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.