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MAN BITES TOWN

GETTING ALONG FAMOUSLY : Being Rich and Famous Is Nowhere Near as Good as Being Rich and Obscure

March 01, 1992|Harry Shearer

For something that's so coveted that half the people in Los Angeles are willing to work in restaurants while waiting for it to happen, celebrityhood can be an ugly can of worms. One isn't supposed to prick its pretty balloon around here because that might discourage a few hundred thousand aspirants from hocking their lives in pursuit of celebrity. That, in turn, might swing the balance of power in show business slightly away from management, which uses the throng of hopefuls at the door as an eternal threat against those currently working.

Nonetheless, being rich and famous is no comparison to being rich and obscure. Sam Walton--don't ask who, just read the business pages--can go to the store anytime he needs something. Yes, it helps that he owns the store, but you get my point. Major celebrities always have to trust someone else to do their shopping, which leads to what are later characterized, sadly, as celebrity tantrums ("Not Coachella grapefruits! If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times, Indian River reds!" would be my tantrum).

There's also the matter of being trapped by whatever made you famous. You may be the singer tired unto death of doing that song, you may be the sitcom star fighting the urge to strangle the next person who yells your moronic catch phrase at you, or you may be the sports figure constantly on guard for the fan who suddenly turns into a drunken jerk with the ominous words "So, you think you're pretty tough, huh?" Any of these experiences, repeated often enough, will take your natural love and gratitude for the public and curdle it into something more vile than month-old Hollandaise.

Celebrityhood has its own weird rules, a fact that may need emphasizing in view of the mail response to a recent column here on the subject of celebrity confessions, particularly the "I was beaten as a 6-month-old" variety. The correspondents, abuse victims all, were vehement in their support for the Oprahfication of their problem and unanimous in ignoring the distinction between the things people do in real life and the things celebrities do on TV.

Just for the record, I happen to oppose child abuse. Heck, I cringe when I see parents yelling at their kids in an ice-cream store. And it's always seemed strange to me that you need all sorts of licenses in this state to clean teeth or cut hair, but to do the two most potentially dangerous things a human can do--have a baby or buy a gun--all you need is love or money.

All the same, when a wave of celebrities suddenly confesses to abuses they've conveniently recalled just before air time, we need a megadose of skepticism. Like politicians, celebrities are forced to inhabit a world in which truth has only an instrumental meaning. If it helps you get elected or if it helps your ratings for people to think you're vulnerable, confess to something. If a reputation as an eccentric can boost your record sales, leak the story that you covet the Elephant Man's bones. As in political life, the real point of such stories may not involve the public at all; it may merely be an attempt to gain advantage in upcoming negotiations, as in "Listen, she's crazy enough to walk, let's give her the damn money."

What is written about celebrities without their connivance is equally suspect. People tend to think that if the tabloids lie about a famed one, that person will naturally sue. But, as a plaintiff in a currently pending legal action, I can tell you that, unless the lie is monumental and horribly painful or you've just unaccountably hit the boiling point, getting involved with our fine legal system isn't worth it. Engaging in a lawsuit is like having a tooth pulled a millimeter a day.

Chalk it up to another cost of celebrityhood, the burden of seeing your name splashed all the way from the battery-and-candy display to the cash register, in headlines identifying you as a sex maniac or a normal maniac, as a cancer victim or the offspring of Venusians. The only consolation is that if you're a true celebrity, you're not even in the supermarket, and the only person who sees those headlines is the idiot on your staff who insists on buying the wrong kind of grapefruit.

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