Monday, 15 November 2010

Natalie Tran deliberately avoids playing up her success. This edgy lack of, what the world deems to be, seriousness is at the core of her appeal, even if it's not the whole story. So when she encounters traditional media there's always a disconnect between what she aspires to (making "friends I haven't met yet") and what she's supposed to do with her fame: exploit it for all the cash she can get. As a result the reporter is constantly wrong-footed by Natalie. It has happened before. This time she spoke at length with Neil McMahon and his article was published yesterday on the website of the Sydney Morning Herald, a respected broadsheet. The story has much new material but it's a bit disappointing because McMahon struggles with the demands of an invisible public and those of his own intellect as he comes to terms with a new phenomenon: a bona-fide reluctant star.

The signs of this struggle are everywhere in the first half of the article. Natalie enjoys "global recognition of a rarefied kind" but she "ticks none of the boxes" that normlly fit with notoriety in the entertainment world, McMahon tells us. Natalie, he insists, you're "a rich, famous celebrity"! When McMahon suggests that a major entertainment personality would be happy with the scale of the public reaction she garners online, she gives him a "riddle of an answer". Natalie "wants it known" (he states glibly) that she doesn't take her success too seriously. Does he get it? "So what is Natalie Tran about?" he asks. Yes, he does get it if he's being honest (which eventually happens): "she really finds the whole thing a little absurd," he writes. (He should have asked her what records she listened to when she was 17. Maybe there are some clues hidden there.)

"Absurdity," McMahon tells us, is what Natalie is about, as he attempts to segue as effortlessly as possible into a brief run-down of the type of humour the comedian specialises in. But he's still stumped as he tries to shoe-horn Natalie's qualities into categories readers might be familiar with:
They are hard to describe. She is no Justin Bieber, the Canadian sensation who used YouTube exposure as a springboard to global fame as a singer. And she's not entertaining bored office workers with laugh-for-a-second grabs of dogs on skateboards or dancing babies.
Helplessly, McMahon then reaches for a metaphor he deems suitable for his audience, calling Natalie's videos "Seinfeldian". Not screamingly funny or irreverent or a little dark, but comparable to an American comic we all know is funny at least by reputation if not from direct experience. He's funny but for many it's because they're told he is, not because they think he is. However Natalie's fans were never told she was funny, at least not at first. And they don't need the commentariat to tell them it's OK to like her because, well, they all agree that she's funny. Fans watch her because she makes them giggle.

Then there's the Asian angle to explore, and McMahon dives in: "her family background ... provides clues to be explored." He still can't get his head around the fact that a raging success of the type Natalie has built is not being milked economically for all it's worth, so he reaches for a recognisable prop. We then get some useful history of how it all started (as a response to the videos of Lonelygirl15, a vlog hit in 2006, which is like saying: in the pre-Cambrian era).

McMahon tries hard in the second half, when he gets his mind around some of the real issues that Natalie has (not yet) explored in her videos, such as sexism and racism. Dealing with these issues is a public service, but it's a little sad that the journalist couldn't deal with Natalie's attitude to money with the same aplomb. When he later attempts to label Natalie a "role model" she again begs off the honour, as she is wont to do in such circumstances. It's all a bit embarrassing to be pigeon-holed by journalists eager for a big story with extra heavy-duty suction and three separate snap-on attachments for those hard-to-reach places.

I first wrote about Natalie's contra-rational financial predilections almost two years ago and a few months later I wrote about her collaboration with the Sydney Morning Herald on a series of video podcasts.

Pic credit: Marco del Grande.

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