I am a celebrity magnet. They keep finding me, lured by something deep within my DNA that makes them want to revolve for one fleeting moment in my orbit. Obviously, I provide some sort of validation of their worth. Maybe they see in me a reflection of their dreams and desires, what they could have become if only, if only …
How else to explain this fantastic series of events?
1961 – My first brush with fame comes when I am four years old, on a family outing to the Planters Peanut Store on Route 1 in Peabody, Massachusetts. Who should we encounter at the door but Mr. Peanut himself! He sees me and tips his cane to his top hat. For some reason, I find this terrifying. Perhaps it’s his muteness, or the fact that he’s much shorter in person, even when taking into account the top hat. The importance of this day, alas, is lost on me. I’m so upset, I can barely finish my bag of roasted nuts.
1967 – The touring company of the Broadway musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” is playing at the Wilbur Theater in Boston. I am taken to see it by a sophisticated aunt. It is my first outing to “The Theater.” I have two years of tap-jazz under my belt and a raging Julie Andrews obsession, so I am naturally dazzled by the magic of Broadway. As we’re leaving the theater, we receive a notice advertising a cast appearance the very next weekend in the children’s department of Filene’s. Clearly, this notice was meant for me. If I had been taken to a performance a month from now, I would never have known about this opportunity to rub elbows with the Famous Actors* who so brilliantly embodied their Peanuts characters.
The next Saturday morning, as I stand in line awaiting my turn to approach the autograph table, I mentally prepare the witty small talk that will surely mark me as an equal and not merely a 10-year-old clutching a Snoopy Autograph Hound (purchase necessary, the cast will not sign any personal items). With heart pounding, I walk up and hand my Snoopy to the actor who plays Linus. To my dismay, I find that my mind has gone blank and I can’t speak. It doesn’t matter, Linus barely looks up at me, scrawls his name, then passes my Snoopy over to Lucy. She gives me a half-hearted smile. Does she not know who I am? My 10-year-old self leaves the store churning with embarrassment at not having seized the moment and confusion at being treated as “just another fan.” My Snoopy becomes a symbol of failure and emptiness. I hide him under the bed.
*I don’t remember their names.
1968 – Peggy Fleming autographs my Ice Capades program!*
*I’m not actually at the Ice Capades. I was supposed to go, but I had the mumps. My friend’s mother got it for me. But, still! Peggy Fleming wrote my name! Screw you, Snoopy!
Now come the fallow years. I still find it difficult to talk about this time of my life. The stars have deserted me. Did it have something to do with my growing breasts and getting my period? Have I scared them away? To add insult to injury, my friend goes to visit her brother in L.A. and comes back with Sammy Davis Jr.’s autograph.
1972 – I share an elevator with local “Candlepins for Cash” TV host Bob Gamere. He’s much shorter than he looks on television. My allure is slowly returning.
1976 – College, and I am suddenly besieged by celebrities! I attend a student rally for Jimmy Carter. He waves to me, and, shortly after, is elected president. The following year, Caroline Kennedy and I attend a Boz Scaggs concert.
1980 – I graduate with a journalism degree and begin my career* as a rock critic**. Celebrities are naturally part of my working life. At first I think that I can keep my natural magnetism at bay and maintain an appropriate critical distance from them. Unfortunately, this only works with Prince. I attempt to interview him, but he runs away. He is much, much shorter in person, approximately the size of a Monopoly token. But Prince is a rare exception. Mostly, when they’re in my presence, stars have a problem with boundaries. For example, I attend a press conference for Adam Ant and when I ask him, “What is ant music for sex people?,” he rips open his pirate shirt*** and insists on autographing the cover of a promo copy of “Kings of the Wild Frontier” for me. “Dear Joyce (indecipherable heart-cross symbol), much love, XX, Adam Ant,” he writes. I consider changing careers.
* Such as it is.
** This has nothing to do with geology.
1981 – Oh, Lady Di, I feel your pain! As hard as I try to keep a low profile (I never go out without wearing oversized dark sunglasses and carrying a toy poodle in a Fendi handbag), they keep stalking me. In the winter of ’81, I am in the scarf and mitten department of Jordan Marsh when in walks former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis; he lost his bid for a second term because people think he’s an insufferable know-it-all. He steps in front of me at the counter and demands that the salesgirl direct him to the ear muffs. When he learns that Jordan’s does not, in fact, sell ear muffs, he looks at me as if for commiseration, shakes his head, turns, and stalks away. Unlike Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis will not become president after our encounter. He is even tinier than Prince.
1985 – Carlos Santana and his band just happen to wander into the Philadelphia airport grill where my husband and I are eating breakfast. My husband maintains that this is not so unusual, given that it’s the morning after Live Aid and the airport is crawling with hung-over concertgoers and musicians. I agree, but only to humor him. I know better.
1987 – Moving from Boston to San Francisco brings a whole new crop of celebrities flocking to within inches (sometimes) of my person. Instead of being trampled by disgraced former governors and random Kennedys at every turn, I am now pursued by exotic Bay Area celebrities like the guitar player from Journey, and Cheech, or is it Chong? While I still occasionally interact with stars in a controlled work environment, I find the thrill of the wild celebrity encounter to be far more exhilarating. When Robin Williams follows me to three different concerts in three different Bay Area venues, but always somehow ends up right in front of me in a crush at the exit, I know that my move to the Bay Area was written in the stars.
1988 – A newsstand, United terminal, Logan Airport, Boston: Failed Presidential candidate Al Gore is standing, yes, you guessed it, right ahead of me in line buying three newspapers and a package of Life Savers. He has a noticeable thinning patch in the back of his head. I know. What can I say? I have a knack.
1991 – You might not believe that Bruce Springsteen buys his clothes at a suburban Gap. But on this particular Sunday afternoon in a mall in San Mateo, California*, two blocks from my house, the Boss decides to go shopping. Did he suddenly develop an urgent need for a new black T shirt? Or did he know that I would be there, making my first post-partum solo shopping trip? Admittedly, this is a very minor celebrity encounter, but, look, they can’t all be Mr. Peanut.
*His parents lived in the area.
1996 – Peter Coyote, the Embarcadero. He is much taller than he looks on screen.
1999 – Nash Bridges’ car, being filmed on Fourth Street, holds up traffic. I am forced to get off the bus and run to the train station. Was this all a ruse to flush me out into the open? Were Don Johnson and Cheech (Chong?) hiding behind a trailer, snapping paparazzi shots? I really must get a handle on my paranoia.
2002 – Peter Coyote, the Embarcadero, again.
2004 – I go to London for the first time. My whole life, from the moment I saw the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” has been building to this moment. I am an Anglophile, a Jane Austen head, a lady who loves all things British, especially all actors British, most especially Colin Firth and Alan Rickman in Regency breeches. I have heard folk tales that British celebrities are absolutely crazy for middle-aged American tourist ladies; we need only to wander down any street in Kensington or Paddington and black cabs will come screeching to a halt, an actor in Regency breeches will jump out, phone in hand, and insist on having his picture taken with us “to show the blokes on the fan forum.” I wandered Kensington and Paddington. I visited Bath and Jane Austen’s house. I saw Mr. Darcy’s puffy shirt and Colonel Brandon’s waistcoat on display in the costume museum. I saw Buckingham Palace, the British Museum, the Tate, Piccadilly Circus. But I did not see any actors in the wild. Reader, I struck out.
2006 – I open up my Macy’s bill and out falls an exclusive invitation* to a San Francisco Symphony concert featuring special guest Elvis Costello, plus an exclusive** meet-and-greet afterwards. Well played, Elvis, well played. Make it look like just another stop on a concert tour. OK, I’ll bite. After the show, I am delighted to find that the exclusive meet-and-greet includes an unexpected free dessert buffet. Elvis (short, blocky, hatless) and I have an animated chat about how this is my first time at the symphony. He signs a CD (brought with me, plus Sharpie, no need for him to make a fuss fumbling for a pen), and smiles at me as he bubbles over with praise for conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. When I am finally able to extricate myself from the conversation***, I look down at the front of my black sweater and see that it is sprinkled with white flecks. Powdered sugar from the stack of mini-eclairs I consumed before my audience with Elvis? Or stardust?
*For Macy’s account holders.
** For Macy’s account holders.
***My husband has me by the elbow.
2006 – I am now going to tell you a story that will shake the core of your belief (or disbelief, it’s up to you) about coincidence vs. fate. I am back in London. We take in the sights we missed last trip, and I have a jolly good time touring incognito, unmolested by needy celebrities. (I’m still exhausted from my conversation with Elvis Costello three months earlier. That man can talk!)
On our last evening in London, my traveling companions* are caught up in World Cup fever and opt to watch England’s big match in the hotel lounge. I decide to go to the Internet cafe around the corner from our Holiday Inn at the intersection of Cromwell and Gloucester Road, aka, Touristville. I am steps away from my hotel when my eye is drawn to one man walking toward me on the crowded sidewalk. I am staring at him as he approaches, thinking, Oh, this guy’s hot, I like the combination of the ratty jeans and the wrinkled sport coat casually thrown over the untucked shirt, ladythough, ladythought, blah blah, ladythought. And then he is in front of me and he’s about to pass me and our eyes meet and my brain suddenly makes the connection: Colin Firth is staring at me. Not a mannequin wearing Mr. Darcy’s puffy shirt, the ACTUAL Colin Firth. I brace for his inevitable display of unhinged fanboy-dom, but he surprises me by daringly keeping his eyes on mine, a tiny smile at the corner of his mouth, as we pass, as if to cheekily say, “I know who you are, but I’m just going to be cool and give you your space.”
Grateful for Colin’s understanding of celebrity-encounter etiquette, I stop in my tracks and watch his back recede halfway down the block. But then he stops, looks up at the buildings as if confused, pulls out his phone and begins walking back the way he came. By this time, I have worked out that Colin Firth is lost, and what is he doing in Touristville, anyway? Also, that I’m still standing in the same spot, staring at him. I hastily turn and busy myself with fishing in my bag, head down. I look up (by this time, I seem to be holding my phone with the camera open, fancy that!) in time to notice that he has a small thinning spot in the back of his head. Concerned for the well-being of this lost lamb, I follow Colin at a distance, ducking behind one of those handy tall postboxes the British have, and watch as he safely reaches his intended destination, the ATM next to the Internet cafe.** His banking finished, Colin hails a black cab and disappears into the dusk. As for me, I go to the Internet cafe, put my head down on a table and weep tears of joy.
* Oh, all right, my husband and son.
** Then I hide behind a large tree and take pictures.
2011 – Peter Coyote, sitting directly in front of me at an Elvis Costello concert, Oakland. I wish he was shorter.
Joyce Millman was a founding staffer of Salon.com and its first TV critic. Her TV and pop music essays have also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, the San Francisco Examiner and the New York Times. You will find all sorts of strange and wonderful things on her blog.