Levi Johnston, the lady-killa from Wasilla, semi-famous for fathering Sarah Palin’s first grandchild out of wedlock, is taking baby steps toward a career in showbiz. He wants to act, but doesn’t seem too sure about his ability to handle complicated parts yet, so he’s starting modestly, with a commercial in which he endorses America’s favorite C-list nut, the pistachio. In it, he speaks no dialogue, he walks a few steps toward the camera as unseen fans call his name, and then he eats a nut and sort of smirks—there are happy cows in California who are regularly asked to show more dramatic range when they moonlight as TV pitchmen.
Johnston also wants to model, but apparently he’s not all that sure of his ability to wear fancy clothes yet, so again, he’s starting modestly, posing nude for Playgirl. At this point, a celebrity boxing match with, say, Balloon Dad would seem like a major step up. As would a blind wedding to America’s tannest evangelical, Carrie Prejean, and the subsequent E! reality series. But while Johnston may be quickly assembling a resume even Joey Buttafuoco could mock, is it too early to dismiss him as a late-night punchline, the back-country version of Kato Kaelin?
On paper, Johnston looks like every other starstruck fame-grubber who got caught in the news media’s crossfire and is now trying to convert his brief moment as a celebrity into a more long-term engagement. He went on Tyra and Larry King to dish dirt about his closely watched baby-grandmama. He posed shirtless for GQ. He showed up as Kathy Griffin’s stunt-date at the Teen Choice Awards. But with the exception of an uncharacteristically gossipy interview in Vanity Fair, in which, amongst other revelations, he claims Palin used to come home early from her governor’s job to don her Walmart pajamas and watch reality TV, Johnston comes off surprisingly well in such appearances.
He answers intrusive questions matter-of-factly but discreetly. He’s capable of the occasional witty rejoinder. He seems both gallant and roguish, a square-jawed throwback to an era when even hell-raisers had manners. Most of all, he projects the attitude that he’ll take fame if it comes to him, but he doesn’t seem all that desperate to achieve it.
This may seem like a ridiculous statement to make about a guy who just posed naked with a hockey stick. But consider who he’s up against. These days, kids start auditioning for the Disney Channel while they’re still in the womb. By the time they hit their tweens, they’re cultivating their careers with the cool detachment of veteran brand managers. Even accidental stars only need a moment to assume the bearing of polished old sharpies. Jon Gosselin went from suburban doofus to garishly styled hipster caricature faster than you can say “Dear God, not another Ed Hardy T-shirt!” Carrie Prejean is so committed to presenting herself as a serious spokespundit, she actually manages to drain all the fun out of being a wronged Christian beauty queen with a passion for opposite marriage and making hardcore abstinence tapes.
Johnston, meanwhile, has apparently spent so much of his young life skinning caribou and gutting salmon that he is culturally Amish, completely unfamiliar with the mechanics of fame. Outside of a handful of stripper cops working the bachelorette-party circuit in, say, Ohio, he may be the only person on Earth who thinks a Playgirl spread is a canny career move. Or maybe it’s just his version of going rogue. Shilling for pistachios and hooking up with Kathy Griffin is not a script Joe Jonas or Spencer Pratt or anyone who ever made it past the second week of America’s Got Talent might follow, but so what? Johnston’s blazing his own wacky, unpredictable, not-too-serious trail.
Contrast him with Gosselin, who is now complaining that fame has made it impossible for him to “secure and maintain” a regular job because he causes such a commotion wherever he goes. Contrast him with Prejean, who has just written a book that is largely devoted to explaining how awful it is to be the subject of so much relentless media attention when all you really ever wanted was to be photographed and ogled all day. So far, at least, Johnston is handling his own weird fate with grace and humor. He’s making fame look like a fun but dispensable phenomenon. These days, that’s a skill so rare it may be just enough to launch him on a dark-horse run for stardom.