Celebrities taste fame again, tweet by tweet

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In the 1990s, Sally Jessy Raphael was the doyenne of daytime television, a bespectacled redhead whose mild, auntish mien belied the sensational tabloid fodder that her syndicated talk show was built upon.

These days, Ms. Raphael, 77, is exposing her edgier side on social-media sites. Words like "homies" and "haters" are a part of her everyday lexicon. She enjoys absinthe. She's a fashion fanatic who's as comfortable donning Forever 21 as she is Chanel. She listens to cool-kid music like Girl Talk and supports the Russian punk rock troupe Pussy Riot, some of whose members have been imprisoned. She expertly spoofs "Jersey Shore" and the Kim Kardashian sex tape on YouTube.

This new, sassy and sardonic Sally is the one who has become familiar over the past couple of years to the thousands of people who follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

"Sally Jessy Raphael is the best on Twitter," one of them wrote recently on Tumblr, another platform where Ms. Raphael appears to be enjoying a modest comeback. BuzzFeed, the popular arbiter of all things viral, dubbed her "The Queen of Social Media."

Without social-networking platforms such as these, "I think I'd be in, 'Is she still alive?' heaven," Ms. Raphael said in a phone interview from the 55-acre farm in Dutchess County, N.Y., that she shares with her husband, Karl Soderlund, and their four affenpinschers.

If the social web is what made Internet phenoms like the Kardashians and Justin Bieber famous in the first place, it's also giving Ms. Raphael and others who have veered into the Hollywood hinterlands a much-welcomed second wind -- or, at the least, a medium by which to rebrand and reintroduce themselves.

No longer must celebrities of yore resort to appearing on campy reality shows to remind the public they exist. Over the past two years George Takei, best known as Hikaru Sulu of the USS Enterprise on the original "Star Trek" series, has cultivated more than 3.7 million followers combined on Facebook and Twitter. (He did appear, however, on "The Apprentice" earlier this year, and on a British reality show in 2008.)

In November, Mr. Takei, 75, joined Tumblr; The Los Angeles Times described his blog there, "Are you talking to meme?" as "goofy, surreal, and nerdy with just a touch of political activism," and noticed that most of his posts were receiving more than 600 comments apiece.

After thyroid cancer destroyed Roger Ebert's ability to speak, the film critic and former television personality found a voice of sorts on Twitter, where he pronounces on movies, politics and just about everything else to nearly 800,000 followers.

"A (@)rogerebert tweet is worth as much traffic as a small Digg or Y Combinator hit," Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic noted earlier this year. "Crazy. That's some distribution power."

Mr. Ebert's 2.0 persona has also earned him a large following for a new film website and helped raise the profile of an annual film festival in his native Illinois.

A fellow avid tweeter and a former child star, Soleil Moon Frye, otherwise known as Punky Brewster, is having a lucrative new career as a mommy blogger with her own Web series and an e-commerce shop for children's clothing. Ms. Frye, 36, has parlayed her Internet stardom -- 1.5 million Twitter followers and 112,000 Facebook likes -- into a job as a contributor on NBC's "Today." In September, she took over the show's Twitter feed for an hour. "Watch out, world!" an NBC blog post proclaimed.

Justine Bateman (Mallory from the popular 1980s sitcom "Family Ties"), 46, has attracted more than 88,000 Twitter followers while developing a digital consultancy. She has also enrolled in the computer science program at the University of California at Los Angeles; she blogs about it on "College Life," one of her two Tumblr pages. (She also used Tumblr to promote "Wake Up and Get Real," an Internet talk show she hosted with Kelly Cutrone, a fashion publicist.)

Jennifer Grey (Baby from "Dirty Dancing" and Ferris Bueller's uptight sister), a self-described "novice blogger" at 52, has been Tumbling up a storm about health and wellness. (You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest.)

"When you look at these faded personalities, imagine what the pitch would be if you were a publicist trying to get press on one of these people," said Janice Min, editorial director of The Hollywood Reporter. "You absolutely could not."

But the metrics for success are shifting.

"Now you can measure it in Twitter followers or Facebook likes," Ms. Min said. "It's a new way of establishing legitimacy."

Although that ease of communication has made some publicists guarding A-list talent nervous, for a client like Mr. Takei there is no apparent drawback.

"The easy accessibility to enormous firepower is ridiculous," he said over the phone en route to the vacation home in Show Low, Ariz., that he shares with his husband, Brad Takei. "I've been able to reach a whole new group of people."

His latter-day career had long consisted of "Star Trek" conventions, voice-overs, television guest appearances and a regular slot on "The Howard Stern Show." His foray into social media began in early 2011 as he began promoting "Allegiance," a musical inspired by his experience living in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II.

Mr. Takei now credits a surge in professional opportunities to his unexpected Internet stardom. He recently made a guest appearance on "Hawaii Five-0." The San Diego premiere of "Allegiance" in the fall broke box office records, he said. And "Oh Myyy!" the e-book he published several weeks ago about his social media success -- named for his signature catchphrase -- was No. 10 on The New York Times list of best-selling nonfiction e-books on Dec. 23.

"There's been a pecuniary aspect to this as well," he said with some satisfaction.

As for Ms. Raphael, she has a way to go before she reaches George Takei proportions. (She's holding steady at nearly 5,000 Twitter followers and 2,600 likes on Facebook.) She hasn't had any bites yet for a television comedy series she's been pitching, but her social-media presence has led to her acquiring a new voice-over agent, she said.

Mostly though, she is just happy that people know she's still got a bit of the old fire.

"Sometimes you begin to think that nobody cares, but then you get on in the morning and you're thrilled," she said, referring to the Internet. "I just want to continue doing it. I think it's a part of being alive."

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