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Six years ago, Olivia Munn arrived in Hollywood with fading ambitions of making it as a sports reporter and set about deploying her good looks in promotional campaigns for sodas, sneakers, and rock bands. None of it got her anywhere. Things started to change only when she found a niche market to target: nerdy guys. "The people who control popularity," says Munn, "are the people who are not popular."
In 2006, Munn joined the cast of Attack of the Show!, a live variety program that runs weeknights on G4, a peripheral cable network with 70 million U.S. cable and satellite subscribers geared to the passions (video games, viral videos, gadgets) of young men uninterested in sports. On the show, Munn and her cohorts regularly perform sketch comedy routines satirizing the staples of science fiction—vampire flight attendants, undead bureaucrats, bickering superheroes. Within this world, Munn typically plays suggestively clad, domineering female characters. The sexuality is undercut with a goofiness that aims to stoke young men's fantasies and get them forwarding video clips to one another. It doesn't take much. A clip of Munn wearing a sexy maid's outfit and jumping into a pie racked up more than 800,000 views.
If this sounds rather piddling by the standards of, say. Lady Gaga, it is. But in lieu of a hit movie, hit song, or any of the traditional vehicles of stardom, Munn effectively has conjured popularity out of thin air. Last year she was a blip on the screen of Maxim magazine, which ranked her the 96th hottest woman in the world. This year she shot to No. 8. In May, Munn played the small role of reporter Chess Roberts in Iron Man 2. In June she joined Comedy Central as a Daily Show with Jon Stewart correspondent. In July she published her first book, Suck It, Wonder Woman!: The Misadventures of a Hollywood Geek, which made its debut at No. 26 on the New York Times best-seller list. This fall she plays a recurring role on the action comedy series Chuck, while also starring in a new NBC sitcom, Perfect Couples, co-created by former 30 Rock writer Jon Pollack.
Munn provides the ultimate case study in the current mechanics of human popularity. She plays in the field's top venue (Hollywood) and is making extraordinary advances at a time of unprecedented competition and scrutiny. Every move she makes, personally and professionally, is recorded on the Internet—as are her audiences' reactions. What was once ethereal and fleeting, the adoration of strangers, is now recorded for digital posterity in search engines and Web forums. And unlike most in Hollywood, Munn is happy to discuss and analyze her cutthroat pursuit of popularity—a subject that remains one of the entertainment world's last taboos. The more people chase popularity, the more they tend to rationalize it as something else. Not Munn. "People say, 'Oh, yeah, I wasn't popular growing up—I didn't care,' " says Munn. "Everybody cares. Somebody needs to say it."
Growing up in a military family—the Munns moved from Utah to Japan to Oklahoma back to Japan and back to Oklahoma—Munn developed an early thirst for popularity. During much of her adolescence, she felt like an outsider and experimented with radical self-packaging. "Almost every month I would join a new clique," she writes in her book. "But not just join them, I would completely transform myself." She adopted the trappings of student government kids, alternative potheads, debate geeks, jocks, partiers, and ultimately mean cheerleaders. "All the things she wanted, she got," says Corinne Secrease, a friend who first met Munn in the eighth grade in Tokyo and is now studying to be a nurse.
After graduating from the University of Oklahoma with a major in journalism and moving to Hollywood, Munn landed her first screen role in 2004, playing Girl #1 in the slasher film Scarecrow Gone Wild. This did not set her career on fire. Munn was born in July 1980, the same month as actor Kristen Bell, model Gisele Bündchen, and singer Jessica Simpson. Between 2004 and 2010 (the time period for which data are available), people searched Google for Munn less often than Bell (by 42 percent), Bündchen (by 54 percent), or Simpson (by 96 percent). Mass curiosity didn't begin to register until 2006, the year Munn began co-hosting Attack of the Show! From that point, her search volume has ratcheted upward, in a series of peaks and valleys. After each spike, including a big one in the summer of 2009 when she appeared on the cover of Playboy, the interest tapers off. Over time, though, the baseline keeps rising.
In 2009, Munn nearly caught up with Bell and pulled ahead of Bündchen in search volume for the year. (They all still trail Jessica Simpson.) That's what can happen if, like Munn, you're willing to put your head in a "balloon torture chamber" (YouTube views: 364,406) or suggestively consume a hot dog (7,951,685 views).
Any major leap in popularity, she learned years ago, comes with the potential for a backlash. In June, shortly after Munn got the Daily Show job, an anonymous female comedian, in a blog post on Jezebel, essentially accused the show's producers of hiring Munn purely for her sex appeal. Another Jezebel post described Munn as a "potty-mouthed provocateur whose appeal seems targeted to what she thinks men want."
While Munn returned fire, Jon Stewart and the Daily Show cast rallied around her. That led to a boomlet of articles, blog posts, and anonymous commentary that spiked her search volume on Google (GOOG). Munn says the furor helped her bond with her new colleagues. "If the critics want to say something, fine, it doesn't hurt me," she says. "What was more annoying was Jezebel getting any attention at all."
Although she rose to prominence as a virtual star, Munn still embraces the retail side of celebrity, bravely venturing where few women have dared to go, like a May 2007 gathering of Star Wars fans in Los Angeles, where she appeared as Princess Leia in a gold bikini. She also caters to the needs of her official fan club, which has more than 30,000 members, occasionally inviting them all to meet her at a specific time and place, creating flash mobs of fandom. At this year's Comic-Con International convention in San Diego, which she covered for Attack of the Show!, she sat down for dessert with 16 of her superfans, including a guy who flew in from Australia. It pays to be nice, she says, because "popular doesn't mean people like you. Popular just means that people know who you are. In the end, it could all go away."