Stars use the Internet to connect with fans
It’s cheaper than a Humvee. It’s higher-tech than a StarTAC phone. It’s a home page of one’s own, and it’s the trendiest accessory in the entertainment industry. An assortment of stars have already planted their flags in cyberspace, from American supermodel Cindy Crawford to British thespian Sir Ian McKellen to prime Canadian ham William Shatner. But with Frasier star Kelsey Grammer’s launch of his website on Dec. 15, the concept has taken on a higher profile than ever. ”There’s a wall between me an dthe public that I’d like to help dismantle with this site,” says Grammer, who clearly relishes his new project. ”I feel like I’ve started my own little small-town newspaper. Everything that’s in my site is written by either me or Camille [Donatacci, Grammer’s wife].”
The contents of celeb sites are as varied as the stars they celebrate, ranging from the impressively scholarly (McKellen’s site functions as an online library cataloging the actor’s distinguished career) to the downright chatty (essays from Kelsey and Camille! Cindy Crawford on her upcoming projects!). So why the sudden rush by stars to wrench their online destinies away from the fans who traditionally run appreciation pages? Los Angeles Web designer Keith Stern, who has created sites for McKellen, Lyn Redgrave, and Spi(u n)al Tap, ventures the ”quality control” theory: ”Unfortunately, sometimes the fans don’t do such a terrific job. By establishing an ‘official home page,’ celebrities have the opportunity to get their story out in a way that’s accurate, useful, informative, fun, and appropriate.” Emphasis on appropriate, or at least the star’s idea of it. As with that printed-page equivalent, the authorized biography, you won’t find anything on the official pages about Grammer’s alleged X-rated home-video jinks, or hastily scanned images from Crawford’s recent Playboy spread, or even an audio clip of Shatner singing ”Mr. Tambourine Man.”
The stars themselves freely admit that brand-name protection is a major draw in inducing them to set up home pages. ”There are a lot of people online claiming to be me,” says Shatner, ”and supposedly thousands of William Shatner-oriented websites out there, some cruel, some kind. So it made sense to actually have my own page, so I could clarify who’s speaking for me.” Oh, and make a few bucks in teh process, since the ever-enterprising Shatner’s site is linked to such commercial ventures as an online science-fiction store, a travel agency that arranges space-related tours, and a phone-card company.
Officially sanctioned pages can run into snags, though, even in matters as simple as using star’s name for the site’s URL. In many cases, Internet claim jumpers have beaten celebrities to the punch by registering their names and holding their online identities for ransom. ”I actually had to buy back my own name from someone who had registered it,” says a peeved Shatner. Grammer, faced with a similar situation, opted for a different solution. ”There’s a guy out in Kansas who bought up a lot of celebrity names and tried to sell me mine,” recalls Grammer, who opted to use kelseylive instead. ”Now we’re getting my name without paying anything.” McKellen had no problem registering his name. ”I suppose I should feel insulted that no one registered it before I did,” he laughs.
Despite the obstacles, the celeb-site rush looks set to continue — and even intensify — as other famous folks who haven’t made the jump into .com-hood actively consider the move. ”I know I’ll have to get my own page sooner or later as a buffer, because I can’t keep up with all my e-mail right now,” says actor James Woods. ”But then I’d probably waste even more time every day on my Mac, answering messages and interacting with fans.” Some celebrities, however, are resisting the siren song of cyberspace. ”I have no interest in the Internet whatsoever,” declares Jodie Foster, sounding remarkably unlike her tech-friendly character in Contact. ”I write letters. On paper.”
Foster’s reaction doesn’t surprise Web designer Stern, who observes that ”producing websites today is a little like working in television in its earliest days. Most established performers don’t yet fully appreciate its importance.” But with the Web continuing to function as the planet’s largest repository of free-floating rumor, gossip, and innuendo — Hard Copy writ large — necessity may eventually win out over technophobic snobbery. A personal website irresistibly fulfills an image-conscious star’s dream of bypassing the conventional media altogether and communicating directly with fans. ”It allows me to represent myself in a way that’s candid and sincere,” says Grammer. ”And now if there’s a miscommunication, it’s my fault.”