Sex, lies and stereotypes
In Hollywood Undercover, His Highness Halperin sets out to expose the underbelly of boozing, easy sex and no-knicker wearing in Tinseltown. Yet he lazily embraces the worthy do-gooding celebrity of Oprah and George Clooney.
‘I don’t know if you’re talented or not, but as a moviemaker I could put you on screen no matter what. You don’t even need to tell me if you can act; I could make you a star and promote you as the next hottest thing since sliced bread.’
This proposal, coming from Ian Halperin, a Canadian author and filmmaker, is the closest I’ve gotten to making it in Hollywood since I was offered a place in the studio audience of Bob Cat’s Big Ass Show while taking holiday snaps on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But Halperin is only trying to prove a point: talent plays no part in the film industry today.
I met up with Halperin during his recent stint in London to promote his new book Hollywood Undercover. It accompanies a documentary in which he poses as a gay wannabe actor, His Highness Halperin, in order to reveal the ‘sordid secrets of Tinseltown’. ‘It’s a fake boob world’, he tells me, ‘and frankly if I see another fake boob, I will vomit’.
We meet at the Groucho club in Soho, the favoured hangout of London’s media set. The earthy tones of the interiors give the place a rundown chic look, exuding a secluded-yet-down-to-earth atmosphere. Making my way past wine-sipping journalists and newspaper-strewn tables, I see Halperin, dressed in a khaki jacket, shorts and trainers, looking as if he’s just come from a leisurely walk in Central Park in New York or the woods outside Montreal, the two cities between which he splits his time. That is, when he’s not brushing shoulders with coke-snorting celebrities in LA nightclubs, ‘infiltrating’ the Church of Scientology, or faking it in auditions.
What started out as an assignment to film a television documentary about Canadian actors trying to make it in Hollywood during ‘pilot season’ turned into a two-year escapade with a ‘royal twist’ – the creation of Halperin’s eccentrically dressed alter ego, His Highness. Halperin tells me he changed the focus of his project after learning that a fence had been put up around the Hollywood sign because ‘so many kids, who had gone to LA with stars in their eyes, thinking they’d become rich and famous through acting, were jumping off it’.
Seeing as it takes some guts to go to auditions without any acting experience, join Playboy parties and accost celebrities on the red carpet dressed in a glittery green shirt, bow tie and sunglasses, I expected Halperin to be quite boisterous. Instead, he is slightly awkward and fumbling. To my surprise, as our interview starts, he suddenly puts on a pair of 1980s-style sunglasses with pink rims. ‘I always wear them when I do interviews’, he explains, giving me some lofty spiel about wanting to feel like he’s in character – in truth, it appears that he is simply more confident when hiding behind dark shades.
Halperin seems convinced he has a higher social and artistic aim, which separates him from what he sees as the shallow wannabes and zero-talent celebrities that are dragging Hollywood down and, with it, our cinema-going experiences. ‘There’s no shortage of talent’, he says, but he claims that we are seeing the lower rung in Hollywood films, because actors’ success depends on ‘how many studio execs they sleep with and how much coke they snort’.
He tells me he ‘wants to inform the public, debunk myths about Hollywood and put something into the world that makes people think’. But these noble-sounding goals hardly chime with the tone of Hollywood Undercover, which, dripping with contempt for ‘stupid’ Americans, ‘deluded’ aspiring actors, ‘whack job’ Scientologists and ‘talentless frauds’, is a self-indulgent book full of name-dropping and self-aggrandisement.
His Highness Halperin certainly gets up to some strange adventures. He manages to get an agent whose ‘boobs were sticking out, her skirt was so short you could see her panties’. This was apparently helpful when meeting casting directors who ‘wanted to jump her bones’, and for getting into roped-off areas in clubs. His ‘big breaks’ came when he landed a role as a stuntman in the TV mini series The Reagans, which starred James Brolin, the husband of Barbara Streisand (Halperin’s idol), and then as an extra in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. As it turned out, The Reagans got axed and Halperin’s scenes were cut out of the final version of The Aviator – and the Canadian television network which originally sent him off to Hollywood rejected his documentary.
Still, Halperin tells me, his phone keeps ringing with offers for auditions and, for him, this confirms that the world of Hollywood is thick and gullible. He tells me he was continually surprised that people believed he was a royal. In the book he describes arriving at a Playboy party where practically every model in the place ‘is all over me within 15 minutes’. One of them, Halperin writes, is ‘completely whacked’. This doesn’t stop him from accepting a ‘Monica Lewinsky treatment’ in the back of her Saab convertible as he sipped on a Martini.
Even Cameron Diaz comes up to him to enquire about his lineage, and Anna Nicole Smith, Halperin tells me, ‘practically threw herself at me because she had always dreamed of marrying Prince Andrew’. He claims that he and Smith ended up having sex in front of Marilyn Monroe’s grave.
Halperin tells me the people he talked to and slept with did not know his true identity or the real aim of his stay in Hollywood. ‘I decided if I was gonna do this properly, I had to keep in character, so nobody knew that I was doing an undercover mockumentary. The only person who suspected it was Jay Leno. You know, I’m extreme. If I do something, I’ll never hold back as an artist… By sleeping with these people I just show the way the wheels of Hollywood really turn. I’m not the first guy who slept with Anna Nicole Smith; I’m not the first guy who has bedded young, wannabe actresses. This goes on every day, and if I wouldn’t have done it, I wouldn’t have done my job properly.’
It must be tough being such a conscientious artist, living out every teen boy’s wet dreams while teaching the public a lesson about the sordid mess behind Hollywood’s glamorous façade. It strikes me that wannabees, whom Halperin wants to ‘save’ from Hollywood’s route to crushed dreams, might actually be encouraged to pursue stardom after reading about all of his trysts and wild partying and his big chance to act next to stars like Leonardo DiCaprio.
There is some truth, of course, in Halperin’s point that talent does not necessarily determine the success or popularity of a celebrity. He suggests it depends mostly on your willingness to take part in the ‘plethora of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll’ that goes on in celebrity circles. But what has fundamentally changed in celebrity culture since the Golden Era of Hollywood is that, today, celebrities are encouraged to reveal as much as possible about their personal lives in order to ensure they remain in the spotlight.
When the star system emerged in Hollywood, actors’ images were carefully managed by the studios they belonged to. They created distinct personas for actors, sometimes giving them new names and even new life stories. What the audience knew about the stars was what the studio wanted them to know; stars were shrouded in mystery and glamour.
Today, actors are continually deglamourised, and at times humiliated in public. This is partly down to the aggressiveness of magazines and websites dedicated to celebrity gossip, but it is also encouraged by studios and celebrities themselves. Not only do agents and publicists push celebrities into the public eye, encouraging them to share the sometimes gory details of their private lives, but celebrities also aggrandise their own importance. The ‘Hollywood actor with a mission’ is becoming a more and more familiar figure, as celebrities lead off-screen campaigns on everything from ending poverty to saving the planet.
Halperin tells me ‘it’s a myth that celebrities live secluded lives… They want to be seen. If you think you can be a celebrity and seclude yourself today – good luck! Celebrities always complain about the paparazzi, but believe me, they love the paparazzi. Their publicists call the photographers up saying where they’ll be and with whom. The photos you see in the magazines are all pre-arranged deals. Nobody is stalking Paris Hilton 24-7 – her people are calling the press because that’s what keeps her brand going. If you go into seclusion in Hollywood, people forget about you in a heartbeat. It’s a fast world today and everyone – from Quentin Tarantino to John Travolta – is out there trying to be seen. If you want to live in seclusion, you don’t live in Malibu or Hollywood – you go to Alaska.’
It does seem as if, today, we have lots of celebrities but not many stars. So what about Halperin – does he want to be famous? He is clearly enthralled by his brushes with fame. Sure, he slags off some headline-grabbing celebs like Paris Hilton (‘I’ve met her several times; she’s a spoiled brat with zero talent and she’s a fraud’), Lindsay Lohan (‘She’s a spoiled, rich, talentless partyer– a three-year-old could have done a better job in Bobby’) and Woody Allen (‘He’s the coldest most egotistical person I’ve ever met – he’s a total jerk, a freak – people should boycott his films.’)
Yet others he is inspired by, and he has mostly good words for them. There’s George Clooney (‘The guy knows how to direct and act and he has integrity’), Brad Pitt (‘He goes to acting class every day’) and Leonardo DiCaprio (‘I don’t respect him as an actor, but he works hard and he is trying to put something positive into this world by taking social responsibility’). Then there’s Oprah Winfrey. ‘She’s hot! After talking to her, I don’t give a hoot who else I meet. She exudes genuine, real, authentic. Meeting her and then meeting Woody Allen is like meeting Martin Luther King and then Charles Manson.’
Oprah, with her penchant for public crying and for revealing intimate details of her addictions and troubled childhood, personifies today’s ‘tell all’ celebrity culture. On her television show, she encourages other celebs and ‘ordinary people’ to do the same. In slating celebrities who put their fake boobs and coke-snorting into public view while embracing the Oprah-ised version of the self-pitying celebrity who lets it all hang out, Halperin is not as radical as he thinks. He takes cheap shots at ditzy blondes like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, yet he falls for the earnest therapeutic celebrity cultivated by the likes of Oprah, and the do-gooding, ‘White Actor’s Burden’ celebrity of people like George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio. One might argue that at least Hilton and Lohan know that they are caught up in a starry machine that involves drinking, partying and wearing no knickers, whereas Oprah, Clooney and others really believe that stardom confers on them the international authority to tell people and governments how to behave. Halperin, supposedly a brave exposer of the truth about Tinseltown, has a pop at party girls while actually fully embracing today’s powerful ‘celebrity culture’.
And yet, he tells me ‘so many people are infatuated with Hollywood and I just want to show them how stupid it all is’. At least, unlike many of his fellow Bush-bashers and theorists of American stupidity, Halperin is upfront about his contempt for most of the inhabitants of the US. Despite passing off his own pretty sordid celebrity-hunts as a gracious attempt to save aspiring actors from themselves, and the cinema audience from poor quality films, he seems pretty hooked on fame himself, and he likes the idea of His Highness Halperin becoming ‘the next Borat’.
Halperin has few positive lessons to share after his stint as His Highness. While he has a lot of respect for theatre (‘you can’t fake it there’), his only advice for aspiring film actors is ‘make sure you have good protection sexually – if you sleep with a studio exec, wear three condoms. Go to acting class and stick out. Talent doesn’t matter.’
Well, that certainly seems to be true in Halperin’s case.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked. She will be speaking at the session Film stars: from icons to role models at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.
Hollywood Undercover: Revealing the Sordid Secrets of Tinseltown by Ian Halperin is published by Mainstream Publishing. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
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