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Reality check

Achieving celebrity status is the new hallmark of the American dream

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In the early '70s Italian philosopher Umberto Eco toured America, searching for what he called "hyperreality," imitations of reality that don't just re-create life, but make it more appealing in the process.

If Eco were searching for hyperreality today, he wouldn't have to leave his house. He'd flip on almost any TV station and find a culture obsessed with so-called "reality," from talk shows with dysfunctional families throwing elbows to shows about competing castaways or immature roommates forced to get "real."

Following Eco's idea, reality TV doesn't just imitate life, it improves on it, sending the message to viewers that anyone, anywhere can be a star. Life becomes appealing, after all, with a makeover from Maury. Who knows? You may be the next American Idol. Or maybe you can get a tan on Temptation Island.

Umberto Eco, meet Jonathan Jaxson. The 18-year-old Kennesaw resident could be the voice of a new era, our first glimpse of a generation that grew up watching "The Real World" and "Rosie" and whose concept of celebrity -- and reality -- might surprise you.

Jaxson, a slender teenager with boy-band hair and a face made for "TRL," isn't shy about telling the story of his made-for-television life: his hard-knock childhood, his rounds on the daytime talk show circuit, his public-access cable show, his near miss at the "American Idol" auditions. He also has a talent for convincing people of much more. Jaxson has an understated charm that just might win you over if you don't dwell on the details.

After hearing his tales of life on the fringes of celebrity, you may start to suspect that Jonathan Jaxson isn't for real because, in a basic sense, he isn't.

Like any good TV show, Jaxson's story begins in Hollywood. Jonathan Lewandowski was born there on Valentine's Day, 1984, to a father he never knew and a mother he says was "very unstable." (Jaxson is a stage name that came later.) His family moved frequently, from L.A. to Arizona to Tennessee. It seemed like every year he was in a new school, he says, always starting over. The family lived in hotels, even in their car at one point. They finally settled in with his grandmother in northeast Georgia when Jaxson was in ninth grade.

As long as he can remember, Jaxson has wanted to be famous. Every day he would come home from school, turn on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" and dream of being on TV. He fantasized of imitating his idol and hosting a talk show like hers where he could chat with movie stars and lavish gifts on the downtrodden.

Out of the blue, his dream came true. Kind of. In February 1999, Jaxson's fairy godmother appeared. Her name: Mother Love.

"I got a call from a talk show -- 'Forgive or Forget' -- and they said, 'We found your father. We want you to come on national TV to meet him,'" he says.

Jaxson says the producers of "Forgive or Forget" flew him, then 15, to New York and had him tell his story in front of the camera.

He was exhilarated, he says, finally meeting his father and having a chance to be on TV. He loved the attention.

"They made it like I was the one telling my story, and maybe [my father] was going to be there on the other side of the door or maybe he wasn't, even though I knew he was going to be there the whole time."

Although he and his dad didn't exactly click, Jaxson says the experience showed him that being on TV was what he was meant to do.

Back home in Habersham, Jaxson relished his overnight celebrity. Everyone in his high school had seen his TV appearance. Suddenly he was popular. Stoked by the experience, he was hungry for more. He called TeleView, the local cable company, and asked for a shot at producing his own public-access talk show. "The Edge" premiered in October 1999.

Fashioned like a low-budget "Tonight Show," the program gave the 15-year-old a podium from which he could begin honing his on-camera skills interviewing local celebrities, like radio DJs, from North Georgia and South Carolina.

"In this business, it's all about getting your name out there," Jaxson says. To that end, he decided to aim for a shot at another daytime talk show. He called up the "Sally Jesse Raphael Show" and told the producers he wanted to come out of the closet on television, revealing the news to his recently rediscovered father. He lied to his mother, telling her the "Sally" topic was on deadbeat dads.

While in town for "Sally," the 16-year-old talked his way into a behind-the-scenes tour of MTV's "Total Request Live," thanks to a friendship he'd finagled with a network studio art designer. On the tour, he began chatting with a woman named Tina Spence, who turned out to be an assistant to B-list rapper Da Brat, who was appearing on "TRL" that day.

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