Finding 15 Minutes of Fame in 2009

The year 2009 brought political highs and lows, convulsions in the world economy and stunning job losses.

It's little wonder people turned to television for escape, and, this year, reality-television stars -- along with those aspiring to that level -- had people talking about their outrageous behavior.

VIDEO: Jessica Shaw looks back at the most infamous celebrities of 2009.
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From the Colorado skies to the Jersey shore, and even at the White House, we witnessed some outrageous behavior by people looking for their 15 minutes fame. This was the year that the phrase "Balloon Boy" came into being, and the White House party-crashers pulled a stunt that had the world questioning the president's security.

But what does our fascination with them say about us? Do they act out because we watch? Or do we watch because they act out?

Reality 2009

Balloon Boy Parents Richard and Mayumi Heene

For the Balloon Boy's parents, Richard and Mayumi Heene, 15 minutes of fame ended with a thud.

The Heenes sparked a nationwide panic when they called 911 to report that their 6-year-old son, Falcon, had climbed inside a saucer-shaped balloon that became untethered in the backyard of their Fort Collins, Colo., home.

Local, state and federal authorities followed the runaway balloon while sheriffs fielded hundreds of phone calls with suggestions about how to get the boy safely to earth. Television audiences across the country watched as the silver balloon purportedly carrying the boy soared across the sky.

"It was riveting," said Jessica Shaw, senior writer at Entertainment Weekly magazine, which has published special issue on the best and worst of 2009, including reality stars. "I was sitting in my office thinking what must these parents be going through."

It eventually landed and Falcon was not inside. A few hours later, he was found hiding in his home. But in an interview on CNN, the boy said the family "did this for a show."

Richard Heene, 49, eventually pleaded guilty to a felony charge of attempting to influence a public servant. Mayumi Heene, 48, pleaded guilty to false reporting, a misdemeanor. The couple will serve jail time in connection with the October incident.

"Part of the sentencing is that they can't cash in on their story for four years," Shaw said. And if they do get a reality show in four years and one day, she added, "there is something very wrong with our culture."

How Far People Go for Fame

The Real Housewives of New Jersey

Reality 2009

Life imitated art when "Desperate Housewives" gave way to real housewives, actual people more riveting that their fictional counterparts. The finale of the "Real Housewives of New Jersey" ended with a tirade-laced argument and a flipped table at a restaurant.

The success of the "Real Housewives" franchise, which also has a series in Orange County, Calif., and New York City, is evidence of how much viewers have been drawn to these shows.

"We love watching people's loss of dignity," said Matea Gold, a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times. "Viewers want to see that."

White House Gate-Crashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi

Reality 2009

But even more shocking was the "Real Housewives of D.C." Michaele and Tareq Salahi were being considered for the show when they crashed a White House state dinner, prompting calls from an investigation of the president's security.

"I think what we've seen is that behavior that in the past would have been regarded as shameful is now something that just gets you your 15 minutes," the Times' Gold said. "That's given a lot of people pause."

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