Having lived in Manhattan for about twenty years, I’ve had my fair share of “encounters” with celebrities.
Many famous people -- singers, actors, politicians, athletes, etc. -- live in New York or visit here quite frequently, given that the metropolis is a global center for media, art, fashion, cuisine and finance.
In the beginning, seeing celebrities in the flesh was an exciting and exhilarating experience. However, as the years passed, I became more of a proverbial “jaded New Yorker” and realized that it was a routine thing to observe people who have been blessed (and, in some cases, plagued) by fame, wealth and celebrity.
As a result, I have seen or run into literally hundreds of celebrities -- ranging from global icons to the Andy Warhol ‘fifteen-minute’ variety -- in Manhattan over the past two decades.
Here are some general observations I have made about such celebrity sightings/encounters:
*Celebrities generally don’t like being noticed or bothered; they (quite understandably) just want to live their lives in peace.
*Most celebrities look worse in 'real-life' than they do in the newspapers or on TV and films (for one notable exception, see below). Typically, they are shorter, heavier and less attractive than you would imagine – indeed, make-up and studio lighting can do wonders for one’s pulchritude).
*Although most celebrities want to be left alone, they concurrently want to enjoy the perks of fame and privilege (that is, they can’t stand waiting in lines or waiting too long for a cab, etc.).
*Most celebrities are ‘normal people’ who cannot believe their good luck and actually want to try to live as ordinary a life as possible.
I would imagine that New York – since it’s so small, concentrated, and densely populated – is a better place to star-gaze than Los Angeles, where the car/driving culture imposes more of a barrier between the famous and the rest of us.
Plus, I make a distinction between an “authentic” celebrity encounter, versus an “artificial” one. What I mean by that is that if one hangs around long enough at Sixth Avenue and 51st Street, near Radio City Music Hall, NBC Studios etc., one will undoubtedly happen to catch a number of famous people who are coming and going from TV interviews or what-not. To me, a “genuine” celebrity encounter is one what happens during the ordinary course of one’s day – in an unexpected manner.
There is also another dimension to this discussion – the quality of fame.
That is, one must examine exactly what “fame” means in this contemporary era of tabloid/trash TV, internet and instant messaging.
There are those few special souls whose fame is based on extraordinary accomplishment and whose celebrity will likely last forever (Frank Sinatra, Beatles, Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby, Woody Allen, Michael Jordan, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, etc.). In the next level down, there are those celebrities who happen to either belong to the ‘right’ family or happened to be at the right place at the right time (most of the Kennedy family, etc.).
Then, in the lowest rung of celebrity are those souls who are famous for no conceivable reason whatsoever; that is, they have no talent, no skills, virtually no redeemable characteristics at all (Kardashians, Paris Hilton, etc.)
Conversely, I think the relationship between ‘celebrity’ and ‘ordinary fan’ has dramatically changed over the past decade or two.
As the concept of ‘fame’ has been diluted, cheapened and degraded, many, many non-famous people now believe that they, too, are celebrities – or, at least, they act and dress like it. I’m sure you have seen such folks – there are literally thousands of them in New York alone. They may work as secretaries, administrative assistants, nurses, bureaucrats, etc., by day, but they have deluded themselves into thinking they are celebrities (despite the fact that they enjoy no fame whatsoever).
They pretend that they rub elbows with the glitterati, have the same lifestyles and concerns as genuine celebs, and “look down” upon us ordinary folk.
In a way, I don’t blame them. I mean, if Kim Kardashian is famous, than anyone can be.
Along these lines, I have a friend (a middle-aged man who does not live in New York) who is absolutely obsessed with the dying art of rock-and-roll music. He possesses thousands of vinyl albums (and now CDs), and has attended hundreds of concerts over the past 30 years. He still wears his hair long (what he has left of it), wears T-shirts featuring concert tours from days gone by, and has long indulged in drugs and alcohol (in pale imitation of his rock star idols).
In reality, he has a mundane, lower middle-class life in a small nowhere town – but he has embroidered a complex ‘fantasy world’ in which he thinks he is part of the ‘rock-and-roll industry.’
Moreover, his delusions are so deeply-entrenched that he seems to think that rock stars (whom he has never even met) are his close, personal ‘friends.’ He even refers to them – dead or alive – by their first names (“Mick,” “Keith,” “Jimi,” “Bruce,” etc…)
Clearly, my friend lives vicariously through wealthy celebrities in order to fulfill some deep emptiness in his soul. I used to think he was a unique, singular case – but now I realize there are many people afflicted with this same ‘disease.’
A sidebar to this discussion is the rise of tech billionaires who in the past decade have soared to the very top of celebrity-dom. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and the recently departed Steve Jobs have attained the zenith of fame (as well as income no one’s ever seen before). However, these tech ‘nerds’ and ‘geeks’ are unlike any kind of celebrity from previous generations.
Despite their vast wealth and global acclaim, they generally lack the glamour, good looks and scandals we associate with ‘conventional’ paparazzi.
It makes me wonder – when Bill Gates strolls down the street, do people gasp and scream? Do they run to him begging for autographs? Or do they ignore him since he seems like a rather dull, drab and uninteresting person?
In any case, here is a sampling of some of my ‘celebrity encounters’ in New York.
Brooke Shields: As I strolled down Third Avenue between 73rd St. and 74th St. near my old apartment in the early 2000s, I noticed a very tall, slender woman approaching from the other direction. I was, at first, staggered by her height and elegance. As I passed her, I noticed she had a very beautiful face, with sparkling eyes. It was only after I walked by her, did I realize who she was. As a reflection of the power of mass media, even though I recognized her, I had actually never seen any of her movies or television shows – but I somehow “knew” she was famous. I’m still not even sure why she is so famous – however, the dominance of saturated media coverage cannot be denied.
Brooke is also even more beautiful than she appears on billboards or the TV screen. Her beauty is almost unearthly.
Abe Vigoda: I used to see Vigoda stroll up and down Third Avenue for months before I finally gathered the nerve to say “hello” to him. Famous for playing the doomed gangster Tessio in the first Godfather film and for the sad-sack police Detective Fish in the classic 1970s TV series ‘Barney Miller,’ Vigoda was well known to me. He was very old and very tall (even if stooped with age). He seemed like a nice old man, but it saddened me that he no longer heard the applause of an audience anymore. Fame is indeed fleeting.
Yoko Ono: As a lifelong Beatles fan, I have never actually seen any of the Fab Four in the flesh. However, one Saturday afternoon in 2001 or 2002, as I sat in a coffee shop on Lexington Avenue I watched in amazement as Yoko walked in with some female friend. She was dressed very ordinarily in t-shirt, sunglasses and slacks. This is one of the most famous women on earth, and I am sitting right next to her – her late husband was one of my idols growing up.
Then, I realized that Yoko’s fame is largely underserved – she became a celebrity in her own right because of who she married. And in Yoko’s case, her ‘fame’ carried with it a lot of negative baggage – namely the hatred of millions around the world who largely blamed her for The Beatles’ break-up.
Of course, I said nothing to her – but I wondered how fans dealt with her in public? Do they show their anger and disapproval of her, or do they express condolences since he is a widow? And even if one dislikes Yoko, does her enormous fame outweigh such bad feelings?
Keith Richards: Mick Jagger may be the ‘face’ of The Rolling Stones (and what a face it is), but Keith has always been the group’s heart and soul. So, one day, as I was strolling up 7th Avenue in Greenwich Village I saw the Stones’ lead guitarist walking his dog. He was unmistakable with his pale complexion, skinny figure, homely face, scraggly hair and unusual gait. This is one of the biggest rock stars on earth, a true musical icon, and he’s walking his dog down some crowded, dingy street and nobody seems to even care who he is. That struck me as very appropriate -- and perhaps one of the reasons why Keith lives part of his life in lower Manhattan. (A drastically different reaction from the thousands of screaming fans who would greet him in a concert).
Jamie Dimon: This is probably the kind of ‘celebrity sighting’ only I could have. Most people would not even recognize the chairman of JP Morgan Chase -- but he is one of the most powerful figures in Wall Street and global banking. Earlier this year, I was walking across Park Avenue and 90th Street when I see this middle-aged man coming from the opposite direction. He has a full head of grey hair and wore a dusty black leather jacket, crumpled white t-shirt and dirty blue jeans. He certainly didn’t look like a powerful wealthy banker -- in fact, he looked more like an ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protester!