Out of the blue, his dream came true. Kind of. In February 1999, Jaxson's fairy godmother appeared. Her name: Mother Love.
"I got a call from a talk show -- 'Forgive or Forget' -- and they said, 'We found your father. We want you to come on national TV to meet him,'" he says.
Jaxson says the producers of "Forgive or Forget" flew him, then 15, to New York and had him tell his story in front of the camera.
He was exhilarated, he says, finally meeting his father and having a chance to be on TV. He loved the attention.
"They made it like I was the one telling my story, and maybe [my father] was going to be there on the other side of the door or maybe he wasn't, even though I knew he was going to be there the whole time."
Although he and his dad didn't exactly click, Jaxson says the experience showed him that being on TV was what he was meant to do.
Back home in Habersham, Jaxson relished his overnight celebrity. Everyone in his high school had seen his TV appearance. Suddenly he was popular. Stoked by the experience, he was hungry for more. He called TeleView, the local cable company, and asked for a shot at producing his own public-access talk show. "The Edge" premiered in October 1999.
Fashioned like a low-budget "Tonight Show," the program gave the 15-year-old a podium from which he could begin honing his on-camera skills interviewing local celebrities, like radio DJs, from North Georgia and South Carolina.
"In this business, it's all about getting your name out there," Jaxson says. To that end, he decided to aim for a shot at another daytime talk show. He called up the "Sally Jesse Raphael Show" and told the producers he wanted to come out of the closet on television, revealing the news to his recently rediscovered father. He lied to his mother, telling her the "Sally" topic was on deadbeat dads.
While in town for "Sally," the 16-year-old talked his way into a behind-the-scenes tour of MTV's "Total Request Live," thanks to a friendship he'd finagled with a network studio art designer. On the tour, he began chatting with a woman named Tina Spence, who turned out to be an assistant to B-list rapper Da Brat, who was appearing on "TRL" that day.
"I didn't know who Da Brat was, but I said to her assistant, 'She's so beautiful,'" Jaxson recalls. "So her assistant took me to meet her, and I was like, 'Wow -- big celebrity -- Mariah Carey's best friend.'"
At this point, the hyperreality of Jaxson's life comes into focus. He says that his mother, upon learning that her son had come out on national TV, promptly kicked him out of the house. He found himself bunking with strangers in Atlanta. "This was a real down time for me. I was going through a lot of heartache, but I was determined to get my name out there," he says.
Getting his name out there meant appearing on more talk shows. Using his "Sally" and "Forgive or Forget" experiences, Jaxson began working the talk circuit, he says, appearing on Roseanne Barr's short-lived show and going on "The Ricki Lake Show" several times.
"I basically made my living by appearing on talk shows," Jaxson says. Though he refuses to divulge how much he was paid for his appearances, citing a confidentiality contract, he will say that the shows flew him to New York and paid for his hotel room each time. And each appearance on "Ricki Lake" became more and more surreal.
"My roommate played the role of my stepfather, who supposedly had a problem with me being gay. And each episode would advance the plot a little. In one episode I came out, then in the next episode he came out, in the next episode I had turned bisexual, it was just always something," he says.
Beth Jaffe, spokeswoman for "The Ricki Lake Show," maintains that the producers did not know the man playing Jaxson's stepfather was a fake. The show employs fact-checkers to verify the credentials of its guests, she says.
On the last episode, Jaxson even appeared in drag. They paid well for that one, he says, but will not reveal a number.
It's the sort of thing you might suspect when you watch some of the trashier daytime offerings, that these guests can't possibly be for real. Stories get ever more outlandish, creating a kind of hyperreality that's no longer a mere reflection of everyday problems but a freakish exaggeration of dysfunction. Umberto Eco would call this "the Absolute Fake," where the simulation becomes so extreme, you forget that it was ever supposed to be real in the first place. Think World Wrestling Entertainment or Disneyland.
To Jaxson, whether it was real or not didn't really matter, so long as he was getting paid. He speaks of the sham with a matter-of-fact candor, an inherent attitude of doing what it takes to survive. Did he fear that these lies would hurt his career in the long run?
"People would see the show and they knew it was fake, but they wouldn't even remember," he says. "They just knew they had seen me. So I kind of used all that publicity by saying I was on 'Ricki Lake' and not going into any detail. ... I was using it to my benefit."
You might say that Jaxson, in turn, was being used by the talk shows, a poor kid from the sticks sucked into a greedy New York media machine. But the question of exploitation is a sticky one, with no real saints on either side.
Andy Dehnart, who maintains the reality TV Web log realityblurred.com, says that in the early days of the reality boom guests were arguably being exploited, but that case is harder to prove these days. "Beyond the first or second seasons of 'The Real World,' I think it's safe to assume that those people who were applying generally knew what they were getting into. And if they didn't, well, it's not like the information wasn't available to them, with some exceptions."
Admittedly, going on "The Real World" isn't exactly the same as doing a series of spots on "Ricki." But they aren't that different, either.
Jaxson's story gets cloudy when it comes to corroborating some of his claims. While Jaffe confirms that Jaxson was on "Ricki" three times (he says five times), his appearance on other shows are difficult to verify since they're no longer on the air. Asked to produce tapes of his appearances, Jaxson says the tapes are either broken or were lost in a house fire last year.
On Jaxson's website he boasts that his show "The Edge" won a Southern Regional Emmy Award for "Best Cable TV Host." But that category doesn't exist, says Tomi Funderburke, executive administrator for the Atlanta chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which oversees the awards.
"I have looked through the craft and programming categories and have not found his name or the title listed anywhere. According to my records, he did not win an Emmy," she says.
Asked about the award, Jaxson is unclear. "I just know what they told me," he says. "I really don't make a big deal about the award." The plaque, he says, was also lost in the fire.
This fall, Jaxson says he took a stab at radio stardom, doing spots on WZNY-FM in Augusta and its sister station in Louisiana, interviewing celebrities for their morning shows. But the program director for WZNY says that simply isn't true. He was interviewed on air one time after he cold-called the station and told them his story, something he's honed to an art form. Similar calls have led to profiles in local newspapers like the Marietta Daily Journal and INsite and the national magazine The Advocate.
When he first contacted Creative Loafing in October, Jaxson said he was filming a TV show pilot for Viacom's new gay network. Later, he pitched a fundraising event slated for early December at Marietta's Theatre in the Square with a guest appearance by Mariah Carey. Neither endeavor came to fruition.
But before you completely write off Jaxson as an opportunistic teen who stretches the truth for the benefit of his own reputation, consider his claims that can be proven.
For example, after meeting Tina Spence on the set of "TRL," he used the connection to talk Da Brat into coming to the backwater town of Helen, Ga., for a fundraising concert for AIDS education.
"My accent was bad then," he says while watching the tape of Da Brat rapping to a frantic crowd in Helen's A-Club. It's true, the boy on screen betrays his northeast Georgia roots with an audible twang. In person he has an accent that's harder to nail down, a little flat that doesn't show much emotion.
More proof of Jaxson's celebrity hobnobbing hangs on the wall of a spare bedroom in his house. Framed black-and-white glossies fill this none-too-subtle shrine to celebrities, with autographed shots of Missy Elliot, Da Brat, Mariah Carey, Carson Daly and O Town. Another large frame features photos Jaxson took at MTV's Video Music Awards.
To Jaxson, celebrity seems to be something you can catch if you just hang around with folks who already have it, like a cold. A section on his website called "Jon and other celebrities" shows the teen posed with Samantha Mumba, Mandy Moore, BBMak. Considering this penchant for pop stars, it's no surprise that he spent two days last month camped out on the street waiting to try out for "American Idol." He went with a friend and didn't intend to audition himself, he says, but he wound up performing for the judges anyway.
"I'd had like no sleep and I was all crappy looking, so I thought there's no way I'm going to make it."
But he did make it -- almost. More than 1,000 tried out, and Jaxson's charm boosted him to round two. "I guess I kind of have the look," he says, after making the first cut.
A couple of days later, Jaxson returned and sang his way through to the third round of auditions. He came out of the room crying, thinking, "I'm a winner. I made it."
Though he didn't make the final cut, Jaxson remains unfazed by this, just another small brush with fame.
"Honestly, I didn't think I would make it. I did this whole thing on a dare," he says. "This is the biggest shock of my life so far. It's odd because it's out of my realm."
He was disappointed, but sums up his feelings with his pet phrase: "It is what it is."
Citing Umberto Eco on realityblurred.com, Andy Dehnart notes that although reality shows are fake, they've become our reality. Shows like "The Real World" and "Survivor" have altered what it means to be a celebrity, he says, at least in the immediate sense.
"Even the most famous reality TV personalities of the past two years -- Richard Hatch, Darva Conger, etc. -- have faded from the cultural radar screen," he says. "Then again, so has Madonna, relative to her celebrity in the 1980s and 1990s. If anything, reality TV has just accelerated the process. You're unknown, you're famous, you show up on some crappy shows, you disappear."
When asked what it means to be a celebrity, Jaxson hesitates.
"The definition of 'celebrity'? I don't know. I guess I need to look it up. ... I do think people in the spotlight are worshipped a little more than they should. Celebrity is something you should look up to. Not just someone who's been on TV and hasn't done anything with their lives."
By that definition, does he still want to be a celebrity?
"Absolutely," he says. "I would like to give other people an opportunity that I didn't have growing up, whether it's being on TV or just giving them entertainment or being in the spotlight for five seconds, or helping them find their father. There's so many ways to make a difference in someone's life."
But what would happen if he doesn't achieve his dream of becoming a celebrity? Jaxson shrugs off the question.
"Honestly, I've met everyone I ever wanted to meet," he says, "except for Rosie O'Donnell. I've been blessed, more than the average person my age."
These days, Jaxson refuses to take a guess at where he'll be in five years, or five months. Every day is a challenge, he says.
"When I plan something, it seems like in this business, things always fall through."
Jaxson pauses, staring into space, like Norma Desmond getting ready for her close-up. Then he laughs: "To be on the cover of Creative Loafing, that's my dream."