Most everyone has at least some kind of attraction to public figures and personalities. It’s one of the roles they serve in contemporary culture. But it’s also a many-edged sword for them and us.
At best it helps us define what we find appealing and alluring in others. At its worst it devolves into stalking and even danger for those in the public eye. At the very least avid fans can sometimes be a pain in the butt to anyone with even a whiff of fame, as much as those who aren’t thoroughly ego-ridden do sincerely appreciate their followers.
I know this because I’ve seen it in my three-and-a-half decades plus as an entertainment journalist and publicist. And I’ve even experienced it. Once in my PR days I was with some minor to mid-level music stars at a hotel where the Miss Teenage Ohio beauty pageant was being held. Standing to the side as the musicians were mini-mobbed for by a gaggle of teen girls wanting autographs, one aspiring beauty queen asked me to sign her book. I demurred (“I’m just with them”) and demurred again (“I’m nobody”) but she kept sweetly pleading for my John Hancock, so I finally acceded.
Bam! The moment my pen hit paper I was surrounded by all the other teens waving their autographic books. Not wanting to be rude, I had to sign them all. And at that moment, famished from a long day, all I wanted to do was get to the hotel restaurant and have dinner.
The other actual celebrities turned to snicker at me as they walked off to get a table. Now you know what it feels like was their implied message.
Later as I became a fairly well known published writer in the city where I live, Austin, Texas, people would approach me to say how much they enjoyed my writing. As much as I appreciated and was touched by their compliments, it also made me feel uneasy at being singled out, rather liking anonymity and in my populist fashion being simply one of the people, nobody special. I would respond with my most gracious “That’s very kind of you” and try not to let it go to my head; that way lays danger.
I even had what I guess one might call an “affair” – I prefer to think of it as a less-defined “thing” between two friends who had both just ended relationships that weren’t right for us – with a Grammy-winning female musical artist of some prominence who enjoys major press acclaim (who there’s no good reason to name here). I saw during the summer we hung out together how adoring fans can be nettlesome without even realizing. On the other hand, as a huge admirer of her work, I did feel a bit chuffed to be her FWB and still do (the end result was that we became even closer and dearer friends. I call her my “soul sister”).
About 12 years ago my fancy wasn’t just caught but captivated by a TV and film actress, Alicia Witt, when she appeared on The Sopranos. She played an assistant to film director Jon Favreau that Soprano family underling and wannabe screenwriter Christopher Moltisanti sees as a possible in to the movie biz. In part it was that she and her character reminded me of a longtime off and on lover (also a redhead and ultimately a beloved friend) by how she was able to go from utterly captivating at first blush to becoming deeply intimate (as her character did with Moltisanti) to giving a cold kiss off followed by a haughty march away and have it all fit into one character. And, yeah, to my tastes she’s a simply stunning woman.
Her season on Law & Order Criminal Intent also enraptured this ex-New Yorker due to my natural liking for smart, strong and a bit sassy NYC women, which Witt played well. And on Friday Night Lights she even portrayed another type I know well (living in Austin, Texas, and being a single man in my fifties) and also find a bit off-putting (as they are in the majority of age appropriate women in some of my social circles): the aging Texas party gal. But that only charmed me even further with Witt, much as I have had to dodge a few party gals, as she played roles that truly captured the sort of people I know in real life. She has range and depth as an actress.
As I came to focus in on this actress who seemed like my kind of woman and an impressive talent still in secondary and support roles, I started digging into her films. In Playing Mona Lisa, her first young lead movie role, I discovered what an awesomely gifted classical pianist Witt also is. Even earlier she played a high school girl who found her abilities on the clarinet in Mr. Holland’s Opus. I also caught her playing and singing pop music on Ally McBeal (a show that I otherwise found hard to watch) and saw she had some gifts in that realm as well.
Ultimately my take on Witt is that she became my pick as most neglected and underserved actress who I believe will someday get that big and right role and break through. Plus, well, there’s just a je ne sais quoi about her that makes me swoon.
Then, a few months ago, a longtime music business friend called me to say he was co-managing Witt’s musical career, and that she was coming to my town for a Friday Night Lights event as part of the debut Austin TV Festival. And would be playing a short solo music set as part of it, and he wanted me to go see her. Of course I jumped at the offer and so hoped I’d get to meet my big crush and actress pick to click.
Actors playing popular and rock music are too often a dubious proposition. Bruce Willis may have been perhaps the best bartender who ever regularly served me back in New York before his career took off, so hey, I have a great and deep liking for the guy. But you’d have to drag me to see him do his “Bruno” musical alter ego.
But Witt truly won this jaded old music critic over singing and playing her songs on a borrowed electric piano. She writes smart and emotive lyrics and has a gift for engaging melody. Her voice is excellent and she uses it well, and infuses her delivery with palpably real passion. In fact, her performance even in a makeshift situation was thoroughly engaging as she genuinely showed her soul and put her entire self into her performance, kicking with her left foot as she weaved over the keyboard and around the mike, throwing her full self into her music in a way that undeniably showed how deeply her creative work matters to her and how seriously she takes delivering it to listeners.
In short, the woman has got it as a pop/rock musical artist as well as an actress. I await when she hits the sweet spots in film (and/or TV) and music and I can say, hey, I spotted that talent long ago and knew she’d do it. And do it with class and artistry.
And I did get to meet and talk with Witt, and she couldn’t have been more gracious and charming, free of artifice and remove one sometimes finds in actors and musicians. Plus brimming with smarts and a delightfully palpable spirit. And, yeah, even more attractive face to face. In good part because there’s a full-blooded person behind the public figure. To find that makes a celebrity crushes feel so much better and worthy. Especially as I’ve seen the famed just shatter fans by being jerks.
If both the fans and stars within today’s twisted realm of fame could both relate on a friendlier and less frenzied level, we’d all be far better off for sure. But until such a day as that which likely may never come, at least I now know my big celebrity crush is a real deal as a person and talent.
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2012
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