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Reviews are in: Teen critic a media star

billy norris and david letterman
[Photo: CBS]
Seminole Middle School student and Times movie critic Billy Norris chats with David Letterman.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 11, 2002

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This is what life is like at the center of a media whirlwind.

Speaking on a cellular telephone Wednesday from inside a limousine in midtown Manhattan, 14-year-old Billy Norris was still celebrating.

It had been less than an hour after the experience of a lifetime: trading quips with late-night TV king David Letterman, describing his work as a movie critic for the St. Petersburg Times' Xpress section.

"I was talking about the Britney Spears movie (Crossroads), and I told him she should stick to the Pepsi commercials. . . . That cracked (Letterman) up," said Billy of his appearance on Wednesday's Late Show With David Letterman.

"What he said afterward, when everybody was applauding and you couldn't hear, is that I'll be back," Billy said. "I'm like, 'That's cool.' "
Billy photo
Read Billy's movie reviews on his special archive page.
And Letterman's not alone. Since news broke of Billy's trip to the Late Show in a Times story Tuesday, media outlets large and small have deluged the Seminole Middle School eighth-grader with interview requests.

About 8:18 a.m. today, he'll appear on ABC's Good Morning America, sitting next to the show's film critic, Joel Siegel, likely talking about Dennis Quaid's role as a middle-aged guy playing for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays baseball team in The Rookie.

Billy also expects to discuss that film about an hour later on CNN's American Morning show with host Paula Zahn.

Several area radio stations will speak with him this morning. Billy and his parents, Bill and Sandy Norris, flew to New York on Tuesday, bearing a camera provided by local CBS affiliate WTSP-Ch. 10, taping footage for a later story.

Inside Edition has already conducted an interview, and the Associated Press did a report Wednesday. People magazine, the Washington Post's renowned media critic Howard Kurtz and CNN's financial news channel CNNfn have also expressed interest. An NBC spokeswoman said the Today show inquired about Billy, but apparently lost interest after learning the family committed to Good Morning America.

What's going on here? Why have so many media outlets fallen for the charm of Billy's story?

Most seem drawn by the serendipity of his arrival at The Late Show.

Initially, producers from Late Show rival The Tonight Show with Jay Leno called the Times to find out more about Billy, after they noticed him on a Web site. Ironically, they wound up talking to Lifestyles editor Gretchen Letterman, who is David Letterman's sister and Billy's editor.

When Gretchen Letterman later mentioned to her brother that Leno was interested, Letterman moved to book Billy on his show first. For some editors, the circumstances offered a chance to reference the classic Leno/Letterman rivalry in a lighthearted way.

"The first thing that got our attention was two of the premier late night programs going after a 14-year-old boy," said Kristin Gazlay, the New York-based deputy managing editor of national news for the Associated Press. "You throw in the fact that (Leno's) show placed a call and got Letterman's sister. . . . You can't make this stuff up."

It doesn't hurt that a growing crop of morning TV and radio shows have created a massive need for feature-oriented stories centered on notable people, said Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a Washington think tank.

"This is the perfect saccharine story that the morning shows eat up. . . ," added Felling. "I just wonder: What happens when your 15 minutes of fame come before you're (age) 15?"

Skip Mahaffey, a personality at WQYK-FM 99.5, which featured Billy on Tuesday and will speak to him this morning, said the story offers an uplifting message.

"We're looking for a story there are no bad guys in," he added. "He's a normal, regular kid who is just as hot as if he was Mel Gibson talking about his next movie. That's really cool."

Billy seems to be handling his new burst of fame well. Wearing a dark suit and a red tie, he seemed at ease with Letterman and found a moment to schmooze with movie star Sandra Bullock backstage.

Billy said he expects few problems in upcoming appearances.

"(On The Late Show), I guess I got comfortable and I forgot who I was talking to," said Billy, who admitted much of the appearance went by in a blur of excitement. "It was really great to be on there."

Billy's parents said the whole experience has been both exciting and a little surreal.

"It's like we're watching a movie about somebody else's life," said Sandy Norris, who spent much of Wednesday morning answering calls from media outlets. ". . . We are living the high life right now, and it's all because we have such a great kid."

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