"Don't do it," said my wife. "They'll make you look like a complete prat."
I'd asked her advice about whether to participate in a British reality show at the beginning of 2004 called the Other Boat Race. According to the email I'd received from the BBC, I would be one of half-a-dozen fat, middle-aged Oxford graduates competing against an equally out-of-shape Cambridge team to commemorate the 175th anniversary of the Boat Race, an annual institution in the UK whereby two teams from Oxford and Cambridge compete against one other. To train us for the big day, in which we'd race each other along the Thames, the BBC would enlist the help of various Olympic rowers, including the five-time gold medal winner Sir Steve Redgrave. The highlight would be a one-week, residential boot camp -- or "boat camp" as the Beeb wittily described it -- in which we'd be filmed huffing and puffing as the Olympians put us through our paces.
I knew Caroline was right -- of course I'd end up looking like a prat -- but there were various arguments in its favour. For one thing, there was the $20,000 fee -- nothing to sniff at now that I had a family to support. Then there was the fitness factor. I was weighing in at 185lbs which, for a man of my age and height, was "clinically obese". It also appealed to the schoolboy in me. How often do you get the chance to be trained by Olympic athletes? It was as if a group of gods had come down from Mount Olympus and offered to teach a bunch of mortals how to fly.
But above all it was an opportunity to appear in a reality show.
This wasn't the first time the possibility had come up. For instance, in October of 2002 I was contacted by a woman claiming to be from a production company called Endemol to ask me if I was interested in appearing in the British version of Celebrity Big Brother. Naturally, I assumed it was a practical joke being played on me by one of my friends. It wasn't until I received a formal letter on headed notepaper the following day that my doubts were laid to rest. Incredibly, the offer seemed genuine. They wanted me to be one of six or seven "housemates" who would compete against each other later that year.
My first thought was: Why me? I might have attracted a little bit of notoriety in connection with How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, a book I'd written about trying (and failing) to take Manhattan, but I was hardly a household name. This would surely be held against me in the yellow press. I imagined various articles complaining about the fact that such a total non-entity had been selected to take part in a programme supposedly featuring "celebrities". I would end up being ranked somewhere below Kato Kaelin in the micro-celebrity pecking order: I'd become famous for not being famous.
Shortly afterwards, I was offered another reality show, only this one was even less appealing. It was called Celebrity Wife Swap and the woman I would have to exchange Caroline for was Jade Goody.
For the uninitiated, Jade was a contestant on the third British series of Big Brother who's main claim to fame used to be that she's ... well, not very bright. Here are a few of the things she said on the programme:
"Where is East Angular? Is it abroad?"
"Rio de Janeiro -- that's a person."
"Saddam Hussein -- that's a boxer."
"A ferret is a bird."
"Who is Heinzstein?"
"Mother Theresa is from Germany."
"Sherlock Holmes invented toilets."
"I knew Lynne was from Aberdeen, but I didn't realise Aberdeen was in Scotland."
"What's a sparagus? Do you grow it?"
"You see those things [on peacocks' feathers] ... don't think I'm being daft ... but them things that look like eyes, are they their real eyes?"
"Jonny, I'm not being tictactical here."
"They were trying to use me as an escape goat."
"Do they speak Portuganese in Portugal? I thought Portugal was in Spain."
Jade subsequently got cancer - a fact she learned while participating in the Indian version of Big Brother - and was instantly transformed from a standing joke into national treasure. Indeed, her last months were played out in another reality show - this one about her life - and there was something weirdly impressive about the total shamelessness with which she exploited the genre. What Oprah is to afternoon talk shows, Jade was to reality TV - and she made a small fortune.
But it wasn't just Jade I was worried about when it came to Celebrity Wife Swap. Her then boyfriend was an attractive, 23-year-old television presenter called Jeff Brazier. He was precisely the sort of cheeky Cockney geezer that Caroline had a weakness for. What if something actually happened between them? I could envisage a scenario in which I woke up the day after Celebrity Wife Swap had been broadcast to discover two dozen reporters camped on my doorstep, all of them wanting to know how it felt to be cuckolded on national television. Front and centre would be the News of the World, having concluded a six-figure deal with Caroline courtesy of her newly-appointed publicity agent. The most I could hope for would be an appearance on a special edition of Jerry Springer in which half a dozen men who'd been betrayed by their partners on reality shows would have a chance to confront them. It would very quickly spiral out of control and Jeff would end up flooring me with a right hook. I would officially become Britain's biggest loser. No woman would ever go out with me again.
Still, the prospect of appearing on a reality show was mighty tempting. The emergence of "reality" as an all-conquering television genre -- both in Britain and America -- was one of the biggest media stories of the decade and, as a journalist, I longed for an opportunity to get a look at this phenomenon up close. In contrast to Celebrity Wife Swap and Celebrity Big Brother, the Other Boat Race felt relatively safe -- not least because it didn't have the word "Celebrity" in the title. I'd be one of 16 participants, so I'd hardly be in the spotlight, and everyone involved would have been to either Oxford or Cambridge. No doubt the people watching the programme would dismiss us a bunch of wankers, but at least we wouldn't be thought of as a bunch of stupid wankers. And rowing was held in such high regard by the British public that our involvement in the show would be understandable. Who wouldn't want to be taught how to row by Britain's only athletes to consistently win gold medals at the Olympics?
So I said yes. In spite of the fact that the survival time in the river Thames in the middle of winter is under four minutes, the Other Boat Race seemed comparatively risk free.
"Put your back into it, lad. Come on. Give it some welly."
The speaker was Tim Foster, a David Beckham look-a-like who had won a gold medal at the Sydney Olympics. It was day two of the programme and I'd been separated from my team mates and stuck in a coxless four with two ex-Olympians and an Oxford rowing champ. As I struggled to keep up, Foster drew alongside on a launch and started shouting at me through a megaphone. It was like trying to play doubles with Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and Stefan Edberg, while McEnroe lobbed wisecracks from the sidelines.
I couldn't help thinking I'd made a terrible mistake. Wouldn't I just look completely ridiculous in contrast to these hulking great athletes? Any sane person watching the show would think: "What are these national heroes doing in a boat with a fat bald bloke?" As if to ram the point home, the boat was so unbalanced by the fact that I was on one side of it that we ended up going round in circles.
Still, at least I wasn't doing significantly worse than the other "civilians" in my team. For one thing, we were all far too small to excel in this particular sport. With the exception of Jonathan Aitken, a former Conservative Member of Parliament who stood at 6ft3, everyone on the Oxford team was 5ft8 or under. As Richard Herring, one of my team mates, pointed out, rowing boats are normally crewed by giants and coxed by midgets. Our boat was being coxed by a giant -- Aitken -- and crewed by midgets.
In addition, five of the people in the eight-man Oxford boat were asthmatics. I discovered this on the first day when one of our coaches made us race a team of 16-year-olds from a nearby school. Afterwards, as we were all bent double on the riverbank, five of my crewmates pulled out inhalers and started puffing away. I immediately asked one of the producers if I could approach Ventolin about a possible sponsorship deal, but he said it would be against BBC rules.
Nevertheless, provided we all stayed in the boat, our humiliation would be limited to not being able to row. It was only when the BBC filmed us out of the boat that things got a little sticky.
For instance, the producers discovered that I knew a member of the Cambridge team -- a fellow journalist named Grub Smith -- and they decided it would be fun to exaggerate the rivalry between us. To that end, they asked if they could film us playing golf and in a moment of madness I agreed. Needless to say, I made a complete dog's dinner of my first tee shot and the ball landed at the feet of a cameraman standing about 10 yards away. He immediately dropped to his haunches and followed the progress of the ball as it dribbled to a halt. Rain forced us to abandon play after six holes, by which time Grub was two under, while I was already in double digits.
However, that wasn't the most embarrassing episode in the eight-week shoot. That occurred when my team mates and I spent the day in the company of Sir Steve Redgrave, one of only four Olympians in history to win gold medals at five consecutive Games.
"So, Sir Steve," I said, trying to break the ice, "how d'you think the England squad is going to fare in Athens without you?"
This was a reference to the fact that he'd announced his retirement at the 2000 Olympic Games and wouldn't be competing in 2004.
He gave me a blank look.
"Which England squad?"
"The, er, English Olympic rowing squad."
"Do you mean the British squad?"
"Sorry," I said, slapping my forehead. "I'm an idiot."
Later, as we reviewed grainy video footage of Sir Steve's Olympic victories, I attempted to claw my way back into his good books by pointing out Martin Cross, one of the Oxford team's coaches, sitting alongside him when he won his first gold in 1984.
"Isn't that Martin in the stern?" I asked, indicating a shaggy-haired young man at the front of the boat.
"That's the bow," he said, looking at me in the same way he looked at the Germans when he and Matthew Pinsent left them in their wake at Barcelona.
Needless to say, a BBC cameraman was on hand to capture both of these exchanges.
Why does anyone agree to appear on a reality show? The obvious answer is because they want to be famous -- but why? Is it simply a desire for status? Celebrities live in the grandest houses, dictate the latest fashions and enjoy unlimited sexual opportunities -- but even this description of the perks of being a celeb is a rationalisation. The desire for fame is more primordial than that. It's about the longing for recognition, the need to stand out in the crowd.
I have to confess, I'm as pathetic as the next man in my craving for attention. At some pre-rational level I, too, think I'll never be fully-actualised until I'm a celebrity. More than this, I believe that once I've crossed that Rubicon I'll achieve a kind of immortality. This must be at the root of why anyone wants to be famous: it's a way of cheating death.
But I'm enough of a student of the subject to know that fame, as an end in itself, doesn't have the same currency it once did. Scarcely a day passes without a hand-wringing article appearing in the broadsheet press about how fame and celebrity have become the dominant values of our time, when, in fact, almost the opposite is the case. In the first decade of the 21st Century -- thanks, in part, to the phenomenal success of programmes like Survivor -- we've witnessed the gradual separation of fame and status. These days, being well known doesn't automatically ensure high social standing (let alone immortality). You can be famous and still be a loser: a famous loser. The best example in Britain is probably James Hewitt, the guardsman who had an affair with Princess Diana, but there are countless others.
It doesn't really make sense to call James Hewitt a "celebrity". I mean, what does he have in common with Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise? There are so many different varieties of fame these days we need to develop a whole new vocabulary to describe them. At the moment, the best we can do is to rank celebrities according to whether they're A-list, B-list, etc. But even if we use every letter of the alphabet that still only gives us 26 different types. That's surely not enough. Eskimos have 47 different words for snow. Shouldn't we have 47 words for celebrity?
Then there's the issue of duration. All things being equal, being famous is probably preferable to not being famous, but you better make damn sure you remain in the spotlight for longer than 15 minutes. Unlike love, to have had fame and lost it is worse than never having had it at all. It's like the argument about why you should never take a one-off opportunity to fly First Class: once you've turned left, you'll never want to turn right again. Sometimes it's better not to know what you're missing.
It's not just reality stars that have to worry about this. Even some A-list celebrities have the shelf life of milk. Egged on by the tabloids, the public appear to have an insatiable appetite for seeing the famous toppled from their thrones. Being in the public eye is a bit like being in jail: one wrong move and all your privileges are taken away.
Why is this? One approach to answering that question is to look at the life of Lord Byron, the first modern celebrity. Byron was an overnight sensation, becoming famous at the age of 24 with the appearance of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. For the next three years, every door was open to him. He was a guest at all the great Whig houses of the period and lionised by London's leading hostesses. Then, almost as quickly as he rose to fame, he suddenly fell from grace, a victim of the same 'build 'em up and knock 'em down' syndrome that's so familiar to us today.
Byron attributed his demise to "envy, jealousy, and all uncharitableness", but is that accurate? To see celebrities as just another privileged class, subject to the same animosities as any other well-off group, doesn't do justice to the complexity of people's feelings towards them. Clark Gable once remarked to David Niven that, when it came to the contract between a star and his public, the public had read the small print and the star hadn't. All it took was one tiny violation and the adoring crowds turned into a baying mob. "So, when we get knocked off by gangsters ... or get hooked on booze or dope or get ourselves thrown out of business because of scandals or because we just get old, that's the payoff and public feels satisfied," said Gable. "Yeah, it's a good idea to read that small print."
Perhaps the best place to seek an explanation for why fans have a tendency to destroy their idols is the Golden Bough, JG Frazer's comparative study of magic and religion. In Books II and III, entitled 'Killing The God' and 'The Scapegoat', he discusses various primitive religions in which individuals who are believed to be the living embodiment of divine beings are first worshipped then put to death by their followers. According to Frazer, human sacrifices such as this were designed to strengthen and revitalise the god or goddess that the victim was impersonating. The savages who performed these rituals weren't actually trying to kill their gods; rather, by murdering their human proxies they were seeking to preserve the immortality of their deities. Indeed, Frazer maintained that the Easter celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ had its origin in these primitive rituals.
There's one passage in particular in the Golden Bough that should serve as a warning to anyone tempted to appear on a reality show. According to Frazer, some divine kings managed to avoid being killed by their followers by nominating a proxy to be put to death in their stead. The princes of Malabar, for instance, delegated supreme power to one of their subjects, allowed him to lord it over them for five years, then sat back and watched as the man's head was chopped off. Clearly, the celebrities created by reality television programmes are the modern day equivalents of these chumps. Non-entities are plucked from the hoi polloi, allowed to enjoy the privileges of fame for a few precious years, and then ritually sacrificed in the tabloids. In this way, the public's bloodlust is satisfied and proper celebrities are able to hang on to their own privileged status for a little bit longer.
As race day approached on the Other Boat Race, I came down with a bad case of the jitters. We'd raced against at least half a dozen other crews at this stage, not just the 16-year-olds, and they'd all beaten us, but that wasn't my chief concern. My big worry was that I had become so discombobulated on every single one of these occasions that I had come off my seat. The upshot was that I'd spent several minutes of each race flailing around, desperately trying to get back on my slider as it careered back and forth in time with the motion of the boat. It was a bit like trying to remount a mechanical bull when it was at full tilt.
Still, at least I'd come up with a solution to this problem. Just before the start of the race I was planning to Superglue myself to the seat. Unless the boat capsized, I would probably be okay.
No such easy solution presented itself to the problem of "catching a crab". This is a rowing-speak for putting your oar in at the wrong angle and getting it stuck in the forward position. Due to the momentum of the boat, once you've caught a crab it's almost impossible to rectify the situation. But you can't just sit there and do nothing since your oar is effectively acting as a brake. The correct thing to do is detach your oar from its rigger, toss it in the water, then throw yourself in after it. To remain in the boat, even if you've successfully detached your oar, is to add a good deal of unnecessary weight. The least you can do is leap over the side.
The trouble was, I didn't know if I'd have the guts to do this -- not least because it would involve wriggling out of my tracksuit bottoms which would still be Superglued to my seat. A few yards behind the Oxford and Cambridge boats would be a huge flotilla of vessels containing race officials, interested parties, spectators and, of course, numerous BBC camera crews. Even if I managed not to be hit by one of them, I would then be faced with the problem of how to get out of the water in under four minutes while simultaneously avoiding being filmed on the riverbank in my Y-fronts.
The hardest thing about being in a reality show, I discovered, is not to appear too self-conscious. At some point in their lives, nearly everyone has laboured under the impression that they're starring in their own private movie -- and when you're in a reality show that illusion turns out to be true. Your every move is being watched. There are secret cameras concealed in that tree. The standard advice is to just be yourself, but it's extremely hard to relax and act normally when you're concentrating so hard on not picking your nose or scratching your balls. Appearing in the Other Boat Race was less like the fulfilment of a lifelong ambition than an extremely demanding eight-week test. For perhaps the first time in my life, I didn't want to make a fool of myself.
In the event, I managed to hold my own in the boat and -- miracle of miracles -- the Oxford team won. In fairness to the Cambridge team, this wasn't because we were better rowers than them. Rather, it was because Tim Foster had the good sense to tape up the sides of our boat so water couldn't get in. The race took place on a typically blustery winter's day and the upshot was that the Cambridge boat took on several gallons of water as it inched along the Thames, giving the crew a huge weight disadvantage. Still, we didn't know this at the time and winning felt incredibly good. As we passed the finish line I could hear the sound of the BBC commentator's voice over the public address system: "...and here comes Gandalf, coxing his hobbits to victory."
My anxiety about the effect that appearing in the Other Boat Race would have on my career -- would I become a D-list celebrity, only to be tossed to the tabloid wolves? -- proved laughably unfounded. It was broadcast on BBC3, not one of the major channels, and was watched by so few people that it scored a zero rating. The only person who saw it, apparently, was Sam Woolaston, the Guardian's TV critic. "I'm sure for the people taking part it's quite good fun, and all sorts of personal goals are being achieved," he wrote. "But, like the real boat race, it's not one to watch. A load of rowlocks in fact."