Is it possible for a man having a mercilessly, unrelentingly bad day, to suddenly turn it around after he encounters his favourite celebrity? Can the latter positive negate all the negatives that came before?
Let’s say this man – deep in debt, his relationship in tatters – is wandering the streets aimlessly, maybe cursing to himself. Life’s crushing weight presses upon his shoulders, he can barely breathe… but he turns the corner, and lo, there she is, his celebrity crush. She says, “hello”.
Her voice to him is as Daisy’s voice is to Gatsby, the sound of larks singing at sunset, the sweet trill of fame rather than money. Noting his depressed state, she smiles, comes closer, hugs him quickly and leaves with the setting sun. It turns out, she’s more becoming in real life than in the movies! He gapes in wonder.
Is it enough to jostle him out of his long day’s funk? If it is, how long does the happiness last? Does a celebrity encounter lead to a lasting joy, or only momentary elation? Is the sensation equatable to the endorphins one gets from a good workout, or eating some chocolates?
Encountering celebrities brings one to the realm of the novel and eventful, but ultimately we use such occurrences to reinforce the familiar. Expostulations reinforcing the status quo oft follow such meetings: “Oh, he turned out to be really nice!”, “She’s totally grounded, not the diva I thought…”, “… He’s really just one of us… he wore khakis.” Not unlike what neighbours of psychotic shooters say about them when interviewed after a killing.
Sometimes an encounter with “the other”, or the presence of a unique, seemingly unplaceable person, leads a culture to foist celebrity status upon them as a way to reinstate the ordinary, as a return to more acceptable normalcy. My friend Kevin, ever smartly dressed, was mistaken for a celebrity in Japan. His admirers, slack jawed and in awe, simply didn’t know which celebrity, so they just marked him as an unnamed and unidentifiable famous black American man. He was sort of given a default everycelebrity status. As he described it, people chased him around and took pictures with him and made a fuss over his presence, wondering which show or program he was on or known for, but ultimately, perhaps not caring. Just the placement of him, an importantly dressed black man, into celebrityhood made him less out of place in their minds.
The writer Teju Cole describes how in London, just after he spotted Tom Stoppard nearby at an event, others in the audience, sensing celebrityhood, mistook him for a different celebrity. He notes how they treated it as an immediate theatrical event: “Shortly after, some cooks at the outdoor market decide I look like Mos Def and, bizarrely, begin to clap.” (Known and Strange Things, 321) He doesn’t go into what caused their clapping, but I assume it’s a case of fame carrying with it an immediate sense of merit; after all, we live in a culture that treats fame as a product, somehow, of labor, of performance, of craft, and that deserves accolades.
I suppose the nearness of famous people leads us to feel, and sometimes do, strange things. I don’t know what to make of my own rather extreme reactions to celebrity encounters. Next to famous people, I grow shy and circumspect; I sneak peeks; I hover; I turn a little dumb.
Here are a few of my celebrity encounters, how they occurred, and how I comported myself in each occurrence.
First encounter: I was 19, waiting tables, but at the time I was working the cashier at Truc’s Orient Express, the only Vietnamese Restaurant in Western Massachusetts. It was my first real job:
Celebrity: Keith Lockhart, youngest symphony conductor of the Boston Pops.
Me: Here’s your order… hey… um… aren’t you… on tv?
Keith Lockhart: Um… no. I’m not…
Me: Sorry, it’s just because you look really familiar.
Keith Lockhart: You might recognise me as having been on tv though. I do a lot of work with music…
Me: Sorry, I’m still not.
Keith: I’m Keith…
Me: …Lockhart. Ohmigod, I’m sorry I didn’t. So you’re here for the Pops’ performance…?
Keith Lockhart then explained that he was there to conduct for the Boston Pops Symphony for Tanglewood, the big music venue in the summers in New England. Then, my boss intervened and talked to him while I, astonished, continued to take other orders.
How he looked/behaved compared to his public image: Keith looked very similar to his televised self. He was young (at the time, but so was I. He’s 56 now), friendly, approachable, kind of geekily funny. He jogged there so he obviously did not have the full formal getup of a conductor, but his hair was perfectly coifed for a person who just ran.
Encounter 2: Dianne Wiest, one of my favourite actresses, often seen in several of Woody Allen’s best films. My favourite film of hers at the time was Bullets over Broadway. Place: also at Truc’s Orient Express, same summer. No dialogue recorded, for I was astonished and grew completely mute. I was star struck. I was also flabbergasted that no one else on staff, I mean, no one, knew who she was. It was a lonely day for me because I could share my wonder with no one… no one around me really cared.
So I served her and her family their lunch: I believe her kids are adopted Vietnamese. They all ordered virgin Bloody Marys. While serving them, I had to run a loop in my head telling myself “don’t stare, just don’t stare. Please, Tuan, don’t be rude and stare”. I was so struck with Diane in the films that seeing her in real life was a bit of a shocker, and I did what I told myself I wouldn’t do: I stared.
How she looked/behaved compared to her public image in the movies: She looked a bit older than she did in her films, a bit more tired and haggard. This, I suppose, is the case with most people in real life… there’s an immediate sense of the high definition of reality’s unkindness on one’s features. Otherwise, she had a nice time with her family, nothing unusual to report. I almost expected Diane to be a grand diva, ala her character in Bullets Over Broadway, but sadly that didn’t happen. She was so normal, so approachable, just like one of us!
Encounters 3-5: to be cont’d.