And so, faced with a raging Sheen-exclusive inflation, the big-media caravan moved on to other things — budget squabbles, Japan, college basketball — and Sheen was left, like the rest of us, to make his own kind of fame.
Which he did, almost instantly, by quickly signing up for a Twitter account — he’s @charliesheen, if you’re honestly interested — and appearing in a streaming webcast on Ustream.tv. At some point in that transition, he ceased to be a real star — someone who appears on television shows — and became, instead, an Internet star — someone who appears in a dirty T-shirt on streaming video, muttering oddly and begging for attention.
“That’s meth face,” a friend of mine said, when he saw Charlie Sheen’s manic, jittery appearance on his streaming webcast. My friend has deep unsought-after knowledge about the ravages of drug addiction, and he knows what he’s talking about. The sweaty face, the darting eyes, the sunken cheeks, the receding gumline, the rapidly aging appearance — it’s all right from the rock-bottom textbook. That, and the crazily upbeat taglines — “I’ve got tiger blood!” “I’m winning!” — are a sure sign of someone on the outs with life itself.
Sheen’s drugs of choice — he admits to smoking crack cocaine; my in-the-know pal insists that it’s crystal meth that has ravaged his once-good looks — are, let’s face it, pretty shabby. Keith Richards, the ghostly pale guitarist for the Rolling Stones, has lived a life just as hard, just as debauched, as Sheen. But Richards’s drug of choice was (or is; who knows with these people?) heroin. Opiates have many drawbacks — paper-thin skin; constipation; infection risk; cost — but they’re at the very least relaxing. You don’t see Keith Richards bouncing around on Ustream.tv like a rat in a coffee can, barking out unconnected words. He’s probably lounging in Montserrat, quietly anaesthetized, like the show-business aristocrat he is.
And yet, Charlie Sheen is compelling Internet theater. Less than a week after signing up for his Twitter account, Sheen sported over 2 million followers. His Ustream.tv webcast had, at various points, hundreds of thousands of viewers.
In other words, Charlie Sheen is the living embodiment of what everyone in Hollywood fears. Leaving aside, for a moment, the creepy prurience of his 2 million Twitter followers, or the death-watch quality of his Ustream.tv viewership, Sheen has taken his insanely valuable network-television scarcity — his take-home was something along the lines of $2 million per episode — and squandered it on freebie Web appearances, hourly Tweets, and low-rent antics. He makes Lindsay Lohan look like Princess Grace. He makes Snooki seem stately. Charlie Sheen has become the lowest kind of celebrity. He has become a reality-television star.
That’s what drugs will do to you, of course. But on another level, that’s also what unlimited bandwidth — the crystal meth of the media business — is doing to the old Hollywood business model. We are all moments away from cheap, knock-off stardom. Click around YouTube and you’ll be astonished at the number of people who regularly post videos of themselves. These are people you and I have never heard of, and yet there they are, talking into the camera, for millions of subscribers.
When labor gets this cheap — whether you’re a manufacturer of widgets facing Chinese sweatshops or a Hollywood mogul looking at YouTube impressions — you start to get nervous. Charlie Sheen’s awful, repellent descent is a nasty glimpse into the future of the entertainment business, where some of us are busily Tweeting and webcasting and Facebook-updating ourselves, and some of us are sitting on the sofa, trying to find something — anything — actually worth watching. In a way, Charlie Sheen is the lucky one. He probably won’t live to see it.