The danger of fame

Let’s talk about fame.

I have known a lot of famous people. I’ve also learned that it’s best not to mention that fact among civilians as they’ll want to know about their favorite famous people. Anything I report will invariably disappoint as these famous faces already occupy specific roles in that person’s mind. They’ve been cast as either a villain or a hero.

You will hear the phrase, “They put their pants on one leg at a time like the rest of us” as a mantra against the magical thinking, but it won’t help. You’ve already made up your mind about your favorite famous person and anything I say to humanize them will likely cause you discomfort. If I tell you that your beloved Julia Roberts isn’t as sunshine sweet as you want her to be, you will get made at me for telling you. If I point out that Angelina Jolie isn’t merely an evil home-wrecking gorgon, you’ll get mad at me for suggesting she might also have nice qualities. If I tell you that Tom Cruise was always a professional when I was around, you’ll be annoyed with me.

Apparently, we need heroes and villains. It’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance effect. In this scene, Jimmy Stewart has explained that the thing that made him famous, shooting the outlaw Liberty Valance, didn’t happen as everyone believes it did and the reporter reacts to the bombshell.

I grew up around famous people. As a fellow creative I also wanted a fame pulpit where I could shine my light on the world. Fame seems like the most efficient way to reach a lot of people. But an interesting thing happens on the way to the pulpit, the image that people have of you–the character that you project whether by design or happenstance–will color how your words are interpreted and received. You may reach a lot of people but they may not be able to hear you clearly.

For a long time, most people thought Mel Gibson was a wacky guy and his antics got played off as part of his funny demeanor, a part of his overall reputation as a maverick. But once his reputation was permanently tarnished anything he said or did was painted with the “he’s racist and crazy” patina whether that was fair or not. Both of these interpretations are true and also false. People are not as simplistic as the vessels we perceive them to be. He is a smart and funny guy with fine qualities who also has a terrible temper and a self-destructive streak.

Our famous people are symbols and archetypes. Soon, any behavior that doesn’t fit the archetype is discarded or ignored by the audience. You may think you’re immune to this sort of psychology but it took an awful lot of bad behavior before Gibson’s icon was damaged. And it isn’t only in the world of film and television that you see this effect, any famous person can project a persona that differs from the reality of their actual life.

This was my world for a few years when I worked for Gibson’s film company. I attended the premiere filmed below and watched Clive James follow him around for weeks attempting to capture the real person behind the persona. But even if James had aired the segment, any fan would have ignored the reality that didn’t jibe with their idea of Mel Gibson.

[Fun fact: Julia Roberts is not wearing shoes on that red carpet. It’s one of her quirks. See, now you can’t unlearn that.]

It’s not that I feel sorry for famous people. We probably agree that losing personal freedom is worthwhile because of the access to wealth and opportunity. I’m just saying that we the audience have a strange relationship with our heroes and villains. Again and again I experienced anger toward me for offering a nuanced idea of a figure we already adore or loathe. I learned to stay quiet, I mean, I enjoyed telling a homophobe that their favorite macho hero was gay in real life, but that’s the only time I took joy in bursting fame bubbles.
Most of the time, these self deceptions cause no harm.

Ah. But then.

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Bill Cosby. It’s taken nearly fifteen years of slow acceptance for the public to re-cast this beloved archetype of fatherly kindness into the villain role. Both realities can be true. He is both a kind man who has done a lot of good in the world and he is also very likely a rapist.

If I’d tried to tell you that Dr. Huxtable was known around Hollywood as untrustworthy among women you would have been mad at me for tarnishing your childhood.

And so we whisper it among ourselves and let everyone else believe the comfortable lie. Print the legend, because no one wants reality. Misogyny, rape cultures, yes… all of that… and also, print the legend.

denial

dɪˈnʌɪ(ə)l/
noun

Refusal to acknowledge an unacceptable truth or emotion or to admit it into consciousness, used as a defense mechanism.

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