Hogwarts’ Webmistress

Photo by Debra DiPaolo

Pennsylvania teenager Kate Cheney is sitting before a computer in a stark, white corporate office in Santa Monica, somewhat reluctantly taking OffBeat through the Harry Potter Web site she created. Suddenly, her monotone voice shows some emotion.

She signed my guestbook,” says Cheney, sounding awestruck, “she” being, of course, J.K. Rowling, author of the astoundingly popular Harry Potter book series about a wizard-in-training. “She said she liked [the site] very much. But she didn’t leave an e-mail address. She said she isn’t very Internet savvy.”

From time immemorial, or at least since the ’50s, teens have been assembling scrapbooks and collections to celebrate their pop icons. The Net illiteracy of her idol notwithstanding, it was a small step for Cheney, the 13-year-old daughter of a “computer geek” (dad) and a Harvard-educated technical writer (mom), to take her scrapbook online.

Times being what they are, it was only another small step before Cheney was signing with Fandom, Inc., the Santa Monica pre-IPO dot-com that’s in the business of snatching up pop-culture-fan domains and merchandising companies. In exchange for putting her Potter domain on the site, Cheney is receiving a monthly salary, stock options and an all-expenses paid trip to California for a comics convention in San Diego. Which is why she is sitting in Fandom CEO Mark Young’s office with her very pleasant mother, Judy Lewis, and giving what appears to be a painful interview.

“I don’t have to baby-sit anymore,” Cheney comments on her salary, which she prefers not to disclose. “I was, like, amazed,” she says of her contract, which was negotiated by e-mail. “Cool,” is her assessment of the day’s meeting with the other “fanatics” who run Fandom domains (X-Men, South Park).

It’s not that Cheney isn’t cooperative, just shy, and like most teens, not given to loose lips in front of strange adults. About Rowling, she is a veritable fount of information. The J.K. is for Joanne Kathleen, Jo for short. Rowling loves strange names and often draws on classical sources for ideas, i.e., Hera’s 100-eyed watchman Argus for Hogwarts’ wizards-academy caretaker Argus Filch. And Rowling is sick to death of everybody talking about how she was a single mother on welfare in Scotland when she scribbled early Potter drafts in a café.

As we talk, Cheney clicks through to Rowling’s photo. “J.K. looking pretty,” Cheney wrote beneath it. The picture is of the pre-makeover, red-headed Rowling, not the blonde bombshell who appeared on CNN.

Cheney shows me some of her most popular site features: the interactive Sorting Hat, which digitally assigns the Web surfer to one of the four houses at Hogwarts (in the book, an old patched witch’s hat does the job). Most Potter fans want to be in Potter’s house, Gryffindor (sign: bravery); Cheney prefers Ravenclaw (brains) or even Slytherin (ambition, home to the most dark wizards).

“I don’t know why I like Slytherin, because, I guess . . .” Cheney says, looking helplessly toward her mother.

“I don’t know why you like Slytherin,” Lewis responds. We look at the dust-jacket illustrations, including the drab British ones designed so adults could read Potter on the tube without embarrassment. “The silliest thing,” Cheney comments. There’s a killer Potter trivia questionnaire (“A lot of the questions are pretty hard,” Cheney admits).

OffBeat notices a Potter paper-dolls link, and asks to have a look. Big mistake. The hand-drawn figures of Harry and his friends, Hermione and Ron Weasley, which can be printed out and colored in, were drawn for “kids” a year ago, back when Cheney, presumably, was still a kid and not a teenager eager to distance herself from such inanity.

“It’s really embarrassing,” she flushes, with that mixture of chagrin and contempt for the cluelessness of adults that only a willow-thin 13-year-old with braces on her teeth can convey. Finally, she brings the dolls up on the screen. “They really do look a lot better when you print them out,” she says.

Cheney has no illusions of becoming a dot-com millionaire, but she does have one ambition, in addition to wishing that Book 5 of the Potter series wasn’t really a WHOLE YEAR AWAY. “I wish I could meet her in person,” she says wistfully. “Her books are magical. They get better and better.”

Lights! Camera! Dynasty!

“With this video out, I will have to explain to my children how it wasn’t exactly me who led the Lakers to their first championship in a dozen years, that it was a team effort,” said utility player Rick Fox, tongue-in-cheek, during the release last week of USA Home Entertainment’s L.A. Lakers Championship Season video. We fans, crunched side by side in the Miracle Mile’s Conga Room, laughed and tilted our martini glasses as we watched the video roll (they showed only the second half of the tape, in which the Lakers bullied lesser opponents out of the running). The theme was the heroic struggle the victors had to endure in achieving sports’ most coveted position — the championship endorsement deal, ka-ching!

Actually, the footage, including behind-the-scenes locker-room and bus shots, was quite enjoyable, and the music video by Bon Jovi was a real bonus.

Afterward, Jerry Buss took a bow. Fox and Derek Fisher squinted through the camera lights . . . and Chick Hearn, dear old Chick, lauded “his” team for “bringing back the magic to Los Angeles.” Actor John McKinley and singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams were there, but mysteriously, no Jack Nicholson. Shaquille O’Neal also was a no-show (reportedly, he was in a free-throw contest with a seventh-grade girls’ basketball team in Thousand Oaks, and losing), as was Kobe Bryant (he was helping his new bride pump iron, the better to carry around the rock he placed on her finger).

Before the Jell-O started jiggling, though, the topic of a repeat was raised. Now, I’m not saying the team lacks confidence, but there was an odor of doubt in the air. Confronted on the matter, Fisher shifted nervously before answering, “It will be a challenge next year, with everybody gunning for us.”

“What about the Denver Nuggets? Potential threat?” I asked.

Another shift, this time with a gulp and a nervous titter. “You never know,” he responded.

I took his answer to mean he fears the Nuggets. It was in his eyes. But it’s all good. We wouldn’t want the Lakers to get too cocky. With the Lakers L.A.’s only basketball franchise (the Clippers are more about “Big Redhead” Bill Walton practicing his lines for NBC telecasts), we’re counting on them to make us a dynasty.

—Chuck Mindenhall

The Donald's Crying Game

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if that sultry stranger in front of you is a man or a woman. Just ask noted billionaire and collector of fine women Donald Trump. Trump, who along with CBS owns the rights to the Miss Universe title, is fighting a trademark application filed by the Miss Gay Universe pageant. And according to Miss Gay Universe treasurer Francis Alvarez, the gist of The Donald’s claim is that people will confuse Miss Universe with her drag counterpart.

“I thought everyone in this day and age knew the difference between a drag queen and a real woman,” said Alvarez, a tall brunette decked out in pumps and a black gown. “It’s a contest for drag queens and not for women.”

Trump’s spokesperson referred questions to Miss Universe officials, who had no comment. But in documents opposing the trademark, filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s trial and appeal board, lawyers for Miss Universe said, “The close resemblance of the marks to each other will cause confusion or cause consumers to believe that Opposer [Miss Universe] has authorized or endorsed the quality of Applicant’s services.”

Global Pageantry Systems, Inc., based in Texas, has been staging Miss Gay Universe pageants since 1996. The group filed for a trademark in August 1999, sparking Trump’s opposition. Trump, who reportedly is trying to settle the dispute, offered the company $90,000 to stop using three beauty titles, including Miss Gay Universe and Miss Gay USA, Alvarez said. But the Hollywood-based pageant official, who has dreams of taking the relatively small U.S. contest international, said the offer is ridiculously low. He vows to continue fighting Trump, for years if necessary.

“He keeps implying that my pageant is like his pageant,” said Alvarez. “I just keep [responding] that that’s absurd.”

Absurd or not, Trump may have a case. According to University of Southern California law professor Dan Klerman, “The test for trademark infringement is whether there would be a ‘reasonable likelihood’ of consumer confusion. Trump could easily argue, and convince a judge or jury, that an ordinary person would think that Miss Gay Universe was sponsored by or affiliated with Miss Universe.”

Miss Gay Universe is set this year for August 3 through 5 in Oklahoma City. Until the case is resolved, Trump will have to settle for looking under the skirts like the rest of us.

—Michael Gutierrez


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