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February 18, 1990|Tom Shales | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Something soft and clammy on the back of my head. It was a powder puff. Was the makeup woman doing what I thought she was doing? Yes, she was. She was trying to cut down the glare from my bald spot.

Bald spot? Hey, just a minute!

Such are the dismaying revelations that can pop into, or even onto, your head when you appear on television. Since the TV camera adds 15 pounds--most of it to your face--and if you are already, let's say, a tad stocky, one little peek at yourself in a monitor can add to the sinking sensation.

But if one writes a book, one must publicize a book. It's part of the bargain with Satan. My book is called "Legends," a collection of sentimental essays about departed stars. As I am shamelessly doing in this paragraph, I went on TV and radio to plug it.

The woman wielding the powder puff worked on "The Dick Cavett Show," which airs on the CNBC cable channel. Cavett has had more talk shows than most of us have fillings. He couldn't have been kinder or gentler. He said Woody Allen told him once that however badly you think you're doing on TV, you're coming across at least 10 times better than that.

It's a hopeful thought, especially when you have the TV equivalent of a hangover: You're sure you just bombed worse than "Peaceable Kingdom."

For an appearance on "CBS This Morning," a team of eager young producers and researchers had compiled film clips of stars profiled in the book. They had footage of Rita Hayworth, Fred Astaire, John Belushi and so on. Humble Guest readied himself by preparing in his little mind at least one amusing anecdote or fascinating fact about each of the stars who might pop up in a clip.

Then came air time. Kathleen Sullivan, co-host of the program, asked questions relating to the book, all right, but not one single question about any of the stars in it. So not one clip was used. All that work had been for nothing.

Again, though, nearly everybody was helpful and friendly. You'd think that having a TV critic in their midst would present an irresistible chance to settle old scores. But even "CBS This Morning" co-host Harry Smith, whom I'd attacked in print for his accountant-like dullness, was civil and congenial.

No matter how friendly the personnel, however, TV stations are usually dank and creepy. For CNN's "Sonya Live in L.A.," you are led into a cold, half-empty studio that doubles as a closet many long minutes before you're needed. A camera stares at the chair you're to sit in. It looks like the site of an execution.

Then they strap you in by attaching a tiny microphone to your tie and planting a hearing device in your ear. You can't move. No escape! You begin listening for the sound of Ming the Merciless' death ray.

Just when you think it's your turn, Sonya goes to some other guest. She may have guests from several different locations on one show. I followed rich Malcolm Forbes and a segment on adopted children. A friend told me my spot and another were ballyhooed jointly, so that what they saw on the screen was my name followed by the phrase "Right to Die?"

Finally, it's your turn. You can't see Sonya, you can't see yourself, and the camera is operated by remote control. You have no tangible physical evidence that you really are on television. But you are.

Since one really is a guest on these shows, it would be impolite to whine. And, in fact, once the advance dreading is over and you're on the air, it's more often than not a pleasant experience. This is especially true in radio, where you don't get pelted with powder puffs. The microphone does not add even one ounce to your weight.

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