Most of us have encountered celebrities in one form or another. We may spy them at a game, cheering for your favorite in the crowd. They can hear you and give you an appreciative nod. Perhaps we see a senator seated at a nearby table on your birthday at a fancy restaurant. Maybe you work there, slinging drinks to movie and music stars–some of whom you idolize. I was once a bartender in such an environment. I cannot count the number of these people who wound up both surprising and disappointing me.
Of course this is hardly their fault, the celebrity. What made me think that this famously harassed person would want their meal interrupted by some drooling, nervous nightmare of a fan? Why should they even be polite? You would be perfectly justified in being rude should some guy drunkenly wander over, interrupting a business deal, or your rare night out together with the person you love most in the world. He merely wanted to shake your hand. How would you like it?
No one is more than the awkward person they were as a child. Even the most stubbornly self-confident are prone to doubt, which always makes them angry. There is a social anxiety we all share when meeting new people. There is a great big question mark hovering over every one of us. This transforms into the blood sport of dominance, meeting people with whom you already have preconceived notions. Only very rarely do rivals part as friends.
Circularly I have mentioned a project I am currently deeply involved with (these pieces are morning calisthenics, exercising the neurons until taut enough for the heavier work of the day, notes, research and outlining, some of the drudgery of writing.) The story I am telling–a biography–is the story of a celebrity. I know this person; I am friendly with them (I guess it really is ‘who you know!’) I even worked for them more than twenty years ago.
In the earlier days this individual was always in character, really a defense mechanism while dealing with a horrible tragedy that had befallen them and those they loved. This character was bordering on insanity, so far over-the-top–even silly–that only in hindsight can we see the rage that inspired this cartoon self. Everything they said, everything they did as their drinking and self-destructive urges skyrocketed, was outrageous. There was joy to maliciously offending people, even if that was not the initial intention.
In the years that passed they experienced a certain recovery–unquestionably with a new outlook on the world. Life became tolerable, and then good once again, and the shocking tragedy, which would always linger, slowly sank into a profound, character forming strength, once more allowing them to experience joy.
Now I will leave their development and return to the over-arching point (this stuff is going into a book, after all!) This person’s public persona changed, became both more generous, and far more cutthroat. Their singular rage turned against the world developed a hard shell of intolerance, and corroded their patience until they demanded immediate perfection from everyone.
This is not an appealing characteristic to be forced to endure. And yet, the fascination and charm of their public persona is immensely appealing, and everywhere you go you meet people who are appalled, intimidated, envious, interested, or immediately in love with them. They are an illuminating presence. Their entrance resounds. This is the truest nature of celebrity, whether you have heard of the person in question or not.
Do you remember back in school, back when you were part of whichever clique, or stagnant group seeking popularity? Remember the well known within the other cliques? Some you admired. Most your tore down–“She isn’t so great!” or “He’s such a jerk!” Most of the time we were inspired by rumors and stories people told, and the legends these stars of class had built around themselves. But, occasionally, we were the ones who actually got to know these people, with all their subtle charm, with their quieter fixations and, most significantly, we see their private fears and doubt, reflecting an inner turmoil we can all relate to.
There are other times when celebrities expose themselves in their true light. Some of them prove to be terrible people, so full of themselves that they come across more like a twelve year-old than an individual of many accomplishments. And of course there are other times when these famous people prove to be ordinary, decent, emotional, and almost exactly like you. They see their career of fame as just another job–the thing that they worked towards. Some of them do not even enjoy their career, or they, too, hate their boss. They have problems with their co-workers. There is the same human pettiness that so many people find frustrating in our own lives, and we can embrace this famous person as exactly like us. Among the numerous celebrities I have met, most of them have fallen into this category. For all of my preconceived notions, they remain ordinary people. The only ones you cannot ultimately say this about, the affected and selfish, are the ones who disappoint.
Sometimes our expectations are correct–these people really are exactly what we thought they were. This is of course not limited to celebrity. Celebrity itself can be a very difficult job. You cannot just go out for a quiet evening. It is like you are always on stage, always in demand. And they have those same ignorant and envious situations of people imagining that their lives are easy, and that acquired wealth makes them happy, and that because this person is famous you somehow know more about them than even they do. Even if we have heard of an incident in their lives, and even if the incident is actually true, we have no idea how this may have impacted their lives, or most of the intricate details about what led to such a spectacle. Our lives exist on a smaller scale, sure, but this does not stop people from talking about us and what they think of us for cheap thrills and entertainment.
With my subject, recently, as I went on my first trip of interviews, there was a moment when all of the veils dropped, when the character I have seen on TV, and while promoting themselves, dropped, and the true self shined through. It was a real moment, and it lingered. After seeing this, one can never see a person the same way again. Now they are real, a real person, and not some figment of our tabloid culture. They are not what I ever expected.