Celebrity Encounter Ethics

You're welcome. But now I'll never know what Eddie Murphy is really like!

I run into a lot of celebrities when I travel. I assume everybody does who travels very often; I know that I am better at recognizing them than the average person because my celebrity knowledge spans multiple generations, I have a good memory for faces, and I have always watched way, way too much television. And it happened again today: I was having my usual battles with an airport self-service check-in kiosk, this one in Atlanta, when I realized that the traveler enduring similar annoyances (“We have no record of your itinerary. Please enter the code that we call something other than what it is called on your ticket receipt before you get frustrated and have to wait in line to speak with an agent, because you know that’s what is going to happen.”) was the young actress-singer, Raven-Symone.

She was traveling alone, and it seemed clear that nobody around us had any idea who she was. Strange: doesn’t everyone watch “The Cheetah Girls,” “Dr. Doolittle 2” and re-runs of “That’s So Raven” on the Disney Channel? The encounter immediately sent me into Marshall Celebrity Recognition decision mode: what is the ethical way to treat the rich and famous if you are insignificant and lowly, and close enough to assassinate them?

Obviously the Golden Rule is the starting point. I don’t like being interrupted or engaged by random strangers when I travel; it’s hard enough keeping focused and not losing my wallet, my ticket or my mind as it is. But I know that some celebrities, especially performers, enjoy being recognized, and especially enjoy having people compliment them….as would I, if people ever came up to me in airports and said something nice. They don’t, however. The Golden Rule is not entirely subjective: the idea is to figure out how you would want to be treated by you if you were the other person, having the other person’s perspective.

So I had to calculate from the available information whether 24-year-old Raven-Symone would enjoy it or deplore it if this bald, old guy cams up to her and said: “Ms. Symone! I just wanted to tell you that I admire your talent. Good luck and keep up the good work.” One clue was that she wasn’t hiding at all. Raven is very striking; her arched eyebrows alone would give her away. She had no hat, no sunglasses. This usually means that a performer wants to be recognized. [Aside: I was reminded of an encounter long ago at the baggage claim area in the Maui airport, where I noticed actress Lauren Holly standing unobtrusively wearing a knit hat pulled over her red hair, huge sunglasses, and a nondescript floor-length cloth coat. Even though she had just co-starred in her then boy-friend Jim Carrey’s comedy “Dumb and Dumber” and was coming off her break-out role in the TV drama “Picket Fences,” nobody but me knew who she was. As we waited at the carousel, I moved next to her, and without looking at her, said quietly, “If you’ll give me your autograph, Miss Holly, I won’t tell anyone who you are.” She laughed out loud and said, “Deal.” And she wrote her name on a piece of paper and gave it to me. Yes, one of my criteria for talking to celebrities is whether I can come up with a good line. Here’s the strange part. I put the autograph in a drawer ay my home and forgot about it, because I really have no interest in autographs—I just wanted to try the line on Holly. Then, a week or two later, I was having dinner with a friend and her family, and one of my friend’s nieces, out of the blue, said that her favorite actress was…Lauren Holly! I said that I just happened to have her autograph, and that she could have it; I sent it to her the next day. The was ecstatic, and I was a hero. Thanks, Lauren!]

But although Raven wasn’t hiding her identity, I decided that without more information I should assume that she was traveling alone and without any trappings of stardom because she just wanted to go about her business without being hassled by fans, admirers, or bald guys.

I use a different standard for four other types of celebrities: 1) retired, older or out-of-fashion actors who I think enjoy being remembered (and so far, every one that I have spoken to actually struck up a conversation); 2) politicians and elected officials, who work for me and can put up with my attentions for a little while; 3) celebrities who are not used to being recognized, like authors, scientists and scholars; and 4) my heroes. I’ve found that nobody seems to mind when a stranger says, “I just want to tell you that your life/work/ achievements have been an inspiration to me. Thank you.” I wish I could say it more often, but the opportunities are rare.

There is another category of celebrities whom I would speak to: those who have stated publicly that they enjoy being recognized or asked to recite a signature line. Mandy Potinkin, for example, recently told an interviewer that any time someone recognized him and asked him to say, as he did in “The Princess Bride,” “My name in Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die,” he was thrilled and always complied. (Ned Beatty, on the other hand, has said that the next wise-ass who comes up to him on the street and says, “Squeal like a pig!” risks getting his teeth knocked in. I wonder if he’d do his speech from “Network”?) I haven’t encountered Mandy yet, or anyone else who fits the bill.

So I left Raven alone. I hope she wasn’t disappointed. It seemed like the right thing to do.

15 thoughts on “Celebrity Encounter Ethics

  1. When I was stattioned in HI I saw Tom Selleck sitting at a traffic light and a woman yelled at him “Youre Magnum! I love you!” To which he replied
    “Yes I am and I love you too!” . I have always thought that was funny as hell and showed that Mr Selleck had a good sense of humor and appreciated his fans.

    • It seems that Selleck is one of those actors who projects his real personality—he seems to be a genuinely nice guy. As you know, that is not always the case. Shouting to a celebrity at a stop light is also less obtrusive that actually making contact with him—I bet celebrities would love to make a deal where all fan contact came in situations where they had 30 seconds to listen, say something nice and could then drive away..

      • Barry Bostwick is another who does that. I worked as an extra on the George Washigton miniseries and he was more then happy to sign Rocky Horror stuff and pose for pictures. James Mason was in that also and while he was very old and frail at the time he was very gracious and kind to everyone. He mad a point of talking to the extras and asking us how we were and what our names were. Just a sweet kind wonderful man. And when the they called ACTION he became JAMES MASON and was full of life and viogr and power.

  2. Thanks Jack, great post – gives me pointers on how to approach and be real and ethical when speaking to the distinguished, famous or notorious. For the record, I am going to try to avoid running into Tim Geithner.

    I’ll forever remember with regret my paralysis, on the one occasion I had to stand at a bar and chat with 3 or 4 other guys plus the famous test pilot, Chuck Yeager. All I could think during those 10 minutes of beer-sipping was, “What could I POSSIBLY utter in the presence of this man, let alone directly to him, that would be worthy of the SLIGHTEST interest to him?!”

    Ned Beatty’s speech in Network is my favorite movie scene of all time. I will probably never see another movie scene that I will think is more artistically perfect for its context. (That movie had several great scenes and (brief) monologues.) Rhett finally leaving Scarlett will always be competitive. I’ve always thought Beatty terribly underrated (what an EVIL bear!); I guess the pig-squeal scene worked against the exaltation of his talent that he deserves.

  3. I have an admiration for the celebrities. I, often, recognize them here and there when out and about. I am a movie, tv, sports, history and a culture buff. But I am quiet, reserved and have a social anxiety, so I never approach them. I think that if I am supposed to meet them or have an encounter with them to allow it naturally. While I was a desk clerk\night auditor I checked in a few politicians, celebrities, and sports figures but I always treated them the same as others. I guess I am more curious on how they act in normal situations outside of their performance environment.

  4. Mandy Patinkin (spelling!) was fantastic this year on the new show Homeland. I could hardly even recognize him from his role in Princess Bride.

    • , Stupid spelling. If he hadn’t been so convincing as a battleship I wouldn’t have that problem.
      Mandy is always good, and yes, he was terrific in “Homeland.” His penchant for walking out on his commitments to TV shows puts him low on my ethics list, though.

  5. When I happen upon someone who lives in the public spotlight I follow a simple rule—leave her alone. I gain satisfaction that my keen observational skills spotted that individual in a crowded space. It’s akin to my personal version of “Where’s Waldo.” And now I need to keep my eye out for a bald man in airports, too.

    As to the ethics of approaching someone, I’d have to say it is appropriate if done in a tactful manner. It is absurd to think that a celebrity could expect absolute privacy. If so, she should have chosen an alternative career that affords anonymity.

    But those who do choose to approach must do so aware of the risks. There are two potential outcomes: tolerable/good and really bad. Just be prepared that a “favorite” actor admired for an onscreen role (when that person is “acting”) may not be the same character that you meet in person. That forced encounter may ultimately taint someone’s future impression of that celebrity—warranted or not.

    • All true. While a celebrity has no business complaining about the price of fame, There’s no reason to try to make them miserable either.

      The classic example of a celebrity whose private persona was 180 degrees from how he appeared on stage and film was my first performing hero, Danny Kaye. Thank God I never ran into him when I was younger–it would have crushed my illusions flat.

  6. I hope she didn’t need your help/expertise fighting with the stupid kiosk. She didn’t have a minion with her to finish check-in…

  7. I was stuck in Newark airport many years ago during a lay-over where several flights going back to Boston had been cancelled and REALLY needed to get back to Boston. Only 1 flight was going back, and the attendants were determining which passengers from 2 cancelled flights would be able to take the few seats available. MANY of the potential passengers were behaving, shall I say, badly. Off to one side was someone I assumed to be a celebrity who looked familiar, though I didn’t know who he was, and he was with an entourage. At one point I was shoved near him and one of his body guards got between us. He rebuked the body guard. I looked at the celeb, smiled, and told him I really hoped I’d get a seat on the plane, as I had to be at work the next morning. Next thing I knew (thanks to him), I had a seat in 1st class, seated next to this celeb. We introduced ourselves by 1st name only, had a wonderful conversation during the flight, and he thanked me at the end for having been one of the few people who hadn’t accosted him for an autograph or conversation in the past week. Turns out he was one of the stars of a hit TV show that was killing the ratings at the time. When we got off the plane and walked thru the airport together to baggage claim, I began to see the full measure of how fame affected him. His body guards had to surround us the entire time. Just because he chose to be an actor didn’t mean he chose to be a celebrity. I have never seen his picture in a tabloid, he’s not a publicity hound, he’s an artist. Notice that out of respect for this nice gentleman I am not mentioning his name or the show he was on.

  8. I think encountering a celebrity at an airport is probably the most accurate determination of their “off screen” personality – nothing is more daunting than air travel today. My daughter worked at Air France while still in school at VIP check in and in the VIP lounge, so she handled celebrities everyday. It was always interesting to listen to her stories at the end of each day – who was unfailingly lovely (Peter Jennings won top honors, followed by Jodie Foster, Frederick Fekkai and Princess Alexandra of Greece). Princess Alexandra and Frederick Fekkai both had our home telephone number and would call to let her know when they would be travelling to make sure she was working on their travel day – Fekkai graciously treated her to one of his $900 haircuts (who pays $900 for a haircut???) and Princess Alexandra always brought her a lovely little gift. And then of course there were the Danny Kaye personalities, I won’t mention names but someone famous tried to slap her once when she checked in late and was told that the flight had already closed. My personal experience, as I frequently travelled with Air France and was always bumped up a class (there are circumstances where nepotism is a beneficial thing – most especially when you are the beneficiary). On a return flight from Paris as I deplaned and was greeted by one of my daughter’s co-workers, she said “Ms. G….., will you and Mr. Jagger please follow me?” I turned around and guess who was there with me. During the 15 minutes while we waited in an enclosed area for a porter to retrieve our luggage and then led to a special customs agent, I can only say that the man was incredibly gracious to both myself and the various employees with whom we interacted (who knew?). Although never a fan, I am now a diehard (maybe not so much the music but just respect for the absolute gentleman he was). Also, when speaking with the staff after he left, they each commented on what a thoughtful person he always is, often bringing small gifts to employees with whom he often interacts. So, I think that is a sign of a celebrity’s true nature – how they behave in a stressful situation and when they remember the “little people” in their lives.

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