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Seduced by Fame--for a Brief, Exhilarating Moment

September 14, 1997|Sally Quinn | Sally Quinn is author of "We Are Going to Make You a Star" and the coming "The Party."

WASHINGTON — For those who have never been involved in a celebrity stake-out or who have never been the object of one, it is hard to even imagine the complete insanity of it, the compelling, addictive nature of it, the heart-racing, adrenalin-pumping fear and, yes, exhilaration of it--for those on both sides.

I've been on both sides. I have been a reporter for the Washington Post and a reporter-anchor for CBS News. Because of CBS and my husband, Ben Bradlee's involvement in Watergate, I have also had my flicker of fame, my bout of mini-celebrity.

Certainly, I have never been the object of the kind of intense coverage we have seen with Princess Diana and other seriously famous people, but I have been part of the coverage of high-wattage celebrities. I have had my head bashed in by swinging TV cameras; I have been nearly crushed, trampled and run over by my colleagues trying to get a story or a photograph. And I'm here to tell you that there are definitely two sides to this.

It's horrible and it's wonderful. As a reporter, and as the briefest of celebrities, there is a high and a rush that's hard to describe. It's almost like a drug, so addictive and sexy is it. And when it's over, when you lose your prey or you lose your appeal, the crash is equally painful.

One morning, nearly 20 years ago, when I was a reporter on the Washington Post, I opened my front door to find a friend, Sam Donaldson, and an ABC camera crew staking out our house. This was the first time I was on the receiving end of a stake-out.

Several things crossed my mind. The first was that Sam was only doing his job. The Post had been involved in a controversy and my husband, then the editor, was obviously part of the story. Second, I felt scared, as if I were losing control. And though Sam was not menacing, I could only remember those stake-outs where things had gotten rough and I, and others, had gotten hurt. I felt invaded, too. That I couldn't walk out of my house without being filmed was horrifying.

But there was a third thing: I had a little frisson of excitement: Gosh, we must be important to have a camera crew stake us out.

On another occasion, I was chased by a "60 Minutes" camera crew, which had come to the Post to do a story on Ben. This was during Watergate, and he and I had recently gotten together, which had attracted a bit of attention. I had declined to be interviewed. But the camera crew followed me into the ladies room.

I felt then the same way I did about the earlier stake-out--all the conflicting emotions. But there was one I couldn't avoid: I shamefully admit it was exhilarating to feel that they thought we were interesting enough to be filmed.

Being hounded by the press is unpleasant, but there is nothing worse than being ignored by them if you've always been in the spotlight. There were moments in my tiny window of celebrity when my husband and I would arrive at an event, and the photographers would shout, "Over here, Sally. Look this way, Ben." As a journalist, I am always more comfortable being on the other side of a pad and pencil, but it's sort of fun and a bit of a game when you first experience this. It's not exactly hilarious, though, when you get out of a car and the paparazzi shout, "Who is it? Who is it? Oh, it's nobody. Only Sally Quinn."

This is hard to take. Given the choice of "over here, look over here!" or "it's nobody!" my first inclination is to say, bring on the paparazzi.

This is, of course, the wrong choice if you have any desire for a private life. But being a public personality can be seductive. Yet, what is so misguided about wanting that kind of publicity is that you are allowing the press to define who you are and whether or not you are a worthwhile person.

You get lulled into feeling you can somehow control it. When it goes bad, and it always does--it's human nature to want to bring down our idols--there is a sense of betrayal and anger. The anger comes out when you lose control. It's hard to accept responsibility for it and easier to blame someone else.

I once interviewed Joanne Woodward at the height of her fame. I asked her how she felt about the loss of privacy. But instead of complaining, she simply said, in what I thought was an admirably honest answer, "It goes with the territory."

Those who don't want fame can easily curtail their exposure. They can stop posing for magazine cover stories, stop promoting movies or TV shows, stop giving interviews altogether. For those who hate the press but use it to draw attention to their charities, there are other avenues. I can guarantee their profiles will drop dramatically. The question is, is that what they want?

It's unfortunate that more people can't be honest about their own ambivalence and admit their need and desire for fame, admit they're saying "no, no" with their lips and "yes, yes' with their eyes.

It makes you wonder if there isn't something to the old Indian superstition that having your picture taken allows the camera to rob you of a piece of your soul.

I've often said my idea of the perfect kind of celebrity is the kind where everyone knows your name but nobody knows your face. But then there's that irresistible whir of the cameras, the flash bulbs going off and the calls of "over here, look over here!" Just one little photograph can't hurt. Can it?

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