Most “celebrity sites” are nothing more than online marketing campaigns or vanity sites — cyberspace shrines to Brad, Julia or J.Lo.
But a few enterprising celebrities have taken their Internet identities out of the hands of the publicity department and, trading on their fame, theyre often profiting from their online endeavors. Here are three Web celebs who have devoted considerable creative and financial resources to building their own distinctive sites.
Indie film director Kevin Smith wrote his first movie, Clerks, in one month when he was 24. He shot it in the Quik Stop convenience store where he worked, financing it on his credit cards; it cost about $27,000.
That same resourceful, antihierarchical sensibility is in evidence all over his Web site, www.viewaskew.com, which operates from his production companys Red Bank, N.J., offices. At The View Askewniverse, the focus is on interactivity. Smith jumps onto his sites Web board twice per day to chat, and hosts online chats with Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and other stars of his films. Says Smith: “It all comes from thinking: If I was on the other side of the computer, what would I like to see? “
Smith is so eager to share with his audience that when he was shooting Dogma two years ago, he wanted to put daily footage from the movie on the Web site, but he was blocked by his studio, Miramax Films. Since then, Miramax has realized the large online audience that Smith has cultivated, and gave him the OK to put up Internet trailers for his new film, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, which opens this month. The response forced The View Askewniverse to move to a larger server.
Smith pays for his site himself. He says that he makes a tidy profit from his online store, which sells posters, DVDs, soundtracks, T-shirts, action figures and comic books, a development that came about because fans kept asking where they could purchase film-related merchandise. “Its quite profitable for us — but then, were not looking for huge profit margins,” Smith explains. “We arent talking about profits that would be acceptable to a corporation.”
For Smith, the emphasis is more familial than financial. “There are people who have been posting on the site for five years now. I can put a lot of faces to the names,” he says. “The site means the world to me. I care, really, what they have to say.”
Interacting with readers is also the aspect of the Web that most delights writer Andrew Sullivan, sole proprietor of Andrewsullivan.com.
“Theres nothing like it,” he says. “Within minutes, people are telling you everything about what youve written. You have complete transparency immediately.” Along with this intimacy, Sullivan says he cherishes the freedom that operating his own site affords him: “I can just say what the hell I like.”
Sullivan, a critically acclaimed author of several books and an editor of The New Republic, decided that he wanted his own Web site about a year ago. He got together with a friend, Robert Cameron, owner of New York Web design company Fantascope.com, and the two set to work.
The sites online readership has grown to nearly 200,000 visitors per month, but Sullivan is not getting rich yet. The site survives on check donations and a “tip box” — online pledges collected through Amazon.coms Honor System — which at the end of last month totaled $8,968.09. Cameron says that his plan is to eventually secure “between five and 10” sponsorships for the site; Sullivan says that he looks forward to the day hell collect a salary for his labors.
Sullivan, who as a prominent gay writer has stirred up his share of controversies, also has his eye on bigger goals. “I want to prove something about what a writer can do now on the Web,” he says. “Here we are with the unique opportunity to define and pioneer a certain kind of technology in a medium, and that is so interesting to me. There will always be a time to write a book, but this is the time to try this.”
Three years ago, actress Melanie Griffith thought the Internet was mainly a place where her famous face and figure were appropriated by porn sites. Still, she says, “I was so intrigued [by the Internet], partly just because I didnt know much, and everyone else seemed so excited about it.” So when her friend Liz Edlic, an investment banker who had worked for PaineWebber and Prudential Securities, approached her with the idea of starting a Web business, she didnt think twice.
In January 1999, Griffith became the co-founder and senior vice president of One World Networks, a privately held marketing and distribution company based in Los Angeles. Its site, OneWorldLive.com, which claims to have 19 million registered users, offers content on relationships, health and success, plus online advice from celebrities and high-profile experts. The company also sells health, beauty, fitness and “personal growth” products both online and off, ringing up $12 million in sales last year.
When Griffith entered a rehabilitation hospital last November to battle an addiction to painkillers, she posted an online journal describing her recovery and received an avalanche of e-mail in response.
The actress says that she wanted to use the experience to support and help others, and that she is passionate about the Internets broader possibilities for doing good. “I think the Internet helps break down some of the boundaries that separate us,” Griffith says. “It shows others how alike our lives really are.”