April 13, 2000

Unemployed mechanic to mega-star: Zlatko’s improbable rise

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

BERLIN (AP) _ When he first lumbered across the TV screen, there was no indication a superstar lay dormant in the burly unemployed mechanic.

Known only by his first name, Zlatko, he didn’t know who Shakespeare was. He spoke German like a nonnative. He sang off-key. He admitted he never read books.

And that’s exactly what clicked. Locked inside a house with other residents of the reality TV show “Big Brother” _ a sort of MTV “Real World” taken to an Orwellian extreme _ the 24-year-old Zlatko seemed to be the only person who was real.

At a time of growing disenchantment in Germany over a political scandal and perceptions of increasing egotism, Zlatko appeared open, honest and sincere. Threatened with ejection from the show as part of its biweekly audience phone vote, fans flocked to support Zlatko. They composed Web site tributes and wrote songs praising him as an Average Joerg, just like them.

“Even the politicians cheat on people who elect them … but at least Zlatko says what he is, he’s honest,” said Betty Siegel, a sociologist in Hamburg. “That is very likable at a time when you get the impression that nobody’s being honest and all are trying to play games to get the most out of relationships.”

Despite his following, Zlatko was voted off the show Sunday. And that’s when things really started to take off.

By Monday, he had already recorded a pop song; a tour this summer is likely. Stern magazine put him on its cover Wednesday and heralded him as “King of Germany.”

He’s making the rounds of the German talk shows. He’s been besieged by more than 100 interview requests. And the network that produces “Big Brother” is giving him his own reality TV show _ “Zlatko’s World.”

Suddenly, the $125,000 prize awarded to the last person left after 100 days on “Big Brother” seemed like chump change. Tabloids have speculated he could earn millions; talk is he’s been offered advertising deals for everything from beer to cosmetics to exercise equipment.

“He has as many inquiries as a pop star,” said Harald Stoffels, Zlatko’s agent. “Our phone system was overloaded. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Baring his tattooed arms on “Big Brother” while working out with housemate Juergen, Zlatko always did his own thing under the camera’s eyes. He never put on pretenses to win favor with the audience.

He and Juergen hung out and played chess, sometimes offending their housemates with their politically incorrect humor.

Zlatko never tried to act smarter than he was.

Asked who Shakespeare was, he responded: “Mmm…, I have no idea if he wrote novels, made films, documentaries, no idea.”

In a conversation about sex, housemate Kerstin told Zlatko she thought he was definitely “hetero.” “I’m not gay,” Zlatko quickly retorted.

When he was selected by his fellow residents, along with Juergen, as the two whose fate would be put in the audience’s hands on Sunday, Zlatko’s popularity soared.

Fans launched “Save Zlatko” campaigns on the Web and composed songs with choruses of “Zlatko is our hero.” Reporters interviewed his family and friends in Schwabia, where his Macedonian parents settled.

The “Big Brother” show on Zlatko’s day of reckoning drew the highest rating for station RTL II since it’s been on the air: 4.7 million viewers, including nearly half the 14- to 29-year-olds watching TV at the time.

Still, Zlatko was voted out by viewers. Juergen survived and if he wins, the friends have made a pact to split the prize.

Matthias Biehler, who produced a “Save Zlatko” Web site, speculated that fans were simply confused and those who dialed the number for Zlatko didn’t realize they were actually voting him out.

Zlatko’s last name, Trpkovski, wasn’t known until after the show because producers kept it secret. Now it’s everywhere. His brother has launched his own Web site selling T-shirts and coffee mugs labeled “The Brain” and “Shakesbier?”

Time will tell if Zlatko’s fame remains.

“You did in four weeks what it took me seven years to do,” comedian Stefan Raab told Zlatko during his TV talk show debut. “But come and talk to me again after seven years.”

Down-to-earth as ever, Zlatko has no unrealistic expectations.

“A superstar? I don’t know. Someday normal life will return. Then I’d like to have a little house, a truck garage, my family, my peace,” he told the Bild newspaper.

At the end of his interview on Raab’s show, the host gave Zlatko a copy of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” _ claiming he had the bard himself sign it.

Zlatko chuckled, but didn’t appear to quite get the joke.

August 31, 2000

At 125, nationalistic symbol has lost standing in modern Germany

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

DETMOLD, Germany (AP) _ Hermann the German has been called this country’s Statue of Liberty, but he really doesn’t have much in common with his long-lost love across the sea.

She’s holding a torch. He hoists a sword. He stands taller _ but only because he’s perched on a hill.

Most importantly, Liberty stands for the ideals of a nation that welcomes new arrivals passing her on their way to U.S. shores. But Hermann _ Germany’s most-visited national monument _ doesn’t stand for much more than a good vantage point as he celebrates his 125th birthday this summer.

Hermann, after all, was dedicated as a monument to German nationalism at a time when that was a unifying concept. Now, it’s a pejorative _ a catch-phrase of the extreme-right.

It’s enough to furrow the green wrinkles in Hermann’s copper forehead. He’s the Rodney Dangerfield of national monuments _ he gets no respect.

It wasn’t always like this.

German immigrants to the United States in the 19th century viewed him as a symbol of their newfound liberties and built a scaled-down Hermann in New Ulm, Minn. They formed Sons of Hermann societies to support each other in times of need and gathered to celebrate their German heritage.

The ties are still strong: New Ulm city officials were among the 15,000 well-wishers at the German Hermann’s birthday party in August.

Hermann can’t really be blamed for his predicament. As his gaze has stared unfalteringly west, the world he views from his vantage point about 75 miles southwest of Hanover is a distinctly different place than 125 years ago.

Nationalism helped foster the idea of a German state in the 19th century when architect and sculptor Joseph Ernst von Bandel conceived of building a monument to his hero. Hermann, the Germanicized version of his Roman name Arminius, led German tribes to their first successful rebellion over Roman overlords in 9 A.D., killing 20,000 somewhere near where he now stands.

Building the 87-foot-tall memorial became Ernst von Bandel’s life work. He began in 1838, helped by donations from across Germany and U.S. and British emigres. But by 1846, his money dried up _ leaving only the 98-foot foundation.

In the 1860s, Ernst von Bandel won support from Prussian Emperor William I amid Germany’s attempts to become one nation and unite fractious cities and regions, and the money poured back in. On Aug. 16, 1875, the emperor dedicated the statue of Hermann der Cherusker, or as he’s known in English, Hermann the German.

“It’s a symbol, a personification of the nation. Their wish was to become a modern nation like France or Britain,” said Heide Barmeyer-Hartlied, a historian at University of Hanover specializing in 19th-century German history.

It was a time where German nationalism carried with it notions of liberal thinking, along with freedom from Napoleon’s rule. France, then viewed as the archenemy, was the object of Hermann’s westward glare.

“When you create a nation-state, you need a hero,” said Gerhard Ewers, spokesman for the Hermann Memorial Foundation.

But today, nationalism and all its historical trappings are taboo. Getting excited about soccer and waving a team scarf is much more accepted than waving a German flag. German mistakes _ not triumphs _ are drummed into schoolchildren’s heads.

Partly for those reasons, Hermann himself simply doesn’t command the respect he once did.

For seven weeks last year, Hermann donned what was claimed to be the world’s largest soccer jersey, complete with the local club’s insignia. He’s been featured in a beer brand logo. Part of the celebration this year was a caricature contest, showing him urinating or his sword being used as a bird perch, TV antenna or a spit for roasting meat.

Hermann’s legendary heroism is not why visitors come these days. Mostly it’s for the view.

Hermann Jr., the Minnesota incarnation celebrating 103 years Sept. 25, isn’t faring much better. New Ulm officials are trying to raise money to straighten his iron frame and reattach the feather that blew off his cap.

And there simply aren’t the same number of Hermann enthusiasts around any more to pitch in. Karl Mindermann, a former head of the California branch of Sons of Hermann, said state membership there has declined in the last few decades from 4,000 to 860.

“The younger generation, they’re not interested in anything like that anymore,” said the 70-year-old Sacramento resident, who came to see the original Hermann for the first time this year.

“From the standpoint of music, we still go for the German stuff,” he said. “But the younger generation refers to ‘the oom-pah music.'”


On the Net: (information in German and English)


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