Freeloader Needed a Rescue

From CNN 'Heroes' Awards Gala

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The Event: CNN "Heroes" Awards
The Date: Dec. 6, 2007
The Venue: The American Museum of Natural History, New York
The Crowd: Real-life heroes and the celebrities who love them, ranging from a rainforest activist in Ecuador honored by Jimmy Smits to an American man who moved to Kenya to feed starving children introduced by Tyra Banks. Plus CNN executives and other Time Warner types who came to party.
CNN HeroesEnlarge
The CNN "Heroes" invitation.
The Sponsors: Johnson & Johnson, Zurich Financial Services, Coors, Citigroup and Honda
The Food: Since the pre-awards reception was in the museum's Ocean Life Hall, it was a seaworthy selection of fish and sides for guests to nosh on. Tillapia, sea bass and what was likely baked cod were offered up, in addition to a tasty goat-cheesed stuffed chicken.
The Drinks: An open bar was served up until 15 minutes before the ceremony, so the non-heroes had to drink enough to sustain themselves through the two-hour awards show. Cosmos seemed to be the cocktail of choice, as many red-rimmed glasses were spotted in guests' hands.

You know how "People" buries the real-life hero stories that used to make its cover beneath its celebrity coverage these days? Picture that in an awards show format, and you've pretty much got CNN "Heroes," the news network's first awards show. For every heart-wrenching tale of real-life folks who fought to raise awareness of AIDS and leukemia, there was a celebrity like Tyra Banks or Glenn Close on hand to honor them. Best of all, uber-glam CNN anchors Anderson Cooper and Christiane Amanpour had hosting duties, just to remind everyone how fabulous the triumph over disease and hunger can be.

Freeloader has attended major cable-TV awards shows before, namely the MTV Movie Awards, and found striking similarities between the two. How appropriate, then, that Movie Awards vet Joel Gallen was the producing mastermind behind "Heroes," taking his knack for unconventional celeb pairings to the next level by getting TV "Hero" Masi Oka to introduce John Smeaton, the 31-year-old Scot who single-handedly stopped terrorism at the Glasgow Airport earlier this year.

The show itself was also very MTV-esque in structure, as three nominees for a variety of heroic categories (Young Wonder, Medical Marvel, Community Crusader, etc.) were held in suspense as to who would be named the "winner" of their respective heroic act and take home a $25,000 prize. All nominees were guaranteed $10,000, though, lest you think the whole show was a cruel tease for all their hard work.

But nowhere was the odd dichotomy between celeb culture and hard-hitting news more apparent than during the pre-commercial voice-overs, which made the whole show sound like a "Saturday Night Live" parody of itself. "Coming up: Tyra Banks and a guy who helped Africans fight hunger. Then, Mira Sorvino gives an award to a woman who helped clean up Cuba. And a performance from Sheryl Crow."

(Freeloader can already hear the 2008 version now: "Still to come: Angelina Jolie chooses the country where she will adopt her next child. Text your votes now! Press 1 for Uruguay, 2 for Ethiopia ...")

But because it was a CNN awards show, Freeloader does have to give props to the network for finding a way to keep its news identity intact throughout its glitzy affair. Not only was there a streaming news ticker for the four hours of airtime the network devoted to the bash, there was even a live ticker onstage at the actual event, so attendees could keep themselves up to speed on the latest developments in Iraq in case the Norah Jones-Wyclef Jean duet wasn't holding their interest.

To take all the insanity in at once, we hung out in the backstage press room, where the bizarre collision of celebrity and real-life heroism occurred before our very eyes. Harry Connick Jr. was the first to arrive, sans hero, to offer up his thoughts on the Katrina relief efforts in his hometown of New Orleans, but also to field a question from a reporter who wanted to know what his favorite book of the year was. "I'm reading this book called 'Blink' now. I think it came out this year." (Or, you know, 2005).

Harry was quickly followed by Jimmy Smits, who accompanied the night's winner of the Fighting for Justice Award, Pablo Fahardo of Ecuador, who spoke only in Spanish. The former "NYPD Blue" star proved to be a deft translator for his Ecuadorian pal, but made it a lot harder for the reporters to ask obligatory follow up questions.

Even more awkward was when Tyra Banks was a press-room no-show for her hero, Steve Peifer, who helped feed more than 11,000 starving children in Kenya. There are few things more jarring than the transition from a shot of a bedazzled Tyra Banks in an emerald evening gown with a three-foot bow tied around her chest to a mini-documentary on children so hungry "they couldn't even stand up."

Apparently, diva-nity doesn't lend itself to photo shoots for African hunger. Thus, Freeloader was left to his own devices with a roomful of event photographers, struggling to think of questions to ask the poor hero, who adorably enthused in his acceptance speech, "I just got kissed by Tyra Banks."

Apparently John Smeaton, the aforementioned Scot, was a bit jealous, as he told the press room later, "It's a great honor, but I wish I would've gotten kissed off by Tyra Banks." One reporter replied, with nary a trace of irony in her voice, "What, Masi [Oka] isn't your type?" Pause. "Wrong sex." And the Most Embarrassed Hero of the Year Award goes to ...

We're still waiting for the Nielsen ratings to tell us whether CNN's first attempt at an awards gala was a success, but if there's a Heroes Part Two, we want Hayden Panettiere and the New York subway hero. Stat!
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