You've probably heard of filling someone's shoes, but have you heard of filling her seat? Award shows tend to be televised, and producers want a full audience for camera panning purposes. This is especially true for the first fifteen rows of the theater where celebrities sit. At some point, a famous attendee may need to perform on stage or accept an award; thus, a substitute is temporarily hustled into her spot. This substitute or seat filler may be required to play musical chairs, or she may remain in one place all evening. It depends on the needs of the producer.
My mission was to go undercover at a televised show called "Teachers Rock," which was to be broadcast from the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles. I applied to be a seat filler with hopes of learning how this highly unusual profession works. Could this be the key to unemployment? Could filling seats fill bank accounts? It turned out the answer was no because the salary is zero.
I received my congratulatory email. I was one of the 827 people chosen to receive no pay for volunteering to be near the rich and famous for four hours. This was almost as good as helping hungry children. I had a warm and fuzzy feeling knowing I'd be assisting an affluent TV producer and Hollywood's biggest stars with their empty seat dilemma.
Ad revenues for a televised show can top $70 million, and it can cost $35,000 for one celebrity to get ready for an event, after factoring in the designer dress and other necessities like Botox and the personal stylist. Plus production expenses can be exorbitant; the price tag for the 79th Annual Academy Awards was $30 million.
It would be relatively economical to give each seat filler fifty bucks, so why the resistance? Could nonpayment be part of a sinister plot to maintain the gap between the rich and the poor? Probably not. It's more like common sense. If you can get people to do something for free, why pay?
I hoped my altruism would not go unnoticed, as I read the stringent rules associated with my important new job. The dress code required long pants and a sweater. This made total sense considering the temperature that day was 110 degrees. Furthermore, I was excited to learn that I would be standing in the delightful heat in a long line -- something I do regularly as a hobby -- for an hour and a half prior to the show.
I was told to wear flat shoes, which meant my embarrassing shortness might end up on national television. Yippee. I was not allowed to dress in red and had to leave my camera at home because photos were not permitted. Plus, talking to stars was a big no-no. Of course, everybody knows that famous people only talk to other famous people. I think it's a law.
The end of the email mentioned the repercussions for not following rules. I could be ousted from the event and prohibited from what I call future slave labor opportunities. Although I am normally a rebel, I didn't want to tangle with the seat filler police and thought the words "fired from indentured servitude" could hurt my resume.
As I drove to the event in my woolly mammoth pantsuit, I thought about the poor souls in their air-conditioned homes, missing the bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 101 freeway. I envisioned my hour-and-a-half wait in the heat and wondered if I could pay a "line stander" to hold my seat filler slot.
Upon arrival at the Nokia, I was astonished to learn that my fellow seat fillers were postmoderns. They'd reinterpreted the instructions, creating their own personal reality. They'd translated "long pants and a sweater" to mean "sleeveless, cotton sundress." They'd decided "flat shoes" meant four-inch high pumps. They believed crimson, scarlet and burgundy were not really red at all, and they thought cell phones that took pictures did not qualify as cameras.
I meandered through the line in my Arctic wear, conducting interviews. Everyone was upbeat. A college student named Derrion said he was there because he liked helping the seat-filling company. I asked, "Isn't that like doing charity work for ExxonMobil?"
Shannon, a sales clerk, told me about her close encounter with Jim Carrey at the Teen Choice Awards. The actor tried to get her to talk, but she snubbed him because she didn't want to get in trouble with her seat-filling supervisor. Carrey even offered her the rest of the water in his plastic bottle, but she ignored him. She told me, "Now I regret it. I think I made him feel bad. Plus, I could have sold the empty container on eBay."
Felicia, an actress, broke the "no conversation" rule with Paris Hilton, who handed her a glass of champagne at the 2009 MTV Music Awards. They sipped together in ringside seats. "So you were drinking on the job?" I asked.
Then Felicia and Hilton exchanged details about their horoscopes; they are a Libra and Aquarius, respectively. Hilton said to Felicia, "We're birds. We like to fly because we are air signs."
Felicia told me it's hard to fly in the acting business these days because the pay has decreased. "Everyone wants to be an actor, so producers pay less. I used to get $500 to do a music video in a bikini. Today, I'm lucky to be offered fifty bucks."
Jason, a burly construction worker, once sat between Cheech and Chong at a show. I asked him what that was like, and he said, "Well, I didn't smell marijuana, if that's what you mean."
Others in line had rubbed shoulders with Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Luke Bryan, LeAnn Rimes, Carrie Underwood, Ashton Kutcher, Jermaine Jackson and Gwen Stefani. All loved being seat fillers and didn't mind the lack of pay, although they admitted it was really uncompensated extra work.
The seat-filling company has no shortage of volunteers. The owner maintains a database of 33,000 applicants, and some folks travel from Belgium, South Africa and New Zealand just to taste the lifestyle of the rich and famous.
It was almost show time. The postmoderns and I were led into the auditorium and told to fill empty seats. Unlike the Grammys or Oscars, the "Teachers Rock" event was low profile. I figured it wouldn't lead to celebrity encounters, free flowing champagne or anything unusual.
So, you can imagine my surprise when I met a space alien. "I'm a retired private investigator," a senior citizen next to me said. "And this is my wife. She's a Grobanite."
I'd never heard of the planet, Groban. In fact, I'd never seen a spaceship or been abducted from a field in Nebraska. I tentatively shook the woman's hand, hoping she would not examine my reproductive organs.
"What galaxy is that in?" I asked. She laughed and explained that she was a fan of the entertainer Josh Groban, who would be performing that night. I was relieved because frankly I wasn't in the mood to leave Earth, especially in my woolly mammoth pantsuit.
The show ended after live performances from Groban, Garth Brooks, Dierks Bentley and the group, "fun." I moved out of my row with other seat fillers, when a supervisor said, "Don't even try to go backstage." With that, I donned my own postmodern lens and went backstage, where I schmoozed with Chef Curtis Stone and the king of his own planet, Mr. Josh. In my defense, I didn't try to do anything. It just happened.