The Celebrity Conundrum

The Performance

When I was sixteen, I made hundreds of attempts to rescue a young girl from the clutches of demonic possession in front of a throng of onlookers.

Bible in hand, I tried each night (sometimes fifty times in a row) to get that demon out. Each time, it ended the same, with the girl rising off the bed and a knife appearing in my hand. I then became possessed with an evil spirit and turned on the crowd, knife in hand.

When I got close enough to the partition to almost touch the crowd, I collapsed and sprawled out on the floor, convulsing like a holy man in the throes of spiritual dilemma. After it was clear to them I was dead, each group filed out so I could brush myself off and dazzle (then menace) the next audience all over again.

Rowdy visitors filtered into that abandoned mall, in groups of twenty at a time, through various rooms inspired by sci-fi and horror movies. I was "The Exorcist." Someone constructed a scale model of Regan and attached her to a balance beam, under covers on a crudely constructed bed. Her eyes glowed with the flick of a switch, and by pushing on the beam from behind the support wall, one could raise her body from the bed and spin her head around. A strobe flashed behind a window with a partition covered in the painting of a night sky, and a small boombox played the sounds of a heavy thunderstorm.

To inhabit the role, I cut out a rectangular piece of cardboard and affixed it to my collar. I put grey in my hair. I held a giant prop bible the size of a record album and recited my script. Sometimes the girl's eyes wouldn't glow and I had to knock her head with the edge of my bible so they'd turn on. It was a performance, one I scripted and ad libbed, and a flimsy partition was all that separated me from my audience. My aim was to lure them in with a smile and send them running for the exit by the end.

One night, after a particularly zealous performance, I lay still, dead, and the crowd drifted by past the partition. Suddenly, I heard a sneering, sarcastic voice near me exclaim:

"Dude, call my agent! Hey! I'm talking to you, guy! Yeah, you need to call my agent! You're awesome! Wow dude!" The little runt continued haranguing me until he and the group were almost out of earshot.

I raised my head up just long enough to see him, a star I immediately recognized from an extremely popular sitcom. Back then, he was still a hot property. I never thought much of him, but after that night, he was forever that d list celebrity who insulted me in public. Had I been a fan of his show, it might have caused me to look on his character differently.

The Fame Monster is Real, and It Has Sharp Teeth

A one time friend of mine, a handsome and charismatic young artist, poet and musician, worshiped a certain musical group when I met him. He was so influenced by them that his band went on to mine its signature sound. At an event at a local club, my friend sold his artwork and his idol, the man he'd effectively looked up to for years, walked up to him and said (or did) something offhand (I'm not sure what) that my friend perceived as a dis. He took it really, really hard. It bothered him so much and impacted his ability to look at his art the same way afterwards.

Why is this? Why do we let celebrities' behavior - our perception of their behavior, our their perception of ours - color how we see their work, or even our work? Why does it matter?

Today's celebrity culture makes it almost impossible for us normal folk to ever know what someone is really like underneath the veneer, but that doesn't mean we don't try. Though a love song, or a work of art is ostensibly a revealing look into that celebrity's process, it's really just about the product. We're not supposed to look past the product, however intimately we might relate to the work.

The pressure of celebrity often turns already sensitive, iconoclastic people into full-on jerks. This same pressure also turns fans into oversensitive, touchy, demanding louts.

I would make a terrible celebrity. I'd be a hot head. I'd probably scream at fans. I'd be that guy breaking cameras. I'm not equipped for fame. I've got too many social phobias to handle it well. Thank god for obscurity. Being a jerk is a surprisingly effective defense when you're a celebrity, and while there are other, less confrontational ways to deal with fans, you can't have your publicist, handler and bodyguard with you 24/7.

If I was famous, I wouldn't likely capitalize on my fame to antagonize people, but even then, I can't be sure. I didn't judge that famous movie actress for her recent cop tirade. I've been there. I've lost my shit in front of authority figures and clients and undeserving people, but luckily for me, it wasn't played out in the national media for a week afterwards. What that actress did wasn't a good idea, but we all have it in us to summon our worst nature when we're pushed past a certain point. Especially when drunk. And famous. And drunk on being famous. It happens.

Listen, we're not supposed to know what our favorite stars are really like, but as consumers and fans, we're still wired to be curious. We're wired to seek a weird form of intimacy with the people who construct the windows through which we derive entertainment and inspiration. Art is special in that it often gives us a glimpse into that which we didn't know was there, and it's in our nature to seek out the creator and establish affinity with them. But that's a losing proposition, because most celebrity artists don't want to be known. They aren't required, outside of press junkets and certain contractual obligations, to do anything for anyone. They want their art to be known and they want to be left alone.

So, why can't fans successfully maintain a separation between an artist and their work? Shouldn't the work speak for itself? Why is there is expectation that we be coddled by celebrities? What business is it of ours how a celebrity chooses to act out in public? Is there something in a record contract, or a movie deal, that states someone must give up the right to privacy? It is not explicitly stated, but it is often an unspoken expectation, and that expectation creates neurotic behavior in celebrities that is most decidedly not personal, but due to fans personal feelings about the art, it becomes unintentionally personal.

I'm more than aware that famous people are just like us in that they aren't - and shouldn't be - models for behavior for the rest of us. They may possess talent that gets recognized and rewarded, or contribute to society in a way that gets them lauded, but public expectations of celebrities are often unfair. Famous people are no longer allowed to live their lives as private citizens. A distinction must be made, then, between famous people who antagonize and alienate their fans, and famous people who just want some privacy and can't get it.

How do we make that distinction? Well... we can't. We're not supposed to. We have no right to judge because as consumers, we have a fraction of the total information we'd need to make an truly informed judgement about a celebrity. The culture of fame often knocks against that flimsy partition between the artist and the fan, and even worse, it eradicates the distinction between the artist and their art. This can be toxic for some fans who, as a result of a bad encounter with a singer, or an actor, refuse to be fans any longer.

Dissing the Fans

Despite my better instincts, I've grappled with this. I've allowed celebrities' behavior to color my view of the work they do, in spite of knowing better. I know I'm not alone, but I also know that my judgments are seen as petty as unnecessary by some who thoroughly and consistently separate artists from their work.

Once, a famous singer/songwriter of a well known band ran from a group of six of his fans. I was sitting with them at the time, and while I hung back, I was there to witness it all.

They'd been waiting all morning, in line, tickets in hand, outside the venue he was scheduled to play that evening for a small, intimate pre-tour show at the Fillmore. The other members of the band - one of them a very shy but respected producer and session guitarist - took some photos. Another smiled and gave them a peace sign. Most of the band rushed off for sound check without hanging around, but you got the sense that they saw the fans, and that there was some brief and fleeting acknowledgment for this tiny band of kids who'd shown up at 10 am to wait all day for an 8 pm show.

When it came time for the lead singer to walk by, he immediately turned his head toward the street and ignored them. He whipped a cell phone out and placed it to his ear. He hurried past, using the phone as a shield, not bothering to acknowledge the fans he had seen from a block away, this very tiny group of individuals who waited all day to be first in line and to be acknowledged by someone they admire.

Maybe he was just having a bad day. Maybe there is something about him that prevented him from doing what his fans expected of him. Maybe someone he loved was in the hospital, or he was waiting for test results, or he's got social phobias. My point is, we can't know. It's not our business to know. Singer/songwriters and other artists do make work that appears more intimately connected to their inner life, to who they really are. But it's vital to remember that since most art is commerce, art of any kind is meant to be consumed on its own merits. The product is what matters, not the creator.

All the same, I'll admit I was bothered by the singer's behavior, in spite of knowing better. What a jerk, I thought. That little incident slightly shifted my perception of the music to where my association with his product became colored. The personal connection I'd made with his product became slightly toxic. What had once sounded thoughtful and insightful suddenly became precious and pretentious. That incident, though I am fully aware he was in no way obliged to coddle fans in those private moments, became a small thorn in my side.

I know, I know. That's an emotionally immature and oversensitive reaction to a minuscule event, but I'm not above the trappings of celebrity culture and all the baggage that comes with it. I've met artists I admire before, and I've had wide range of experiences, from indifference to extreme thoughtfulness and depth. It might be important for me to realize that many of the artists I admire most are actually quite a lot like me underneath - a bit awkward, shy, unintentionally cold and standoffish with people I don't know. Therefore, the ones that are hardest to feel a sense of camaraderie with, are possibly those who might be most similar to me.

* * *

Looking back on my "Exorcist" performance all those years ago, it now seems like a fitting reflection of what celebrity culture has become. The audience is lured in with the sounds and the flashing lights and the pleas of a relate-able star from beyond a partition. But, they get too close, and that partition threatens to drop away. The star's eyes darken, and he pulls out a knife. He's not who they thought he'd be, and before he knows it, he's dead to them, and they file out. Celebrity worship practically invites these cyclical tugs of war, but none of us are ever totally above the fray.


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