You’ve got to hand it to Bristol Palin: The gal is working overtime to turn those lemons into lemonade.
A week or so before graduating high school last May, America’s favorite unwed teen mother signed on as an abstinence ambassador for the Candie’s Foundation (a perplexing development for those who recalled Bristol’s earlier proclamation that abstinence is “not realistic at all”). Four months later, young Bristol incorporated herself and launched a political p.r. and consulting shop named BSMP (short for Bristol Sheeran Marie Palin). Now comes the big news that Bristol will try her hand at acting with an appearance on the third season of ABC Family’s popular “Secret Life of the American Teenager.” Playing a fictionalized version of herself, Bristol will befriend the show’s main character in a music class for teen moms.
Not too shabby, eh? At this rate, it’s a toss-up as to which Palin will be the first to score her own syndicated talk show.
Of course, Bristol isn’t the only enterprising cutie getting a show-biz leg up from a political parent. A week after her dad Scott was elected as Massachusetts’s junior senator and the GOP’s newest It boy, aspiring pop star Ayla Brown showed up peddling her wares on CBS’s “The Early Show.” A former “American Idol” contestant (she was one of 16 semi-finalists in season 5), Ayla has enjoyed a wave of attention since dad’s victory, popping up on various chat shows and having her new EP (Circles) rushed to market. Ever the supportive parent, then-Senator-elect Brown told ABC’s “This Week” on January 31 that he would love to see Ayla get another shot on “Idol.” But even assuming Fox doesn’t oblige, Ayla’s dreams of stardom will undoubtedly be well served by dad’s new gig.
So what I’m now wondering is: Do these two lovelies represent a sharper, savvier model of political kid-dom?
There have long been advantages to having politically prominent parents. Some of the perks are generic, shared by the offspring of the rich, powerful, and well-connected in any field: enjoying easier access to elite schools; hobnobbing with other Masters of the Universe and their masters-in-waiting kids; entering adolescence secure in the knowledge that the legal system will treat you gently should you get busted for drunk driving, drug possession, or date rape; having a bevy of family friends on call to bail you out of failed business ventures, help buy you a baseball team, get you elected governor of Texas, and pave your way to the White House.
OK. That last example is a bit specific. Then again, among the most enduring benefits of having a political parent has been that it dramatically facilitates one’s own entry into the game. Forget full-blown dynasties like the Kennedys and Bushes: The list of little boys (and girls) who, but for the grace of political nepotism, would have wound up anonymous cubicle jockeys or used car salesmen is endless. I mean, does anyone believe Evan Bayh could have snagged so much as a seat on the Muncie school board if his daddy weren’t the most charming man to come rolling out of Indiana in decades? Similarly, related fields like lobbying, consulting, and punditry have traditionally rushed to embrace those with a political power player in the family.
But have we now reached the point where—with the lines between pop-culture and politics blurring and all types of fame getting smooshed together (Hillary in Vogue? Al Franken in the Senate? Tom DeLay on ”Dancing With the Stars”?)—being the child of a political celebrity can provide a fast track to actual celebrity? I mean, why settle for appearing on a tedious political chat show watched largely by the elderly and the unstable when mom’s political fame can score you a guest spot on a prime-time drama series? Why sing your heart out to a few thousand drunk fans at local ballgames when dad’s election can get you a national audience of three million? I hear the Obama girls are big fans of Fox’s “Glee.” If I were Malia, I’d start lobbying hard to join the tryouts for next season’s new cast members.
Accompanying this trend, I suspect, will be the fading of the perceived downsides of political kid-dom. Once upon a time, pretty much all pols agonized about the lack of privacy their families would suffer because of their profession. Today, we have Scott Brown touting his daughters’ extreme dateability during his victory speech and calling for Ayla to once more shake her groove thing for Simon Cowell. And why not? If our reality TV/YouTube culture has taught us anything, it is not to fear exposure. Exposure is good. Exposure is useful. Having the public all up in your business can make you a star—assuming the process is shrewdly managed, of course. Why should political kids (or their parents) worry so much about maintaining a “normal” life when everyone else in the country is fighting to get their excruciatingly normal lives transformed into the next Fox spectacle?
Projecting out a few years, how long before politicians have to stop citing their kids as the reason they won’t pursue higher office—and we instead see kids lobbying their parents to run as a way to boost the kids’ public image? After all, without all that grotesque personal invasion that Sarah Palin whined about in ’08, Bristol would be just another statistic, a sad cautionary tale told by anxious Wasilla parents looking to scare their own hormonal offspring into keeping their pants on. Instead, Bristol Inc. is preparing to enter the world of wardrobe fittings and script approval. Like Ayla Brown, she is ready for her close-up, Mr. DeMille.
Can the other political progeny be far behind?
Michelle Cottle is a senior editor of The New Republic.