Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Celebrity is as celebrity does

In the years since I was in high school, the Internet has grown into a vital communications outlet for the vast majority of Americans. We no longer even see articles about the percentage of total Internet access; we've moved on to discuss the number of Americans with high-speed broadband access (55%, as of 7-2-08, says the Pew Internet Research Group). Electronic commerce represents a huge portion of the market, and companies like Amazon.com are doing very well (on 12-31-08, Amazon entered the S&P 100). Chances are that as long as you're younger than 80, something you do is on or affected by the Internet, whether at your home or your job.

The Internet has even changed how we interact with our two biggest obsessions: death and fame. People commit suicide online in real-time and others become minor celebrities for capturing video of themselves lip-syncing to Romanian pop music (see "Numa numa", also known as "Dragostea din tei"). The Internet is a surprisingly effective tool for connecting two (or more) people and letting them exchange information. Whether or not that information is of value depends on the people, I suppose. Sending my cousin a virtual birthday card with an animated frog may be less consequential than the exchange of law enforcement information, but they're both perfectly valid uses for the Internet.

So the Internet excels at allowing people to feel close to one another. Even as far back as 2000, I knew families who were communicating with people in Venezuela over the phone "using the Internet". For free. Coming from a childhood where my parents scheduled their long-distance calls around "the cheap times", this was revolutionary. Now I can sit at my computer and call my mom at a moment's notice, for free, while I update my Facebook page for all my "friends" to see and write emails regarding next week's lessons and rehearsals. I almost can't believe that.

Naturally, the celebrities of TV, film, and politics aren't immune to the draws of the internet. In fact, I'm sure they appreciate the internet greatly for one of its defining features: anonymity. Aside of being a mostly-obscured number that identifies your access point, traffic on the internet is largely faceless. When I comment "THAT"S A FUNNIE CAT!" on a YouTube video, the person who responds "NOt ITs NOT!!! U R DUM!" right beneath me (username "akur891326") could be anyone. Anyone! It could be the pope, Brad Pitt, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, or the homeless guy with the dog who uses the computer at the library while his dog eats castaway french fries outside. As a matter of fact, it's probably Brad Pitt: I bet he hates amusing cat videos.

If I were living a life where whenever I set foot outside my apartment, photographers followed me everywhere I went and took pictures of everything I did and every person I smiled at, I'd probably crave the anonymity, too. This picture embodies the romantic notion of celebrity:

It's from an article about services you can pay for to have the "celebrity experience". The company "Celeb-4-A-Day" offers you the deluxe package of 2 hours with six paparazzi, a bodyguard, and a publicist to follow you around. Cost: $2500. I can't believe that.

Of course, in reality, paparazzi are more like this:

Here's Britney Spears with her accompanying school of non-aquatic remoras. I couldn't deal with that if that scrum was always between me and my car, me and my restaurant, me and my less photograph-worthy friends.

This situation happens in varying degrees to just about every celebrity. Even the guy who played the second vampire in that one episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" [no, not that one, the OTHER one] probably gets recognized out at dinner with his wife and asked to sign menus and take photographs with his arm around people of imperfect hygiene.

There are even rankings of the "fan friendly" quotient of various celebrities, as indicated by autograph collectors. Jay Leno is on the nice list, and this affinity is shown by how much face-time "regular" people get on the Tonight Show. Will Farrell is on the angry list, but that's probably not surprising, considering how many half-drunken frat boys probably bother him every night.

Given that many celebrities jealously (as in the Latin root "zeal") guard their privacy, it can be surprising to the everyday person how involved some can be in "putting themselves out there". Bruce Willis went into video chat with a fan to prove his identity after making comments about movies he'd made. Sir Ian McKellen contributes answers to submitted questions at his official website. Amusingly, some questions are of the "Could Professor X beat up Superman?" variety. It's amusing and endearing to think of Sir Ian sitting at a computer somewhere forming an answer to this immediately after addressing other weighty answers about gay rights and theater training. "I can't believe this. Of course Professor X would win!" [As an aside, his website talks continually. Dialog clips play in the background, so you'll hear Lear and Gandalf delivering their bon mots. Be warned.]

And if you've been following my blog recently, you know that LeVar Burton is "out there", too. His blog and Twitter are freely available from Adis Ababa to Zlin. I don't know where he ranks on the official scale of "likelihood of having his dinner interrupted", but he's definitely somewhere between Jim Carrey and John Hurt.

[If I could digress for a moment, repeatedly referring to someone you don't know personally requires a bit of creativity. Calling him "Mr. Burton" seems too formal, calling him "LeVar" seems too informal, and referring to him as "LeVar Burton" repeatedly in close order makes it seem rather mechanical: "LeVar Burton was at the awards show. LeVar Burton took time out of his busy schedule... *beep* LeVar Burton requires some of your earth foods for sustenance! *whrrrr*"]

Not only is Mr. Burton out there blogging, but he's also interacting with the greater community at a personal level. His mention of my blog in his Twitter feed drove a ton of traffic to my door, but also connected me to other people (and their blogs) who commented on my site. And while the majority of those visitors will not return again, perhaps at least one may be interested enough to keep reading. That hypothetical person is someone I wouldn't have had any contact with, except through a chance connection on the internet.

In the end, my close brush with the "famous" shows how much of the "mystique" of the celebrity is an illusion of perspective. Sure, it's really cool that someone I watched on TV for years read something I wrote and liked it. That provokes the gut response of "I can't believe it!" But he's also just some guy writing a blog and trying (like me) to use good grammar.

That sort of "equal footing" is appealing and makes for good ground for friendships, but really kills off the "hero worship" vibe. Maybe that's a way to moderate people's reaction: giving them the opportunity to see that everyone shops at Target, makes mistakes, vocalizes their conversational pauses ("ummm"), and generally just lives their way through life. Having a hard time quitting smoking once and for all seems to be one of LeVar's things. I have no doubt he knows that smoking is a poor health decision; that's not a recent discovery and it's pretty damn hard to willfully block that information out in this day and age. Perhaps somebody reading about his day-to-day coping decides now's the time for them. Now they feel a connection with a celebrity. Struggling together, as it were.

And maybe Sir Ian's family will call him up and tell him to wear a sweater if he blogs about cold weather, just like mine does.

I can believe that.

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