This is a story that is totally not interesting plotwise but becomes interesting because it involves being approached by Alec Baldwin.
There I am, walking down the street, and there he is, all handsome and talented. I’m trying not to stare. Then, all of a sudden, Alec Baldwin walks toward me. Time slows. I barely hear him when he says, “Excuse me, can I ask you a silly question?” He points to my coffee. “Wheredja get that?”
“Um, at the Sunshine Joy deli?” I answer, thinking I probably sound dorky.
I notice that his skin is not Regular Guy Skin, it’s Pampered Celebrity Man Skin — skin that has seen toner and moisturizer and probably gets shaved by a professional. He puts his big Alec Baldwin hand on my shoulder and says, “Thanks, I appreciate it.” He walks off into the sunset and I immediately call my boyfriend.
Now, if a random guy would have just come up and asked me where I got my coffee, would I have slowed down and let him stand close enough to me that I could check out the quality of his skin and he could lean into me and touch my shoulder? Hell no! I would have flinched, stepped away and moved out of there. Fast.
Was I thrown off because of the bizarre aspect of a celebrity coming up to me to ask me a simple question, or did I somehow feel chosen that somebody who probably spends part of his time hiding from fans “chose” to speak to me?
Alec reputedly likes the ladies. He is known to be friendly to the people of my sex. I know that there are other women in New York who share Alec Baldwin stories and that all of us found our brief experiences mildly surreal.
When I was a teenager, I kept pictures of pop stars torn from celebrity magazines up on my wall. My mother came in and said in the wise mom way I only came to appreciate later, “Lisa, why do you have all these pictures of these people? They don’t have pictures of you.”
This was my first inkling of the need to question the human desire to look at other people as more beautiful, more talented and infinitely cooler than we mortals are.
As a person who both works in the entertainment industry and at an entertainment magazine, one thing I constantly find disturbing and rant about is the way our culture treats celebrities. I’m not even talking about paparazzi stalking — how some people think that the celebrity signed up for the job so they should be able to give up all their privacy.
(Um, no: The celebrity is an artist who wants to make their art. They should be prepared for a certain amount of interest in their personal habits, but they are still people and their boundaries are to be respected.)
I’m talking about the strange projection that celebrities are, on the one hand, cooler versions of ourselves, the high school cheerleaders and football players we could be if we just had that magical something and weren’t so average/fat/broke/awkward/human, as well as our public servants who need to be really, really nice to us all the time, and if not, we can just go ahead and talk about what b*tches they are.
I have wondered if the strange worship we have for celebrities is because of our fascination with the lives of our artists. We love to make sweeping generalizations about artists: They’re all bipolar, or OCD, or depressed. Underneath the beauty they create, they are all in pain. Yet then why do we try so hard to get close to them, to the point where not only do we want pictures with them, but they hire bodyguards to protect against us?
Stars — they’re just like us, without the baggage. Our beautiful actors and actresses are us when we are at our slimmest and most glamorous and the most in touch with our emotions. But not our gross, embarrassing, too-much-for-anyone-to-deal-with-and-still-love-us emotions. Emotions that we look really pretty expressing — admissions of our vulnerability that make the person we’re in love with fall right back in love with us, displays of our toughness that make other people tremble in our presence, and displays of how calm and sophisticated we are that everyone believes.
While I’m sure that certain performers do possess a distinct charisma, sex appeal and personal power, that power is multiplied by a thousand as soon as they step onstage and grab the microphone, or as soon as their countenance is magnified to the size of a movie screen, or shrunken to the cozy, I’m-your-best-friend size of a TV screen.
Our relationship with TV actors is a bizarre sort of projection. People think the actors really are the characters they play. Those characters are our best friends, boyfriends or girlfriends; we view them over and over again in our home. My boyfriend of the ’90s? Chris the DJ from Northern Exposure, played by John Corbett.
One interview with “Chris,” on The Arsenio Hall Show, sticks out clearly in my mind. Chris the DJ was supermellow, smart, able to philosophize in a way that was intriguing but not abrasively intellectual, and I was so excited to watch him. But John Corbett was not Chris. He responded to questions not as my beloved Chris, but as Some Guy.
Arsenio, realizing he was losing his audience, said, “They want to see you do your rap.” Then the actor struggled to dash off a few Chris-isms, and I realized, “I’m not in love with this guy, I’m in love with the team of writers that created this character, who’s not even a real person I could meet.”
Post-Olympics, the U.S. gymnastics team came to visit one of the offices where I freelance. So everyone in the office is smiling about the girls’ presence and oohing and ahhing about them. Then the girls leave and I hear one officeworker say to another, in an irritated tone, “Ohmygod, I just asked Gabby Douglas if she would pose for a picture with me, and she said, ‘Um, I have to go.’”
The impression of Douglas’s tone was sarcastic, as though Douglas had been plain nasty. My guess, having witnessed as these very busy athletes came in and were “on” just days after displaying their hard-earned prowess at one of the world’s biggest events, is that Ms. Douglas probably just needed to go, the way we all do, and she was done with posing, which she had every right to be. The coworker who heard the story responded with, “Ugh, that’s so snotty.” Within seconds, a hard-working 16-year-old girl is now considered nasty and horrible, because she needed to leave when her friends were leaving and it was time for her to have her own space.
But the unspoken understanding was that because she’s a celebrity, she owes us her time, and if she can’t give us that last extra minute so we can prove to our friends that we stood next to her, she sucks.
These are accomplished young women who certainly have earned the admiration they get, so the giddiness and high expectations in the office was something I sort of understood. But these girls are also children who are now expected to function in an adult word by adult standards, and to understand the social responsibility they are now expected to have. Essentially, they are child stars, and few children can truly understand the role celebrity plays in this world, because they don’t yet have the scope — and they certainly shouldn’t have the burden.
Many years ago, I saw Susan Sarandon at a theater event I attended, and I went up and told her how beautiful and talented she is. She smiled politely, thanked me and turned around. I instantly felt pissed-off, and I wondered why.
Then I thought about it and realized I wanted something from her, which is the blind loving approval I had just given her. I wanted her to say, “Lisa Ferber, I too think you are beautiful. I love all your unpublished novels and short stories, and you have this way about you that is so cool, and someday somebody will realize that! It will happen! I can see it in you!”
A TV actress friend of mine says that when fans come up to her all excited, she lets them know not to get their hopes up. She tells me, “It’s mainly a joke I use to try to relax the geeky fans. ‘You were my favorite, I always loved you, etc. etc.’ is a difficult conversation starter, so I make that joke, ‘Well, it’s all downhill from here.’ Sometimes that puts them even more on the spot, but it’s my go-to. It comes from my mother saying you should never meet your heroes, since they are human and bound to disappoint. Also, there are only so many times you can say thank you.”
So if you take someone at a superhigh level of celebrity, their life is filled with this sort of thing to an exaggerated degree — to the point where they are stopped on the street and expected to be cordial even when they’re just out to dinner with their friends and are expected to stop and snap a photo with someone.
The concept of getting noticed this way might seem strange to the person who is now a celebrity, when perhaps their main reason for getting into the industry was to sing or to get the chance to play a dream role, and then all of a sudden they’re signing autographs while trying to just enjoy a meal out with friends.
The “I’m standing next to a celebrity” thing makes no sense to me when it’s not someone I know personally. As someone in the arts and entertainment industry, I work with and have been photographed with artists whose work I respect, and since my closest friends are in the arts and entertainment industry, that’s who I will end up being photographed with. But to ask to stand next to a celebrity who has no idea who you are just so you have proof that you stood next to them makes me wonder what the takeaway is.
I frequently encounter weird questions from people who asks me about these friends’ personal lives, what their homes are like and other sorts of stuff they don’t ask me about my noncelebrity friends. Why do they care, I wonder, and why do they think that I will give away the dirt on someone I’m friends with? Do they think that just because someone is successful in her field, I should just understand that the person’s life is supposed to be an open book and her friend is supposed to spill the dirt? That I’m supposed to be “a source close to the celeb,” as a magazine might call it?
While it can be said that people become celebrities because they have a certain quality that makes them watchable, the fact is, that person is still a person. That person might have been awkward in high school, or is awkward right now and has a highly developed persona. And that’s what we want from them, in some weird way. There seems to be a strange need to feel that another class of human beings exist that are “cooler” than us, whatever that means, and it makes me wonder who we worshiped before we had mass media.
Maybe the untouchable, superior coolness of others relieves us of any pressure to be great, because they have “It” and we don’t. But the price that comes with their It-ness is that our culture looks for any excuse to tear them down. And by this I don’t mean specifically American culture, this is a “humankind” thing, a behavior based on insecurity and jealousy.
Everyone loved Jennifer Aniston when she was on Friends as Rachel. She was the sweetheart who came into our homes each week. Then she had a few romances that did not lead to marriage and now it’s all about poor Jen who has trouble in love. (Doesn’t everyone have trouble in love until they find the one right person?) I have to think it’s about humanizing this person who seemed for a while like the girl every guy would want to marry.
Hey, she’s a real person just like you, even though her hair is golden perfection and she doesn’t have an ounce of extra weight on her. Doesn’t that make everyone’s romantic problems seem small by comparison? At least Angelina Jolie didn’t swoop in and steal my man, we can tell ourselves.
When I was a teenager speaking to a sales woman at the makeup counter at Bloomingdale’s, Cher walked in and asked the same salesgirl a question. The salesgirl then said in a not-quiet-enough whisper to her coworker as she gestured toward me, “Can you take her? I’ve got Cher.”
Did the salesgirl and Cher did some heavy-duty networking that led to the salesgirl starting a music career as she taught Cher how to use long-wearing lipliner? Doubtful. So what was this even about? Perhaps the need for the salesgirl to be that much closer to greatness, thus alleviating whatever boredom or frustration she had in her own life by being closer to what greatness she perceived Cher’s life to hold?
What it comes down to is, as my mother pointed out in that moment during my Farrah Fawcett–and–Leif Garrett–decorated adolescence, is the person you’re giddy about going to go and tell a story about meeting you, or are you the only one excited about the meeting?
So, no, I’m not going to jump and ask Rob Lowe to stand next to me and take a photo with me because he’s doing a press event where he has no idea who I am. But at the same time, if Tina Fey or Will Arnett ever want to know where I got my coffee, I would be happy to tell them.
Lisa Ferber is a painter, writer and performer. She writes and stars in the hit web series “The Sisters Plotz,” directed by Lisa Hammer and co-starring Lisa Hammer and Eve Plumb, which debuted as a Top Five Most Watched Video on Funnyordie.com and is viewable on the Sisters Plotz channel on YouTube.com. Her paintings have shown at National Arts Club, Mayson Gallery, and sell to private collectors. Her film “Whimsellica’s Grand Inheritance” won the audience vote in the “It Came From You” contest, and her play “Bonbons for Breakfast” was a New York magazine “notable production.” She studied lyric writing at the Tony-honored BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Program and was featured in the final film of cult icon Doris Wishman, “Each Time I Kill.” Her work celebrates the beauty and quirks of human behavior.