Though I’ve lived most of my life near Hollywood, I’ve never moved in celebrity circles. I’ve kept my distance. I watch few movies, little TV, and I avoid magazines and TV shows that cover celebrities. Over the years, I’ve cultivated such a profound ignorance of celebrity matters that, when someone points out a celebrity to me, I usually recognize neither the celebrity’s face nor the celebrity’s name.
So it was with some surprise a few weeks ago that I recognized a celebrity in my daughter’s classroom. We were there for back-to-school night and he walked in late, causing every head to turn. As the heads turned back and the room erupted in silent whispers of “Is that him?,” I knew it was, for he starred in a sitcom I’d watched when I was a kid and his well-preserved face had denied and defied the intervening decades.
As soon as the teacher stopped talking the celeb made a beeline for the door, leaving the rest of us to mill about and speak of his presence in awed, hushed tones. Apparently he’s not a washed-up has-been, fodder for “Where Are They Now?” features. No, he’s still a real celebrity, starring on a hit TV show and living with his beautiful wife and beautiful children in a beautiful house in the most beautiful part of town.
As they talked, I detected celebrity validation in the air, that peace of mind we get when a celebrity endorses us by doing what we do. As names dropped like flies, I learned that other celebrities send there kids here too. If we had any doubts whether this was the right school for our kids, those doubts were immediately dispelled once we learned of all the A- and B-list celebrities who chose to educate their offspring alongside ours.
Driving home, celebrity names buzzing in my head, I realized I’m not prepared for this. Our school is small and so chock full of celebrity spawn that I’m bound to run into more. About all I’m equipped to do in the presence of celebrities is mock, glare and pretend they’re not there, hardly suitable behavior for a mature adult in a nurturing educational environment. And what would my kids think, seeing me act that way? Or, worse, what would my wife do? As I thought it through, it became clear that I’d have to remove the “dis” from my existing rules of celebrity disengagement.
The first step is to figure why I’ve always been such a celebriphobe. My earliest celebrity-specific memory was watching those I Love Lucy episodes when they traveled to Hollywood and Lucy went berserk every time she saw a celebrity. I remember watching with revulsion, not sure whether Lucy was mocking us, the little people, for our celebrity-crazed ways or teaching us to behave like crazed idiots when in the presence of celebrities. Either way, I knew it was wrong. I determined never to be a Lucy.
Why did I react this way? My best guess is I did so defensively, both because I was already conscious that I suffered from a chronic charisma deficit, and thus would never make it as a celebrity, and I was concerned that my self-esteem was already so low that I couldn’t afford to fritter any of it away fawning over celebrities.
My teen years cemented my views. Faced with the standard popularity derby in high school, I realized I could spend my remaining teen years trying to earn my way into a popular clique (aspiration), or, failing that, trying to model my life after their teachings (imitation) or, failing that, seeking the escapist bliss of living vicariously through them (spectation). I pursued none of these paths. I’d like to say that I did this because of my deep and abiding commitment to principles of equality and individuality, but the truth is I knew myself well enough to know that I stood no chance of ever being popular, or even being mistaken for popular, and that the more time I spent around popular kids, or trying to look like a popular kid, or discussing the exploits of popular kids, the more obvious it would be to me and everybody else that I was indeed a loser. So I put on blinders and walked a different path.
Now I’m decades older, but nothing’s really changed. Celebrities are the popular clique, and the rest of us are still variously trying to join them or imitate them when we’re not watching and reading about them in rapt fascination. And I’m still determined to deny their existence, though it’s getting harder now that our paths keep intersecting.
Perhaps I should just give in and engage these celebrities directly. Today I'm a mature adult, more comfortable with myself, centered, if you will, exactly the sort of person I wasn't during my teens. Actually, that's a lie. Truth is, I’m still an esteem-starved fragile psyche wracked with self-doubt, so I fear the consequences if I just tossed aside all my avoidance defenses. Before you know it I’d be under their sway, sucked into permanent orbit around their star, the magnetic charm of their overwhelming superiority in all aspects of life crushing my feeble resistance. I’d start following their exploits in People magazine, thrilling at their highs and mourning their lows. I’d watch their TV shows and movies, both for the thrill of pointing at screen to say “I know that guy!” and so I’d be able to say something more well-informed than “I love your work!” next time I saw them. I’d casually drop their first names in conversations, taking care to also share telling little details from their lives to prove that I really know them, such as “they’re at the villa in Anguilla this week” and “he gets this amazingly effective organic echinacea extract from a healer in Topanga.” And, of course, I’d never forget to mention that our kids are at school together. Meanwhile what little remains of my self-esteem would incinerate in their charisma burn, melting away in the reflected glare of their celebrity only to make room for an even more virulent form of self-loathing.
In short, I’d become my inner Lucy.
So if I cannot avoid these celebrities, and I am not strong enough to engage them on their terms, I will have to do so on my own terms. This means engaging them while continuing to deny their celebrityhood by treating them exactly as I would treat anyone else. If I find myself standing near a celebrity at a child’s birthday party or working the drink booth together at the spring fair or waiting on the same bench for parent-teacher conferences to begin, I’ll introduce myself, maybe shake his hand, politely ask his name, nod my head without betraying the slightest hint of recognition and then proceed to look away and recede within myself, pretending he doesn’t exist.
Same as I’d do with you.