Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer
When I was in elementary school, I once checked a book of brain teasers out of the library. This particular book was filled with fun and little-known facts about life, and I was enjoying it greatly until I got to a certain page that discussed the notion of “dominant thumbs.” According to the writer, everyone has a dominant thumb, the same way that people are either left- or right-handed. The test to determine your “thumbedness” was simply to lace your fingers together comfortably, then observe which thumb was on top. That’s all there was to it. I would never have remembered this pointless little factlet, but for the way the paragraph ended: “Are you a left-handed person who is right-thumbed? There ARE such people!” The author finished his piece with a joke, aimed at what I at the time could only conclude were people he saw as freaks. As my left-handed self stared down at my right thumb resting atop all my other fingers, I had my very first taste of the bizarre phenomenon of reading something that seems to be very specifically and pointedly discussing you yourself.
My second taste of this feeling was very recently, and much more bizarre.
A few months ago, I set out as a birthday present to myself to visit my closest college friends, almost all of whom have, post-college, committed the unspeakably rude act of moving far away from me. The trip had two legs: in Los Angeles, I visited my former college roommates; fun and funny guys with a knack for creative writing, and pop culture website creation. And, in San Francisco, I visited another extremely close friend, an ALMOST college roommate (he promised to live with someone else first. Prick.) who was on the West Coast appearing in a play. My trip began in SF, where that friend and I were going to bum around for three days, before I would see him perform on my final night in town.
But here’s the thing: this friend of mine – Chris – was “in a play” in the same way that J.K. Rowling “wrote a book” or Paris Hilton “enjoys a bit of publicity.” Chris is perhaps the most talented singer I know, and until recently he was my shining example of how, in the field of acting, the level of talent you possess can have almost no correlation to the amount of success you’ll enjoy. For years I suffered by proxy as Chris – the man whose singing at my wedding brought everyone present to tears – told me of terrible and unglamorous gigs that he accepted to keep himself working in the field. Any good roles he landed were in small theaters far outside of New York, and the only jobs he could find in town involved rented cars, multiple daily shows in elementary schools, and costumes that showed the inside of the body on the outside.
About eight months ago, Chris was close to accepting a role in a production of Cinderella that was going to bring him down to DC, thus marking the first time since college that he would have performed in a city in which I was living. I was very excited about this prospect, but before that came through, he called and told me that he had gotten another job instead. This was the show that I traveled west to see him perform, and in the short time between then and now, it has transformed his career. The last time I saw him, he was my friend Chris. On this trip, I was going to be spending time with a star.
(Enough coyness. Commence shameless plug NOW)
It was an unusual three days to be sure. Chris and I had a terrific time together, and we were able to slip right back into “best friends” mode from the first minute we were reunited. However…well, let me tell you about that first minute:
I found my way to the theater at which he was performing, just as his matinee show was ending. I arrived just as the audience was released, and stood in the lobby as a full two thousand people rushed past me. When I saw a crowd gathered on the street outside the theater, I stepped out, and found Chris surrounded by a group of people, all clamoring for his autograph, or to get into a picture with him. He graciously signed everything that was handed to him (except for the program that I had found on the ground, and offered to him as a means of letting him know I was there), and I waited patiently while they all attempted to acquire their moments of reflected glory. When the crowd had mostly thinned, so too had my patience, and I walked determinedly into the circle and gave him a hug. This act had two repercussions: first, there was a very awkward lull, as the surrounding crowd feared that I was one of them, and had stepped creepily over the line. Second, after Chris has explained to those present that I was a good friend come far to see him, I felt distinctly that many in this same crowd were now envious of me too. It was as though, merely by knowing well someone with Chris’ talent, I got to experience a taste of the rewards that come with having that much talent. It was a heady feeling.
Q: Hey, didn’t this article start with some stupid reference to a book? When the hell is THAT going to start making sense?
A: Soon. Relax!
Anyway, the crowd finally dissipated, and Chris and I were able to escape the theater and go to the apartment that he shared with Michael, another of the leads in the show. Michael was a great guy too, and in the course of our conversations that first night in town, he told me about a fascinating book that he had just finished reading called Fame Junkies by Jake Halpern, which took a look into the worlds of people who either crave fame, or at least a close proximity to it. Michael lent it to me, and I tore through it over my days in San Francisco.
Fame Junkies looks at several very specific niches of the celebrity culture, including:
1. Child Star Wannabes – This section focused on Hollywood communities that cater to parents who schlep their children out to La La Land for “Pilot Season,” cottage industries for “fame classes” and “talent representation” that claim to help children become famous yet only seem to bankrupt their families, and of course, the thousands and thousands of children all over the country who are just DYING to be “somebody.”
2. Celebrity Assistants – These are the people who take care of the every need of the famous person. They work insane hours, endure incredibly menial tasks, and typically sacrifice any type of life for themselves so as to make the lives of “their” celebrity easier. By all accounts, this is truly heinous work, and yet these people are constantly appearing at seminars where they advise hundreds of “hopefuls” on how to break into the field.
3. Devoted Fans – The people who obsessively follow the lives of their favorite celebrities, reading every periodical, collecting miscellaneous paraphernalia, planning vacations around their appearances, etc. (One woman in the book undertook a passionate (and ultimately successful) campaign to get Rod Stewart a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.)
In the book, the author created a new word: Birging, with the first four letters standing for “Basking In Reflected Glory.” The word was coined to describe the feeling that causes people to want to be near famous people; a sense that merely being around celebrities, or having them know you in some way, provides an adequate substitute to being a celebrity yourself. Reading this book, I was captivated by this term, and blown away that it could occur in so many different guises. And yet, I found myself getting more and more uneasy as I read, as though something didn’t sit right.
All at once, I understood; I was uncomfortable by the notion of “birging,” because that’s what I had been doing for that entire trip.
It started with that first crowd of fans that clearly envied me for knowing Chris at all, much less well enough to be called his best friend. In subsequent days, I would call Chris’ attention to fans on the street trying to get him to sign an autograph, I became the unofficial photographer for countless fans looking to get a picture of themselves with him, and I was his guest of honor for several incredible events, including a 5-star dinner for 350 people prior to the show, and a chauffeured trip to the ball park, where we attended an “All-Star lunch” (ask my father about the ball I got for him there), enjoyed on-field pre-game passes, and where I photographed Chris singing the national anthem. One moment stands out most of all: toward the end of the baseball game, Chris, another of the show’s leads, and I had made our way down to the front row along the third base line. As it turned out, I was sitting in the middle. A young woman recognized the other two from the Jumbotron, came down, and asked if she could take a picture. They obviously agreed, and I moved to vacate my seat so she could take my place. She asked me why I was leaving. When I informed her that I wasn’t in the show, and was merely their friend, she replied “That’s okay.” SHE WANTED ME TO BE IN THE PICTURE TOO! That’s CRAZY! I’m NOBODY! I hastily scrambled out of my seat, and wondered just how correct Halpern really was.
Q. Don't you find it a bit dissonant that you've written an entire article about how creepy it is when people try to glom onto celebrities, and yet you keep dropping in links and references to all the cool shit your famous friend did?
A. Maybe. Shut up.
By the final night, things had gotten very strange. I have often felt, honestly if also immodestly, that people I meet for the first time seem to think I’m pretty interesting. I’m not saying they’re necessarily justified in this belief, but in a world of consultants who enjoy watching football (both very common DC things), a guy who works “in television” and writes for a pop culture website on the side stands out somewhat. Due to this fact, it was with no small amount of chagrin that I discovered, for this trip, that my identity was solely that of “Chris’ friend.” While at these various events, I kept waiting for people, out of politeness if nothing else, to eventually turn and ask me something about myself, but these questions never came. People DID pay attention to me, but in every case, it was to ask me things like “So, how long have you known Chris?” “How did you and Chris meet?” and “What other things have you seen Chris perform in?” This is when I had my second realization: “birging” is real, but if someone truly thinks that feeling is enough, then I don’t know if I feel more pity or contempt for them. In other words, hanging out with a “famous” person was very cool, and I certainly benefited greatly from the association, but at the same time, I was MORE than ready by the end of the trip to once again become boring little unfamous me.
As fate would have it, the last thing I did during my time with Chris was to see him perform in the show that created all this. I had a pretty good seat (naturally), and I sat there alone watching the kid who was once a frustrated college freshman who I had to convince was talented enough to get cast in a show, now starring in a Broadway production. At one point in the second act, after Chris had sung a solo that proved to be a literal show-stopper, I freely admit that I was so god-damned proud of my friend that I started crying. When the show ended with me on my feet clapping (along with everyone else), I had to fight an unbelievable urge to turn to the guy next to me and tell him that Chris was my best friend. Ultimately, I didn’t do that, either because I was self-consciously trying to wean myself off of the associative glow of birging, or I was afraid that he’d look at me and only see a left-handed, right-thumbed freak. In both cases, I preferred my anonymity.