THE CRUNCH IS ON for many businesses these days, but I’ve noticed one sector where times are booming–the celeb business. I cannot recall a time when so many people were cashing in on their notoriety and name recognition and were coming away with such serious megabucks.

Everywhere you turn, a so-called Celebrity is pitching a product line on a shopping channel, hustling a magic cure on an infomercial, loudly endorsing everything from sneakers to geriatric chairs, opening shopping malls or sinking putts at celebrity golf tournaments. And more than a little greed is creeping into the equation. Talk to the folks who stage charity banquets, for example, and they’ll tell you that more Celebs than ever demand to be paid before they tell a joke at a philanthropic affair. Some Celebs are getting big bucks to attend parties thrown by wealthy social climbers or functions hosted by companies that are hungry for a little glitz.

The recipients of this largess are not just established “names” like Joan Collins (she’s hustling BioFlora skincare products) or hyperactive 7-footers like Shaquille O’Neal (Reebok popped for $ 15 million this week for him to smile in sneaker commercials). Also cashing in are actresses from daytime soaps or journeyman actors who lost their TV series. As one shrewd manager puts it, “This is the golden age of the has-been.” Never before, he notes, has so much money been heaped upon so many people who might normally be on unemployment lines.

MDRVTo be sure, some savvy Celebs have always picked up gigs on the side to marshal spare change. Who can forget Johnny Carson in his pre-icon days hustling his polyester blazers? In his forthcoming biography, Edward Jay Epstein explains how star-hungry oil tycoon Armand Hammer would ensure an all-star turnout at an important function–he’d arrange “contributions” of up to $ 150,000 to a former head of state or diplomat or Hollywood personality.

In the brief heyday of the Texas tycoons, it wasn’t unusual for a star to pick up $ 25,000 or more just to shake a few hands at a Houston dinner party. And who knows how much Imelda Marcos showered upon George Hamilton to grace her royal court?

TODAY, HOWEVER, THE BRAVE NEW WORLD of infomercials and shopping channels makes all this seem minor-league. Suddenly a range of personalities such as Joan Rivers, Victoria Principal, John Davidson, Ruta Lee and Susan Lucci are pulling in millions from media that couldn’t even be conceived of a few years ago.

So many Celebs are hitting on shopping channels and infomercial producers, in fact, that the product pushers are becoming as picky as Hollywood directors. They insist that Celebs really get behind their products, not just do a hit-and-run. Infomercials are being tested regionally like movies–one producer confides that recent efforts from Georgette Mosbacher and Jane Seymour, for example, didn’t pass the test. Celebs are being offered $ 20,000 for a local test plus another $ 100,000 if it’s rolled out nationally–and there are substantial royalties in the offing as well. The potential take from an ongoing gig on a shopping channel could run into the tens of millions of dollars.

Some “names” who find themselves turned down by the shopping channels promptly turn to other gigs.

Isabel Sanford, who played Louise Jefferson on “The Jeffersons” for many seasons, wanted to pitch a line of clothing for women of her age and size, but the shopping mavens weren’t interested. Undaunted, Sanford recently picked up $ 5,000 plus first-class round-trip transportation to judge an essay contest sponsored by M&Ms. Betsy Palmer, once of “I’ve Got a Secret,” received $ 5,000 to give a speech to the VFW in Indianapolis (she donated the money to charity).

“The big companies today have gotten excited about the value of PR and promotion as against pure advertising,” observes Brad Lemack, who manages Palmer and Sanford, among others. Lemack has the right qualifications in this climate; while most managers are former agents or accountants, Lemack is a PR man.

Indeed, now that a celebrity name represents a potential franchise, one wonders whether PR men shouldn’t think about raising their fees. The arcane art of planting a photo in People magazine or a mention in Army Archerd’s column now carries identifiable cash value. Maybe People and Army should also charge a fee. This is the ’90s, folks: Business is business.

GIVEN THESE DEVELOPMENTS, it’s tempting to speculate as to the limits of notoriety. Will Amy Fisher soon have a line of cosmetics? Perhaps an entire cable channel will be turned over to her saga–the ultimate in niche programming.

For that matter, will Celebs in the future go anywhere or wear anything without demanding to be paid for it? One can imagine the dialogue between a star and her manager:

STAR: I’ve got Saturday afternoon open, Irv. Any ideas?

MANAGER: I can get you a mall opening in Bakersfield for $ 15,000. For $ 10, 000 you can play tennis at La Costa. Or for no money upfront but 12% of the action, I can line up an infomercial for a fertility clinic in Tijuana.

STAR: I’ll take Tijuana. If I wear the Chanel on TV, I can pick up $ 5,000.

MANAGER: Forget about it. The Donna Karan outfit will bring you $ 7,500, but you have to mention her line of bodysuits.

STAR: Done. Order me a limo to the airport.

MANAGER: Are you crazy? You can pick up $ 3,000 if you drive the Infiniti.

STAR: It’s too overwhelming. I’m staying home.

Maybe she has a point. It’s overwhelming for all of us.

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