Let’s be real, who hasn’t dreamed of being famous? All that caviar and cocaine, millions of devoted followers, and a flurry of transient, torrid affairs. Damn. In his new documentary Big in Japan David Elliot-Jones reflects on the nature of fame in the digital age, and puts his theories to the test by attempting to hit stardom in Japan. I sat down with the director to discuss the allure of celebrity, its trappings, and the reasons why Tokyo is playing host to the starry-eyed westerners enamoured by its glow.
How did you come up with the idea for the documentary?
I started thinking about how easily people go viral. How the ease of becoming a celebrity now is changing how we think about celebrity. There’s all these really simple talk-to-the-camera videos that have exploded on YouTube. I looked at why these have become so popular—what does it say about us? With that in mind we decided to conduct our own experiment. We decided to do whatever it takes to make an ordinary person famous. That ordinary person being me.
Why Japan? What’s different about fame in Japan?
In Japan, ordinary people from other countries have been getting famous for years. Lots of people experience this uncanny fame by being unknown in their own countries and huge in Japan. We figured that because of this Japan would be a great setting for the fame experiment. Basically, I tried to become a celebrity by doing what people have been doing there for years: acting like an idiot on the internet and on television.
What are some of the techniques you used to try and build your fan base?
When we arrived in Tokyo, we planted seeds in different areas. I signed up to an agency and typecast myself as a bit of a nerd and took any jobs in that area. We took lots of advice from people we met along the way (other foreigners that were at different points along the fame journey). We set up this online character that would basically serve as a vehicle to do anything in the name of fame. We looked at all these crazy things people were doing in the industry to try and get famous and tied these strategies to our own game.
Who else did you meet along the way?
We meet Bob Sapp, a veteran American fighter whose been at the top of the celebrity mountain for more than a decade (despite being relatively unknown in America). If you think of the ‘novelty star’, he’s that in every sense. He’s a huge guy, 6’5” and 150 kilos, but he’s a really slapstick character. He calls himself The Beast. He’s honestly scary whilst somehow being cute. He just has a knack for novelty stardom. He’s revered for that in Japan. I’m not sure if he could translate that kind of fame in the West. Our motivation for spending time with Bob Sapp was to get a taste of that stardom. As with everyone we meet we start off pretty naive and optimistic before discovering the true costs and realities of the fame experience.
Were there any other Aussies in Japan chasing fame?
Yeah, Lady Beard. Lady Beard is an Australian crossdressing heavy metal singer from Adelaide. He really exploded into stardom in Japan by way of his own grassroots approach. He got out into the field and met fans which led to his success. We also meet a Canadian girl who’s obsessed with becoming an idol in Japan. She attempts to rise through the ranks of an online community of wannabe idols.
What’s involved with being an idol in Japan?
It’s kind of similar to being a pop star, but there’s less emphasis on the music and more emphasis on the relationship with fans. Fans like to watch their idols grow and progress as an act. They’re along for the journey. The main duty of an idol is to make their fans happy. Each idol group has a group of loyal supporters who attend every gig. They often finance the group by buying merchandise and they can spend tons of money. There is something like 10,000 idols in Japan. Most of them are underground acts who never see the limelight.
What does fame offer these people?
It’s very different, and very potent, in each of them.
There’s a different personal drive in each of them…
Yeah, it’s a different kind of allure for each of them—a byproduct of their own personalities. It’s quite exceptional. Although a lot of people think fame is something they desire, most people would not have the extreme personal drives we see in the documentary.
Do you think people struggle to differentiate between seeing themselves as a ‘character’ and a person?
For sure. Fame fundamentally alters people. It’s something you need to be prepared for. These people aren’t living normal lives anymore. People only see the trophy of fame. Something that’s perpetuated by shows like American Idol. But people never consider that you no longer have a private life. You also cop a lot of abuse. Your fans own your identity in a certain way. This is the other side of fame. The consequences are rarely shown.
You have the romantic ideal of fame as opposed to the reality.
Yeah. I mean, there’s nothing romantic about taking off all your clothes and parading yourself around Tokyo. As much as it sounds funny the raw experience of it was truly terrifying for me. The interesting thing about internet fame is that there’s often very little material reward. It’s just numbers—you’re literally just accumulating clicks and likes. You’re not making money. There’s no red carpet. Fame has always been a pretty superficial pursuit—but it’s almost in overdrive now. Turbo-superficial.
Did you struggle to do certain things in the documentary?
I’m really quite determined. When something is planned out, I always go through with it. But it was never easy at all. That was half the point. I’m such an ordinary person. That’s what made me such a good candidate for the documentary. It’s a level playing field for celebrity now.
So, are you big in Japan?
Let’s just say I’ve had my 15 minutes, and maybe a little more. You’ll have to check out the documentary to find out!
Big in Japan is currently in post-production, keep an eye on their website for release info.