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 half wait
in the heat and wondered if I could pay a “line stander” to hold my seat filler
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 Exxon Mobil?”
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
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 Grammy’s or Oscar’s, 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.