If you’re over the age of fourteen and have an Eminem screensaver, you make a point of telling everyone that it’s only meant to be ironic. In the doctor’s waiting room you’d rather be seen picking up anything, even Weight Watchers magazine or a pamphlet about cysts, than People.
Why is it that in intellectual circles it’s easier to admit that you’ve attempted suicide than that you’ve begged someone for an autograph? Celebrities aren’t born fully formed. We create them. And then all but the campiest among us skulk around pretending we don’t care.
The famous shame us yet seduce us, plying us with “a cocktail of reassurance and humiliation,” as Elle entertainment reporter Michael Joseph Gross writes in Starstruck. With their vast riches and not-quite-real lives, stars are part majesty, part fantasy, remote and fetishized: surrogate lovers, priests, and friends. Yet what are you, actually, to a celebrity? Nothing, no one — not an individual with a personality but a single pixel in an auditorium-sized blur.
Growing up in a tiny Midwestern town, Gross started collecting autographs while other boys were dating girls and playing ball: “I wore a small groove in the distal phalanx bone of my right middle finger writing nearly five thousand letters” to the likes of Deng Xiaoping, Madonna, Dr. Seuss, and the cast of Little House on the Prairie. Most of them obligingly took pen in hand, bulwarking his self-esteem — “If a Somebody paid attention to me,” he remembers thinking, “then wouldn’t I be Somebody too?” — although “Cheryl Ladd from Charlie’s Angels sent me a fake signature and it ruined the whole goddamned day.”
Recounting recent encounters with X-treme fandom, Gross works the fame-shame equation with a piercingly funny perceptiveness. But he won’t take cheap shots — not at the crowd outside Michael Jackson’s trial (Jackson’s disciples are mainly beautiful, apparently asexual, frankly reverent females whom Gross dubs “the lost girls”); not at Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s theme park, with its wig collection; not at Sundance, where Gross partied with a profoundly drunk, ass-grabbing Mickey Rourke and befriended a bardic Sean Astin; not at the annual autograph convention where washed-up cast members from The Partridge Family, Dennis the Menace, Lost in Space, The Waltons, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre sign photos for cash. The best bits are the most personal — a coming-out scene involving Gross’ hospitalized mother, the Book of Revelation, and Parton’s song “I Am Ready” is a tear-jerker, as is another about deciding to quit the seminary after writing a letter to Debra Messing’s husband. But of course they are: Celebrity is ultimately all about us and how we use stars as models and mirrors.
For Ruth Reichl, the star in question — the one who inspired her to write Garlic and Sapphires — was herself. Hired as chief restaurant critic for The New York Times in 1993, ex-Berkeleyite Reichl was instantly too famous to eat out anonymously. Recognized everywhere as the Times critic, she would be coddled with food and service a far cut above that afforded her average reader. So in order to escape the royal treatment and thus make accurate assessments, Reichl dined in disguise: as a meek Midwestern ex-schoolmarm, as a pitiful crone in thrift-shop clothes, as a flirtatious blonde, as her own finicky overdressed mother. A sensible plan, ripe for laughs — yet what grates (besides the book’s title, evoking sautéed gemstones) is the condescension with which she deployed it. Actual schoolmarms, pitiful crones, and other “types” who are not Reichl (whose figure a stranger on a plane praises; whose beauty a manicurist hails; whose legs a bedridden hospital patient ogles; whose Times salary is $82,000 a year, in 1993 money) cannot help but bridle at her wink-wink-nudge-nudge impersonations. Entering the lavish Tavern on the Green in Salvation Army dress, gray wig, and fake old-lady glasses, “trying for the reverent tone of a tourist walking into Chartres Cathedral for the first time,” Reichl makes certain she is overheard quavering, “Isn’t this lovely? … It looks just like Christmas.” Sure, she claims she is doing this to better understand and serve the ugly, old, and absurd among us. But her wild delight has another effect: that of the connoisseur and inadvertent pedant (“‘It takes a magician to make soba,’ I explained to Claudia”) who is way too consciously slumming.
If Gross’ relationship to fame is that of the supplicant and Reichl’s is that of the self-conscious insider, Jennie Erdal’s is poised exactly in between. Her eloquently vengeful memoir Ghosting details the twenty years she spent writing thousands of pages for which someone else got all the credit. She won’t name names, but her endnotes — and the media furor spawned by the book’s British release — expose this flamboyant basker-in-glory as Naim Attallah, owner of London’s Quartet publishing house, where Erdal was an editor. His byline graces many articles, two nonfiction books, and three critically acclaimed novels that she wrote, for handsome sums, ensconced in Attallah’s luxe French villa. On her ex-boss (or exploiter, or business partner: pick one), Erdal waxes merciless. He’s a “vainglorious dictator” whose comb-over resembled a “pot-scourer” and a “flying saucer.” Middle-aged and married, he “behaved like a little puppy” around attractive young women: “paws in the air, simpering and slavering.” Obsessed yet appalled by bodily fluids, “this mighty potentate” would confess to his employee: “My wee-wee is yellow.”
With steel-trap precision, Erdal evokes a childish, greedy, lusty, neurotic clown whose dining habits range from “a circus act” to “plundering.” She mocks his speech and depicts him “simpering and sashaying” while celebrating the publication of “his” book. She complains about the French breakfasts pressed upon her. This is gorgeously wrought gossip, and we smirk along with Erdal even as we start to wonder why, why, why? What Arcadian well of bitterness would it take to write this book? It’s not as if Attallah is dead. It’s not as if they were ever romantically entwined. “I thought of myself as a slave,” Erdal confides. Ye-e-es, as we all do — in villas.
But fame perverts those it touches — and some of those it almost-but-not-quite touches. Erdal has a less inadvertent, more sinister fictional counterpart in Peter Carey’s novel My Life as a Fake: Embittered WWII vet Christopher Chubb hoaxes a literary-journal editor — his former rival — with a cache of poems allegedly penned by a savant bike mechanic named Bob McCorkle. Awestruck, the editor prints the poems; McCorkle soars to superstardom; prosecuted for an obscene reference in a McCorkle poem, the editor kills himself. Suddenly out of nowhere a maniac — real or imaginary, that is the question — starts hounding Chubb, claiming to be McCorkle. Truth, sanity, and celebrity play deadly games in this haunting page-turner, set mainly in Malaysia and derived from a true-life hoax, Australia’s 1944 Ern Malley affair.
Yet another sly scribe counterfeits a literary legend in The Orientalist, whose author, New York Times reporter Tom Reiss, is both biographer and sleuth: Before WWII, Kurban Said was a sensation. His 1937 novel Ali and Nino, about a Muslim-Christian love affair, was a dazzling bestseller. His other books, with their sweeping evocations of Central Asian desert intrigues, enthralled a prewar Europe. But who was he really? With exquisitely controlled passion, Reiss unties that knot, sorting out a tale of shifting identities, of glory and scandal and hot pursuit unto death.
A tale, in other words, of fame.