When Aubrey O’Day was a child, growing up in the desert city of La Quinta, she was bullied. While sitting in the bar at the Four Seasons Hotel several months ago -- flanked by her mother, Kandy Allen; her dog, Ginger; and Furhan, her best friend from UC Irvine -- the singer-dancer-reality star told of an incident in middle school when she had to hide in a dryer in a home ec classroom to escape from kids looking to beat her up. ¶ There was a song too that O'Day said her tormentors chanted at her and sang over the school loudspeaker. Recalling it, she cleared her throat and intoned: " 'Aubrey, Aubrey, Aubrey O'Day / Biggest slut in the USA.' " ¶ Summarizing her childhood, O'Day said: "I felt like I would never be popular. And I would never be liked." And now? "Still not liked -- but I am popular!"
She's right about that. And on any given day in the blogosphere, the insults hurled at O'Day -- who turned 25 last week and is gracing the cover of Playboy's March issue, which was due to go on sale Friday -- haven't changed much since the sixth grade. Using the vicious terms of un-endearment that, perhaps disturbingly, are often a measure of Internet popularity, Perez Hilton regularly calls her a "slut" and a "skank" on his influential gossip blog; over on the well-read Dlisted, Michael K has written that she is a "tranny sewer rat" and a "shameless skeezer."
But do you even know who Aubrey O'Day is? If you don't read those blogs, or one of their many kin, then you very well may not, despite the fact that, until recently, she was on a semi-popular television show (MTV's "Making the Band") and in a successful band (Danity Kane) for several years. (She was recently, and publicly, fired from both.) She even appeared on Broadway in "Hairspray" over the summer, playing the part of Amber Von Tussle.
The celebrity blogosphere, however, does not concern itself with group efforts such as ensemble reality series, bands and musical productions. On the Web, it is individuals who matter, and that is where O'Day has made a solo name for herself -- mostly by being photographed frequently in clothes that are provocative or in questionable taste, or both. On the largely gay male-authored gossip websites, she is one of a growing class of citizens who are Famous on the Internet.
Michael K said in an interview: "Us blogs, we have to write X amount of posts a day, and there are only so many celebrities, so you kind of just start writing about interesting people."
He continued: "I look at a picture and a character is created. I see a picture of Aubrey, like, on her knees, and a character is born in my head."
Perez Hilton compared O'Day's fame to that of Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt of " The Hills," who court media attention with every cell in their bodies and are utterly self-aware as they do it. "And that's one of the reasons why I love her -- she's in on the joke and she plays the game," Hilton said. "And it's definitely a game."
O'Day's road to fame-ish-ness began in 2005 when Sean "Diddy" Combs turned his attention, as filmed for the "Making the Band" reality series, toward forming a girl group. At the time -- despite a lifelong love of music and performing that had even led to O'Day landing in the finals of Ryan Seacrest’s "Be a Star" radio contest -- she thought she would be law-school-bound after graduating from Irvine.
But her mother, a lawyer, thought otherwise. So when Allen saw Combs on CNN talking about his get-out-the-vote efforts, and he mentioned that he was holding auditions for a new group, she passed the information on to her daughter.
After doing well at the audition, O'Day moved to New York City to live in an apartment with other young female singers competing for a spot in the band -- all in front of cameras, of course. "I wasn't into the reality show aspect in the beginning, I was into working with Puff," she said of Combs.
Whether or not she was into the reality show aspect, it was into her. O'Day proved to be an audience favorite because of her obvious talents (as a dancer most of all) and her willingness to stand up for herself. She was a clear choice for Combs to make for the group, which was later named Danity Kane.
But the love -- between her and Combs, her bandmates and the viewers -- was not to last. "I was loved the first season," O'Day said with a sigh. "The second season, the haters came."
That was when O'Day's public image began to take on a life of its own on the Internet. She found one website that said she looked like "a dried up, old leather handbag" because she was "skinny and super-tan" then. On another, 200 people said they had had sex with her.
"Furhan, how many people did I sleep with in college and date?" O'Day asked across the table. Furhan held up one finger. "One. I had one boyfriend that I slept with. Lost my virginity in college my junior year.
"I think I was mad at first -- then I laughed," O'Day said. "The 'whore' comments have only escalated from there."
True or false?
Aubrey O'Day's Web persona is friends with Kim Kardashian and Jenna Jameson (true, she says), brings her white puffball dog to red carpet events (and interviews), hooks up with male celebrities such as Jesse McCartney (false, she says), plays coy about a rumor that she is bisexual (unclear) and supports Barack Obama (absolutely).
Hilton, whose site attracts nearly 6 million users a month globally, has posted about all of these things. "It's very calculated," he said. "And, I think, incredibly fun!"
Regardless of what is true, false or just fun, it is a fact that the gossip blogosphere -- and all of celebrity culture -- is harder on women than on men. The words "slut" and "whore" are thrown around all day long, often as compliments. "I use them for everything -- I use them when it's good, I use them when it's bad," said Michael K. "It doesn't really mean anything to me."
But in the real world, O'Day's image had actual consequences for her day job when Combs threw her out of Danity Kane. In a filmed meeting with the group that aired in an October episode, he fired her, and said: "I don't like her energy, I don't like her style and direction where she's going with it, I don't like what she does to the brand when she's wilding out there being overly raunchy, promiscuous."
In the live season finale the following week, Combs -- who, through a representative, declined to comment for this article -- said: "I just want to work with the young lady that I signed, not the person that fame has made her."
O'Day seemed unhappy when talking about those events. "I think there was a lot of lies in that season finale," she said. "I think that my character was challenged way too much."
"Everybody saying how I've changed, and how I've let fame get to my head. And all these things. It's just all not true."
On Playboy's pages
Getting to O'Day was not easy. It took a 20-e-mail exchange with MTV to get into direct contact with her management, agency PR and label PR. Then another 35 e-mails went into setting up the interview and photo shoot. When the date finally arrived, O'Day said she had heard about the request only a few days before, and had been told by Danity Kane's agency PR that it was to be "a smear piece." She agreed to the interview anyway, because, she said, "My theory on smear pieces is try and win 'em over."
That was in late October, and O'Day had been freshly tossed out of the group, which has since dissolved entirely (as viewers saw when new episodes resumed on Thursday). When the conversation turned to finances, she said she had not been left well off. "I'm, like, this far away from working the street corners," she said with a laugh. After seeing her mother's look of horror, she added: "I'm kidding. You know, I make enough."
She talked about moving forward with music, television, acting, fashion and charity work. (Both Michael K and Hilton, when asked their opinions of her prospects of going from fame-ish to measurably famous for her actual, you know, achievements, were upbeat. "I think she can sing, she has a good personality, she has star quality and she's pretty," said Michael K. And Hilton said: "I see a great future for her. She wants to stay relevant, she wants to stay in the business. She's got that hunger and she's willing to work for it.")
In a phone conversation earlier this month, O'Day said all of her music, TV and other goals "are still in the works." Given that, this month's Playboy spread, with the headline on the cover reading "Aubrey O'Day Breaks Free of Danity Kane (And Her Clothes)," is the most concrete career move she has made since the fall.
"When I was kicked out and moving on, I got the offer and I got it in my terms," she said. (The rumored payout was $500,000, which neither O'Day nor Playboy would confirm.)
Christopher Napolitano, the editorial director at Playboy, said O'Day had been on their lists for a while, and once she was out of Danity Kane, which had a large teen and tween audience, she was free to pose for them. "I think as she strikes out on her own, this is a great way for her to broaden her audience," he said in a phone interview. "And when you are in Playboy and you do something like this? Your name just blows up -- you blow up. This is the thing we give people."
On the phone, O'Day, who was under the weather, sounded weary at the mention of the word "fame." "I know that everybody is so obsessed with this idea of fame, and they think that I'm obsessed," she said. "In all honesty, I'm just doing me. You met me -- I wore what I wore, I said what I said, I did what I did. I'm not changing my story months later that we've now caught up again.
"People," O'Day said, "will pay attention -- or they won't."