Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Surprised By Fame

On Sunday, I was leafing through People, the journal of American celebrity worship when I spotted somebody I used to work with in the gossip pages. Apparently she’s dating a movie star and they are about to get married.


The fact that she was marrying a movie star didn’t shock me so much (her sister is a well-known actress) but rather that somebody I knew had made it into the pages of a tabloid. A law of nature had been violated: celebrity magazines should contain pictures of people I don’t know, like Angelina Jolie, or Jennifer Aniston, or Michael Jackson’s (ex) doctor.

So, I thought if my former colleague can get in then why not me?
All it takes is a chance encounter. Last week, for instance, I read about an actress on some cop show that left her rock musician husband for a pizza delivery boy. For three years she and the pizza boy lived together. I saw a picture of him with her on the red carpet. He looked embarrassed.

Actually, now that I come to think of it, this isn’t the first time I’ve been surprised like this. A few years back I was riding on a bus in Ukraine. Remarkably, the bus had a TV and a DVD player on it and for a few hours I watched a terrible Russian Die Hard knock-off in which Chechen terrorists took an entire circus audience hostage. Suddenly a dude I knew appeared on screen. He was playing an editor at CNN.

I was so startled I wanted to tell the other passengers: Hey, see that really bad actor on the screen, the big fat guy? I know him! But it would have meant nothing to them, so I kept silent.

That kind of thing used to happen to my brother all the time. He went to Cambridge University, which (along with Oxford) is where many of the people who run the UK’s media- politico-business establishment spend their wild youths taking drugs, sleeping with each other and sitting the occasional exam. Shortly after graduation he started seeing lots of people he had known showing up on children’s TV shows, writing for newspapers, or (in one instance) even co-writing a movie with Mel Gibson. Some of them were genuinely talented; just as many were hacks.

My brother was perplexed. Coming from a small town where nobody does anything or goes anywhere, he had naively spent his time at Cambridge getting a good education, not realizing that the actual purpose of the institution is to make lots of contacts within Britain’s nepotistic establishment. Doh!

As for me, I don’t know anyone famous. However, I have had a few encounters with the press whenever I’ve written a book. At first I hated posing for pictures so much I used a wooden effigy of myself instead. These days I wear a hat and dark glasses.

The truth however is that in Britain, and especially in America, writing a book is considered such an eccentric thing to do that you’re in no danger of becoming famous unless by some miracle you make a mountain of cash. But once I went to Poland for a book tour where some of the socialist era- reverence for the written word still remains. My first appearance was with a very famous Polish author. A TV crew had shown up and they wanted to talk to me. Why? I asked.

But that was only the beginning. Everywhere I went, I was interviewed. My face was in the papers. People knew who I was. It was a very strange sensation. Then I got home to Texas, where I resumed my position on the social ladder slightly above a homeless person- which was a relief, I can tell you.  

That kind of attention, even on a small scale, can be very seductive. My ego was delighted in Poland. But just take a look at ancient rock stars like Mick Jagger, or Paul McCartney and you can see the deleterious effects of flattery on a person. Long after the creative spark has sputtered and died, these old codgers continue prancing about in public just so they can score another hit of the ultimate ego-boosting drug, adulation.

But back to my acquaintance in the gossip magazines: later that evening I was standing in line at the grocer’s when I picked up a copy of The National Enquirer. The cover screamed CELEBRITY PLASTIC SURGERY DISASTERS! and I couldn’t resist.

So there I was, reading about Britney’s great big chemical breasts, when I turned the page and… it was my ex-colleague again! This time the story was different though, she had been introduced to her fiancĂ© not by her sister but rather MERYL STREEP!

Well, who was it? I wondered, my mind nearly cracking under the strain. 

Guess I’ll have to buy next week’s issue to find out. Then again, I could just send her an email.