Friday, January 21, 2011

The Root:: Scorched By The Spotlight Of Instant Fame

Scorched By The Spotlight Of Instant Fame
By: E.R. Shipp
Posted: January 18, 2011 at 12:06 AM

Ted "Golden Voice" Williams isn't the only person to have his 15 minutes of fame before crashing to earth. Remember the subway hero? And what will come of the Scott sisters?

No one should be surprised that Ted Williams, the homeless guy with a "golden voice" discovered on a street in Columbus, Ohio, crashed within days of becoming ubiquitous on network television and in print and being bombarded with job offers of six figures and up.

He actually recorded an ad for Kraft Macaroni & Cheese while mulling over an offer to be an announcer for the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team. Donald Trump offered housing assistance. Oprah competed with the networks to be the first with a national interview, but having lost that competition, she offered her best wishes and suggested that she might give him a job on her network. Everybody wanted a piece of Williams, an addict with a rap sheet, without assuring that he was ready for all this fame and fortune.

Now Williams, 53, is as much the butt of late-night television humor as he is a kind of mea culpa by NBC and other networks that more or less acknowledge that they threw too much at him too fast.

On the humor side, there was David Letterman making him an item on his Top Ten list and Jay Leno saying in a monologue, "A lot of people saw this coming. He went from unknown to big star, then to rehab. So you know what's coming next? Dancing With the Stars!" Piling it on, George Lopez said in a monologue: "This fool's 15 minutes of fame was only eight minutes!"

In the meantime, he has become a rescue opportunity for Dr. Phil, who is an Oprah protégé. "He's been overwhelmed by all this media frenzy," Dr. Phil told his television audience. Dr. Phil has offered to pick up the tab for rehab at a luxurious facility on South Padre Island in Texas, but even as Williams said he was ready to clean up his act, he seemed more interested in postponing such a change until he could go back to Ohio to see the girlfriend his children say is impeding his recovery because of her own problems.

A happily-ever-after ending was never in the cards -- not this soon, anyway. I never believed the Cinderella, rags-to-overnight-reform hype even before his much ballyhooed televised reunion with his mother, from whom he had been estranged for at least a decade. Her first words to him were, "Don't disappoint me again." Indeed, a time line in the New York Daily News captured some of how much of a whirlwind this has been: " … From Rags to Riches to Dr. Phil in 10 Days."

In recent years we have seen numerous ordinary people become instant celebrities and more or less left flailing without a safety net. "I always, always, always feel for people who are suddenly thrust into the spotlight, because I know beyond a doubt that they are ill-prepared, even if you have not been in prison for X amount of years or you have lived a life that was not very traumatic. It's being immediately thrust into the limelight that is the real challenge. It requires skill," says publicist and author Terrie Williams, founder of the Stay Strong Foundation, which serves as an advocate for youth and especially focuses on mental health issues. "It's also about preparing them for being in the fishbowl."

"And who's looking out for them?" asks Terrie Williams. "They are thrown to the wolves." A counselor or therapist can help to talk about the experience as it unfolds. She was especially taken back by the offers from Kraft and the Cavs, asserting that the better approach would have been to ascertain his sobriety and his mental health and to offer to help him, with a prospective job as an incentive.

I think of Wesley Autry, who threw himself atop a man who had fallen onto a New York City subway track and saved him. He was honored by President George W. Bush at the 2007 State of the Union address and by other politicians in New York. Donald Trump gave him $10,000; he was given a Jeep and sports tickets. He was all over national television. And on and on.

But months later, when he still hoping for lucrative movie and book deals, he was passing out business cards identifying himself as "Wesley Autry Sr. -- Subway Hero." Terrie Williams says she saw him at one event carrying around some of his awards and "pulled his coat" to tell him that was not a good thing. He and an early team of managers ended up in conflict over their insistence on taking 50 percent of any income that Autry earned from the subway incident, but eventually settled out of court.

When it comes to prisoners -- from men and women freed as a result of DNA evidence brought to light through the efforts of the Innocence Project to the Scott sisters released from a Mississippi prison earlier this month after 16 years for a robbery that may have netted $11 -- there is often a rush of publicity and invitations to tell their stories. Then everything is expected to be normal.

The Scott sisters' story became international in part because of outrage that a condition of their release was that one donate a kidney to the other. They have relocated to Florida, where they have family, but the Mississippi NAACP is more or less continuing to advocate for them, according to Derrick Johnson, the state conference president. It will convene a meeting in coming days to coordinate their medical and transportation needs and to identify a facility to perform tests to determine if Gladys Scott is a match for her sister, Jamie.

"This is not the role we [usually] play," says Johnson. "We are an advocacy group. As a result of this, this is a steep learning curve for us."

But the sisters have much more of a support network than most others do, including people and organizations focused on their general needs as they transition into society. "For individuals who were formerly incarcerated, there is very little support for re-entry," Johnson says.

Terrie Williams, who has reached out gratis to some Innocence Project clients, says that the Scott sisters need someone, whether a public relations expert or otherwise, to help them with their message.

Johnson says that the Scott sisters are enjoying being with their extended family, "while at the same time, they are nervous and scared because of how much the world has changed since they were imprisoned." Changes like the prevalence of cell phones and computers. "Walking to a grocery store can be an adventure," he said. "It's not the big things. It's the small things that have changed in 16 years, the small things that we really take for granted."

Somebody should have thought about that in dealing with Ted Williams.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is a frequent contributor to The Root.

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