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ROBIN ABCARIAN

300-Pound Hip-Hopper Proves That Pure Joy Can Have Massive Appeal

July 04, 1993|ROBIN ABCARIAN | Robin Abcarian's column is published Wednesdays and Sundays.

With the exception of Santa Claus, you rarely see a fat person depicted positively in popular culture. The rotund are usually portrayed as villains or fools--often, they're portrayed as both.

In "Jurassic Park," for example, the only villain badder than T. rex is the sleazy computer whiz around whose greedy machinations the plot turns. He couldn't be a bad guy who just happened to be overweight. His appearance had to be a metaphor for his soul. So he wasn't just fat--he was a fat evil slob .

This is why the elevation to cult status of someone like Robert Marena, a working-class kid from Chicago, is so delightful.

Marena, who stands 5 feet, 9 inches and weighs 300 pounds, is the anonymous young man whose jiggling adipose is featured on hard-to-miss billboards and buses and in television spots for Los Angeles radio station KKBT-FM, known as 92.3 The Beat.

In baggy shorts, a tight blue T-shirt, high tops and a red baseball cap, Marena dances in front of an unadorned wall, moving in and out of the frame, shoulders hunched, hip-hopping back and forth in a way that is completely captivating.

That's all the commercial is. No script, just a fat kid dancing to music.

And it has been a monster hit. People call the radio station just to find out when the TV spot will air so they can videotape it for friends.

"It is phenomenal," said Susan Scharf of Robert Michelson Inc., the commercial syndicator that has sold the spot in 75 markets in this country, plus Australia, New Zealand and Italy.

"When you first see it," she said, "you can't stop laughing, you just want to hug the kid."

The kid, in fact, has already done two promotional tours of Australia. Traveling with Marena, said Scharf, "is like traveling with a rock star. He has massive appeal for kids."

Robert Marena: the Barney of Homo sapiens.

*

It all came about by chance.

"It was a big accident, to be honest wit'cha," says Marena. "It wasn't meant to be."

But for his cousin, a film editor who asked Marena to dance for the camera as a goof on the way to a family picnic in August, 1990, Marena would still be selling car phones and alarms in Chicago suburbs.

"My cousin wanted me to dance in front of this wall," recalls Marena, whose nickname is Joey Bag-O-Donuts. "I didn't even want to do it. I was arguing with him. . . . He kept saying, 'Come on, get in front of the wall and dance.' Finally I did."

The cousin showed his video to a friend at an ad agency and when the ad guy saw the 30 seconds of Marena dancing, he knew he had a hit.

The ad first aired for Chicago rock station WLUP-FM. The Beat began using the spot, called "Cuz," in April.

"Robert really has become a folk hero," said Craig Wilbraham, KKBT vice president and general manager. "We took him to a shopping center across from Beverly Center and we had 50 to 100 people show up for his autograph. The image that we strike here in Southern California is that we are beautiful people. (But) the not-so-subtle message of this ad is that if that dorky guy can jam to the beat, anybody can."

There is, of course, the nagging suspicion that Marena plays into another stereotype of obesity: the jolly, happy-go-lucky fat boy.

But I don't think that's what makes this ad so compelling. It's fun to watch because Marena takes joy in dancing. Maybe it's a slightly self-conscious joy, but it's contagious.

And that's what Marena loves about it, too:

"Mostly, people say, 'I love your commercial, you make me feel so good.' I make a lot of people happy, and that's what makes me happy."

*

Clearly, Marena has sparked the popular imagination. He has danced at Chicago Bulls games. He recently appeared on "Arsenio." "Hard Copy" spent three days with him. He has an agent and has joined an acting union.

He had a bit part in an episode of "The Untouchables" in which he played a gangster who delivered a bomb: "Hey, Tino," he said. "Your boss is expecting us. You got some fresh cannolis. . . . " ("I'm the one who brought up the cannoli stuff," says Marena with pride. "They hadn't even thought of that.")

Even with all this, Marena isn't exactly living like a pampered star. He shares a Chicago-area home with his older brother and mother, who works in a factory. His father died 18 months ago. He graduated from high school, which he hated, and says he never really thought much about the future. But thanks to the commercial's success, he has some long-range goals.

"Now, hopefully, I will get into some national commercials, instead of only being in local ads, then maybe some feature films," he says. "That would be nice--to get some parts in movies and stuff."

He may be new to show biz, but in the best Hollywood tradition, he knows who to schmooze. Asked if he wanted to add anything as our conversation ended, he did:

"I want to thank all my fans for all the support. Because without them, I would be nobody."

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