Growing up, there was a particular celebrity (entertainer-type not famous-for-being-famous-type), who I idolized. I had been a fan of this person since I was quite young and because my childhood and teen years were, frankly, shitty, I spent a lot of time in my fantasy world and put a lot of energy and focus on entertainment. I was one of those delightful people who knew everything about the media I consumed and celebrities I liked. Because it was something that had nothing to do with my terrible life. This was before the internet so you had to collect magazine clippings and memorize that stuff old school style. It was hard work.
But there was this one entertainer who was my number one hero. Ultimate Hero. I could lose myself in their art for hours and that’s what I would do.
I’m being vague about who it is because they’re still very famous and on social media I don’t want do deal with them. Their fans are…rabid. If their fans felt I was attacking or criticising the person they would… I don’t need that in my life. But I do need to use social media for work.
Anyway, this person had an important role in my life for years even though they didn’t know me.
When I was twelve, my parents and I went to Disney World and I saw Ultimate Hero there. With their family. Their kid talked to me. I wasn’t paying attention—the kid started the conversation and we chatted, then they walked away and I realised who it was and I decided to leave them alone. They were on vacation with their family and probably didn’t want to be bothered. I felt very grown up about making this decision.
When I was nineteen I was auditioning for the North Carolina School of the Arts—I was going to be an actress, largely because of this person. I had been doing theatre for some time and this was a big deal. The NC School of the Arts was a prestigious school at the time and they held auditions all over the country. I chose to do the one in New York, because I was in love with the city. My mother was going with me because I was nineteen and it was in Manhattan.
Shortly before we were supposed to leave I found out Ultimate Hero was going to be at an AIDS benefit that same weekend and if you paid a certain eye-watering amount you could attend an after party and meet the various celebrities at this thing.
Well, this was the 90s and AIDS was a very big deal and I cared a lot about it. This was also back when I believed in fate and the universe having a thought process. I believed the universe was rewarding me for leaving this person alone when I was twelve.
This was my Ultimate Hero. I was doing my big audition for a prestigious acting school and they—the reason I wanted to act in the first place—just happened to be at a benefit that same weekend? What are the odds? Something good was finally happening to me after nineteen years of bullshit.
So I talk my mother into paying… We were not wealthy. It was… The hotel room we stayed in was a closet. But I didn’t care. I borrowed an evening gown and cloak from the costume department at the local university and bought a Donna Karan bag on clearance once we got to Manhattan.
I was so nervous about meeting Ultimate Hero I blew the audition. Just toast. There were I think fifty spaces for several thousand applicants and I knew before I left the room I’d fucked it up. We had to do three monologues—classical, contemporary and comedy—and none of them were up to par. I’d worked with a professional director friend prior—I mean, I’d worked.
But I was so looking forward to meeting this person that I didn’t care. I did not care about screwing up the future I wanted so badly because I was going to meet another fallible human being.
So off we go to this benefit thing.
I’m beside myself. This is it. A culmination of fantasizing about what it would be like to meet this person. What if after the main event I can’t find them? Maybe I can be witty and make them laugh! I’m going to tell them about meeting at Disney! I’m going to explain how we came all the way from North Carolina and they’ve kept me sane. How they inspired me to act and I did my audition that day!
Briefly: Ultimate Hero looked at me like I was something they’d stepped in. I didn’t get to tell the Disney story. We didn’t have much of an exchange at all. I don’t know if I came across as too excited, though I was trying to be calm. I don’t know if they just didn’t want to be there, but they treated me like crap without my having to say anything. I’m not going to get into precisely what happened, but I can still see the look on their face.
When you’ve idolised a person—first, don’t do that. Don’t idolise people. But, when you have—that person looking at you like you’re inferior. That stays with you. Particularly if every other person in your life has treated you as an inferior human in one way or another up to that point.
Idolising a person gives them more power—this person must really know things. And if they think you’re worthless. Well… the jury’s in.
This was twenty years ago. So … Whatever.
I look at how this individual is now—I used to think they were hilarious, but now I see their humour is incredibly mean-spirited. At the time—I fell completely apart. I told my mother I couldn’t wait to be famous so I could be terrible to people.
It’s good I didn’t become famous in my early twenties because I would have been one of those people you read about who is horrible just to be horrible.
Now I look at that person and think, ‘That is not a happy individual. Happy humans don’t behave that way.’ I don’t want to be that person.
The experience… changed me very quickly and taught me a lot—like people don’t owe you anything and don’t meet your heroes, though I have met many incredibly nice celebrities since then. So being a complete jackass isn’t a requirement to being famous. That is not an excuse.
But from the other side of the creator vs consumer line—without consumers, fans, listeners, readers, whatever word you want to use, you have no job as a creator. You’ve made a difference in someone’s life. That’s a big deal. How frequently do humans say to other humans, ‘Hey, you mean something to me. Your existence is important to me.’
(Caveat—send me a dick pic and you’re getting blocked, we’re talking about general correspondence, here.)
The experience made me more aware and critical of celebrity in general–why do we idolise certain people and not others? No one thanks the air traffic controllers who guide planes in safely. If there were a show about air traffic controllers then the people on the show would become famous. There’s something about seeing people on a screen in our house or a cinema that confers an otherworldly aura on humans.
Decades ago Ellen was talking about how, after people see you on their screens in their living room for a while, it’s like they feel like they know you–because you’ve been in their house. I think there’s something to that. When people are projected huge on a big screen they’re bestowed larger-than-life qualities. It’s all effects and make up and lighting and a script, which is then edited to the best possible version. Everything is orchestrated to make these people better than the average person.
I’m not saying don’t admire people with the ability to pretend or make certain sounds with their vocal chords or throw a ball with precision, but be more aware–more critical. Why is it important to you? What does being in the same room with a particular person mean and why? What people who make your day-to-day life safe and happy and worth living have you made feel as important as you would your favourite celebrity?
Everyone wants to feel loved–why have we decided the people who should receive the most adoration are the ones with attributes that can be faked and manufactured?
[This writing originally appeared in a shortened format in episode 68 of The Pageist podcast.]