Last week, the ABC television show Dancing With the Stars aired its season premiere, bringing professional dancers and celebrities together and seeing what happens when they put on their dancing shoes. Over twenty-two million viewers tuned in to meet the latest match-ups¯in past seasons, the celebrities have ranged from political pundits to Super Bowl champions¯take to the dance floor.
Every once in a while a celebrity, struggling with the new and rigorous dance choreography, suffers an injury and can’t continue with the show. This season, that is exactly what happened¯twice. The singer Jewel and television host Nancy O’Dell both had to step out of the lineup just days before the premiere, sending the network on an urgent search for replacements.
ABC struck gold with one of its last-minute replacements: Melissa Rycroft, a recent star from the reality-television show The Bachelor , whose training in ballet became evident in her debut last night. But the producers’ other replacement makes obvious the desperation to find anyone to fill the spot: They chose Playboy playmate Holly Madison, one of the many former girlfriends of Hugh Hefner who most recently headlined Girls Next Door , a show about living in the Playboy Mansion.
Of course, she’s not the only one on the show who’s had a raunchy career. This season, there’s also Lil’ Kim, a potty-mouthed rapper who admits in her bio that she was recently released from a Federal Detention Center, and Steve-O, the iron-stomached stuntman famous for doing the craziest, grossest things one can imagine for MTV’s Jackass and other, less-censored film projects. As Jimmy Kimmel put it recently, “he made a career out of humiliating himself.”
But there’s something different here. Lil’ Kim and Steve-O are introduced to viewers as celebrities who, despite their more regrettable (and unmentionable) deeds of the past, are going to try some good, clean fun for once¯this is their chance to start anew. As Steve-O earnestly confessed: “I was out of control, abusing drugs and alcohol for years and I finally reached my breaking point. Then I checked into rehab . . . . With the waltz, I’m hoping to prove that this jackass can be a gentleman.” (Although, anyone who has actually seen Jackass will probably suspect that Steve-O is preparing to use Dancing With the Stars as a platform for yet another practical joke in, say, the season finale. Or, at least, we can hope so.)
It’s not surprising the show plays up such redemption stories. The public loves them and for good reason: There’s something very human¯and American, for that matter¯about turning things around, about starting over. There’s something refreshing about the honest acknowledgment that one has fallen to rock bottom and is now getting back up. So, in a funny way, it’s good to hear Lil’ Kim and Steve-O admit their crimes and drugs and sinful ways.
But let’s not kid ourselves: There’s a third person on this show who’s at rock bottom, though Dancing With the Stars doesn’t call it that. Indeed, the network treats it as a selling point for the celebrity: We’ve got Holly Madison!
Holly’s recent past as a Playboy playmate is what bought her the celebrity status to qualify for the show. Not only is this inappropriate on the part of Disney-owned ABC in prime-time, it’s the weirdest, most disturbing kind of celebrity. I mean, isn’t selling dirty pictures of yourself as bottom-of-the-barrel as it gets? Even more of an act of desperation than resorting to drugs and crime?
In 2007 alone, eleven porn stars died of HIV, suicide, homicide, or drug overdose, and, according to a study by the Pink Cross Foundation in 2008, at least thirty-six porn stars have committed suicide since 1970. If you think the posh Playboy lifestyle (they have a mansion, right?) evades these horrors, think again: Since 1953, nine Playboy “Playmates of the Month” have died of either drug overdose, suicide, or homicide. Of the playmates who have died, the average lifespan has been a low forty-four years¯much lower than the average seventy-nine-year lifespan of the American woman. One look at the data reveals the porn-star life is as solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short as you get.
Despite all this, we often hear, as we heard after the Eliot Spitzer scandal, voices raised in defense of the “sex worker.” But the fact is most woman¯most prostitutes and most porn stars and most sex workers¯don’t begin by wanting to sell themselves for a career. They are drawn into that world as an effort to make ends meet, hoping it will be temporary. Think Marilyn Monroe. Listen to the actual stories of aspiring actresses who pose nude for magazines. Almost always they yearn for better things.
And there’s reason to believe Holly hopes for better things, such as a respectable career, marriage, and children. Her desire to settle down and start a family made tabloid headlines last fall when Hugh Hefner, not surprisingly, didn’t reciprocate. As Hefner told reporters, “she wants very much to get married and have children. That isn’t very much in the cards for me.” Holly said the fact that they were “no closer to getting married than we were years ago,” made her life feel like “a car stalled at the side of the road.” (She’s not the only one whose relationship is stunted by a pornographic backdrop¯a recent BBC study showed 74 percent of therapists surveyed find excessive use of Internet pornography as an increasingly problem in relationships.)
But we don’t hear the truth¯that she entered the Playboy world when she couldn’t pay the bills for college and tried to make ends meet at a local Hooter’s restaurant. The network could have sold her appearance on Dancing With the Stars as a redemption narrative, I guess. But instead all they’ve done is give a cheer for the pornographic magazine that made her a celebrity.
Madison recently told People magazine: “I’m focused on forwarding my career . . . . I’m working on producing my own shows. Girls Next Door was a great place to start, but it was somebody else’s show. I’m just ready to move on.”
Let’s hope her stint at Dancing With the Stars helps her move on. But let’s not fool ourselves that bottoming out in pornography is a good place from which to start.
Mary Rose Rybak is managing editor of First Things .