Willing victims of 15 minutes in the feeding frenzy

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Where else but America? On the stage at the august Smithsonian Institution sat Donna Rice Hughes, articulate and wholesome as a spokesperson for an anti-pornography lobbying group should be. Any serious student of political scandal will recognise her name at once. Back in 1987 Donna Rice launched the modern Age of the Bimbo when she was sighted with Senator Gary Hart of Colorado, married man and aspiring Democratic presidential candidate, aboard the good ship Monkey Business and elsewhere.

To this day Ms Rice insists the encounters were innocent, but the mere revelation of them destroyed Mr Hart's aspirations to the White House. More to the point for present purposes, the ensuing publicity came close to destroying her. But there she was the other day, at a seminar co-sponsored by People magazine, one of her arch-tormentors, discussing how ordinary people deal with extraordinary fame.

Fame of course is the grease on the wheels of America. Every country produces celebrities. None though makes such an industry of them. And no one does it better than People, which is read by one in six Americans and modestly refers to itself as the "most successful magazine in the world". So when the inventor of what is coyly known as "personality journalism" in 1974 joined forces with America's most prestigious scientific institution to discuss what it is to be famous, how could I resist?

In fact, the experience was both enlightening and deeply reassuring. Celebrity journalism has produced its own unnerving lexicon, from the "feeding frenzy" of a mob of reporters laying siege to the target of the hour, to the phenomenon of "flash fame" - a metaphor drawn from the deadly flash flood that follows a storm in the arid West, sweeping away all in its path before vanishing as swiftly as it arose. But if the seminar had a lesson, it was that however terrifying the ordeal of instant fame, victims not only live to tell the tale, but in the end positively thrive on it.

Take the four Smithsonian panellists. The most obscure of them was one Chuck Roseberry, a dyslexic who became a college football star at the age of 46. Then there was Scott Peck, a gay "outed" by his Marine Corps colonel father live on national television during the 1993 Congressional hearings on homosexuals in the military. Next came Dr James Sehn, a Virginia urologist who rocketed to global stardom on 23 June that year when he performed nine hours of microsurgery to reattach John Bobbitt's penis. His first intimation of what lay ahead was when "I came out of the operating theatre and they told me a Las Vegas radio station was on the line". And finally, Ms Rice.

All had been given the treatment, but none more brutally than she. On the day after the Hart story broke, she was rushed to a press conference in Miami, having been told she could not go home until she had made a statement. "I followed a script I shouldn't have, I felt very naked, embarrassed and humiliated." As Hart first withdrew and then re-entered the presidential race, Donna Rice was the hottest tabloid story in America. Instead of 15 minutes as ordained by Andy Warhol, she was famous for 15 months. She was offered huge sums - including a blank cheque deal from Playboy - but apart from endorsing a brand of jeans, made no financial profit from her role as what People memorably headlined the "Hart Stopper".

But would they rather the media spotlight had never fallen on them? Surprisingly, for me at least, all four answered "no". In retrospect, each of them acknowledged, they had benefited from their brush with the feeding frenzy. They were all poised and articulate. Scott Peck grew to treat his dealings with reporters almost as a game and admits his fame has helped his career on radio. Dr Sehn calls the Bobbitt experience "a lot of fun, with some tricky moments, that had friends I hadn't seen for 20 years getting in touch with me".

Even Donna Rice, a failed model and actress when she was sucked into the vortex of instant celebrity, bore few grudges. "Yes, I suppose I'll go through life as 'that' Donna Rice, and until I got this job, I'd been a cartoon character for seven years. But maybe it did some good to me, perhaps I needed a shake-up."

And deep down, who wants to believe the weary musings of the philosopher- emperor Marcus Aurelius, who 18 centuries ago wrote, "All is ephemeral, fame and the famous as well." Far better that ageless American verity - all publicity is good publicity.