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Talk Souped Up

Cyberspace creates a way for stars like David Copperfield and Garth Brooks to connect with their fans and promote upcoming projects

It may be cocktail hour at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, but a jet-lagged Claudia Schiffer is sound asleep upstairs in a penthouse suite. Fortunately, her fiance, supermagician David Copperfield, has found something to occupy his time. He's downstairs in La Fiesta Room, chatting with hundreds of people. Oddly, it's hard to actually see any of them. Another zany Copperfield illusion? Not this time.

Copperfield is actually communicating with his audience via laptop computer on the Prodigy network. ''Do you have a retirement date set yet?'' writes Interguy. Copperfield puts his arm around the (middle-aged, swooning) moderator who's relaying the questions and dictates an answer: ''No, Siegfried! Relax, okay? I'll be flying my show when I'm George Burns' age even if I have to fly with a walker.''

Like a growing number of celebs with product to move, Copperfield — who has a TV special to promote — has found cyberspace to be a key pit stop on the publicity superhighway. Beginning in 1992, everyone from Marianne Faithfull to Ed McMahon to New York's Archbishop John Cardinal O'Connor (''Hi Your Excellency!'') has participated in on-line interviews, most of them on America Online, Prodigy, and CompuServe or such smaller, more anarchic bulletin boards as SonicNet. True, there's no way to roll the clip, but what the process lacks in visuals it makes up for in low overhead. Most celebs either log on from home or from an office, and all they need are a computer and a moderator — somebody to type for the celebrity or, in rare cases, to demonstrate how to do it.

Best of all, the cyberchat world is democratic — a place where cheese (most of the original Brady Bunch kids have appeared on-line, as well as soap queen Susan Lucci, Tom Jones, Geraldo Rivera, Sherman Hemsley, and Pauly Shore) gets as much time as caviar (Mick Jagger, Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, David Bowie, David Caruso, and Martin Landau).

But why spend an hour and 10 minutes, as Copperfield is doing tonight, in front of a terminal to reach 700-plus people when an eight-minute shot on Letterman (where Copperfield is performing the following week) can be seen by 7 million? The magician shrugs. ''It's fun,'' he says. ''It's a way I can talk to people and really be myself'' — the self he will identify to a fan minutes later as ''David Kotkin from Metuchen, N.J....exit 10.''

Question: What is the hardest part about being on the road?
Garth Brooks: Missing your family. Otherwise it's the sex-and-pizza thing. When it's great, it's great. And when it's bad, it's still pretty good.

Sadly, the same thing cannot be said about celebrity cyberchat. When it's great, it's great. Multimedia junkie David Bowie's appearance on AOL was a highlight; he plugged his new CD-ROM but he also dished about himself and other musicians and gamely entertained lascivious questions from fans with handles like LambLips and VelvetKis. Asked one: ''David, to go back to creativity for a second. Can sexuality be separated out? It's such a big part of your music, isn't it?'' Answered Bowie: ''Are you referring to my big part? Or big parts in general?''

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