The Care and Feeding of Fame Monsters

Fame puts you there where things are hollow

David Bowie

*

The title of this piece bears no relation to anything Gaga-esque. Although maybe it does, I wouldn’t know, not having paid much attention to her album of the same name. My jury is still out on Lady Gaga. In the 1930s, Elsa Schiaparelli designed a dress with a print to give the illusion of torn animal flesh; she also collaborated with Salvador Dali. And Edge of Glory sounds like something Steps would do. But then Pop music isn’t aimed at me, so that’s neither here nor there. Neither is this intended to be a dig at Ms Germanotta, as I said, the jury’s still out, and regardless of whether the term ‘Fame Monster’ means what I have used it to mean, it is, to my ear, a perfect description of one of the types of person mentioned herein. So I shall begin…

There is a world of difference between someone who is an artist and someone who is famous, although it is possible to be both.

Certain things, such as integrity, skill, and truth, will make me respect an artist whether or not I like their work. Conversely, I can enjoy a work without respecting its creator; so if you catch me whistling Agadoo, don’t read too much into it. Actually, if you do catch me whistling Agadoo please shoot me, or at least have me put into a medically induced coma.

Many of my friends are artists – painters, writers, actors, musicians, – all with varying degrees of success. Most of them are infinitely more talented and skilled than household names in similar spheres. One of the reasons for this is that to be famous, the primary desire must be for fame itself.

How many X-Factor contestants, for example, go on to become TV presenters? Likewise, former Hollywood ‘stars’ doing Panto. What’s wrong with making your own music for a tiny but discerning audience, or appearing in something ground-breaking in a small theatre? Oh yes, that might not grace the pages of Heat magazine.

The pursuit of fame is a very different discipline from the pursuit of artistic excellence; therefore you will see a mixture of the skilled and the not so skilled in the public eye.

The degree of self-promotion involved in chasing fame is something with which many artists are uncomfortable, but for fame monsters, it is second nature. I had a laugh with a writer friend over the holidays at the amount of shameless self-promotion we saw going on even on Christmas Day. That, my friends, is dedication.

Artists like to share their work with other artists for feedback, support, objective criticism; all of which will help hone the work so it will be the best it can be. When you know and trust someone else as an artist, you know you’re going to get the truth, even if it’s not what you want to hear.

When a fame monster asks what you think of their latest effort, they really want to know what you think about them, or more usually, they want to hear how much you like them, how brilliant they are. If you offer constructive comments about the work they’ll invariably glaze over because they think they’re so amazing anything you say is irrelevant. The fact that they’re asking you, as an artist, for your opinion is misleading; what they’re really after is an ‘in’ with your contacts. They know you do something in the same field they aspire to top, so just maybe you know Simon Cowell or Dan Brown and will put in a good word for them.

Even if you’re not approached directly by a fame monster, it’s relatively easy to spot one quite early on. The very young can be forgiven, as they may well grow out of it. As a teenager I had a brief spell of wanting to be famous until I discovered what it entails: being recognised in the street, waking to find fans sleeping in your garden or going through your bins, having to take work that’s embarrassing but high profile. The nightmare list goes on and it’s not for me.

Yes, I do occasionally naff and sometimes embarrassing session work, but that’s a technical job, like a tailor doing his best work on a suit he’d never choose to wear himself, and, most importantly, in many cases no one has to know it’s me. It won’t bring me before the eyes of the world, but it’s on my CV as something I can do but choose not to publicly, like the gentleman with the accordion.

Every fame monster has a touch of desperation that never quite goes away. Ultimately, despite their massive egos, they’re usually deeply insecure and will do anything to be ‘loved’ therefore they will probably change their name and develop a persona early on in their careers.

We all have different faces that we use for different situations, most of which occur spontaneously, such as the various social media personae. My own Twitter persona turned out to be more out-spoken and curmudgeonly than I really am, whereas my blog persona is of someone far more eloquent, opinionated, and, I like to think, wiser than you’d find if you ran into me when I’m propping up the bar at the Groucho. I know I express myself best and my thoughts are more organised when writing. This is why I prefer to have important conversations via email rather than face-to face. So please remember this before dropping a big subject on me in public and getting an inappropriate response, or more likely, no response whatsoever. Think of it like this: my thoughts are a tangled skein of rainbow-coloured 4-ply; my word processor is a new-fangled knitting machine with built-in style and taste parameters. Take your pick.

But I digress.

Yes, I have many facets to my character, or maybe many characters living in my head, but they all came of their own accord as a result of living, learning, and interacting in the real world. I could never develop a character to ‘wear’ in public, and I cringe at those who do.

A friend once said to me, ‘even with your hair extensions and plastic surgery, you’re the least fake person I know.’

I took this as both compliment and insight. True fakery comes from within. No amount of external gloss can hide honesty, and no amount of cod-earnest hand-wringing can disguise a fake.

The first stage of someone having a fake persona is when they start talking about themselves in the third person. The second is when they actually discuss the inception of said fake persona. The third is when they claim to be host to a separate entity with a different name and character who takes them over when they perform. If that’s not the ultimate in fake personae, then they’re demonically possessed and should seek the assistance of a good exorcist.

Another trait of the fame monster is the accent change. It could be ‘up’ or ‘down’ from their roots, maybe a softening or hardening of a regional accent depending where they see themselves. Those looking for commercial success will probably ‘go street’. Pop music is full of middle class bastions pretending to hail from the mean streets of Peckham.

If said fame monster succeeds in Pop but at a later stage wants to ‘reinvent’ themselves as a ‘grown up’ artist they might choose to ‘go posh’ or maybe mid-Atlantic.

Then there’s the name. I have a massive problem with gimmicky names. If you have a boring, ugly, or embarrassing name by all means change it, but let’s keep things in perspective. If you’re plain Ann Brown and fancy something more exotic how about Annabel Browne? Perfect if you intend at some point to ‘go posh’, but if you’re intending to ‘go street’, A to the Bell to the B-R-pwn will not inspire me to take your music seriously.

Your choice of name should be like your choice of tattoo: think about how it’s going to look when your showbiz career’s over and you’re collecting your winter heating allowance from a post office in Chipping Norton with an obscenity scrawled across your knuckles and the name of a teenage rapper on your pension book.

Additionally, fame monsters may also express themselves via their appearance, such as being over, or underdressed for the occasion, having an ‘out there’ haircut, or always wearing a hat in lieu of having a personality.

If in the early part of your career you catch yourself doing anything to make you appear more famous than you are – blue-tacking your poster to the side of a stationary bus so people think it’s a proper advert; Photoshopping your name in lights on a picture of a 20,000 seat arena; sneaking your homemade CD’s into a record store; making a video where people run up to you for an autograph – then stop now. Artistic excellence has flown out the window and you are legging it down the Heat Highway on your way to being photographed drunk in the gutter outside China White or wherever anyone who’s no one hangs out these days.

The reason fame monsters chase fame in the manner they do is because they know deep down they just aren’t very good at what they’re doing. All artists doubt their own talent; it’s part of what makes you strive to get better, but the fame monster knows their talent is minimal at best, but if they get really, really famous no one will be allowed to point them out as a naked emperor, and if you do it’s because you’re jealous.

The clever ones recognise their failings and surround themselves with people who are good at what they do, and so give the fame monster the illusion of having created everything themselves. These are the ones most likely to achieve success. The ones who can’t see their limitations tend to sink into a quagmire of bitterness and rage directed at those who are doing better than them.

Generally speaking the bigger the ego, the deeper the insecurity. I think this applies to all areas of life.

Artists grow, fame monsters change. They are prepared to change themselves into anything the market dictates. Each change of outfit or hairstyle is hailed as a ‘reinvention’, when all they really reinvent is the wheel with their unoriginal offerings.

It’s a wonderful thing for an artist to find their work has an audience, but ideally this should come as a result of doing what they love. Chasing fame is all very well, if that’s what’s important to someone, but be prepared to leave your morals and virtues at the door, and be even more prepared that what you did to succeed will be written all over your face.

*

By SJB

Deep and Dreamless

A dark Xmas story of mine from about about 15 years ago.

 

*Deep and Dreamless*

 

Peter sat in the unlit room for almost an hour before he bothered to switch the light on. At this time of year, the darkness came so quickly it always seemed to catch him unawares. He downed the glass of whiskey – was it his third, or his fourth? – then closed the curtains and turned on the light.

There was a slow, hesitant knocking on Peter’s front door. At first he wasn’t going to answer it, but then he heard the three little voices piping:

‘O, little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…’

Peter balanced his empty glass on the arm of the chair and padded down the hall. On the doorstep were three small boys with bright eyes and dirty faces, and smiles more genuine than any he’d seen in a long time.

Carol singers seem to get younger every year, Peter thought as he listened dutifully to the throng. The eldest of the three boys couldn’t have been more than eight years old, and the youngest barely four with a vocabulary that wasn’t the equal of the song’s requirement. At least they were tuneful and actually seemed to enjoy singing. Unlike some of his earlier callers who had belted out a few bars of ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ and rattled their tins loudly.

The four-year-old gave Peter an almost toothless grin while his infant’s palate grappled vainly with the song’s lyrics. Peter wondered what their parents could have been thinking to let youngsters out unaccompanied on Christmas Eve. It was after 6.p.m. and as dark as midnight. The street was quite deserted; there was no telling who might be lurking in the shadows.

Peter dug into his pocket and pulled out a handful of coins.

‘Ooh, thanks Mister!’ The older boy clearly regarded the money as a small fortune.

‘You should be getting off home. It’s not safe these days.’ Peter said.

‘We got Power Rangers.’ The youngest said, waving his keyring.

‘Even so, I expect your Mum will be wondering where you’ve got to. Go on, you don’t want to miss Santa do you?’

The boys turned tail and raced for home. Peter smiled and closed the door, their song still playing in his head. Strange they should have picked that carol, the one that most reminded him of Caroline; especially the second line.

He thought of her now, in her own deep and dreamless sleep, silent as a star. Whoever said ‘Time Heals’ couldn’t have lost someone the way he had. Caroline had been dead for five years now, and it had yet to stop hurting. She would have been 35 tomorrow. Peter was a year older but already he felt like an old man, eager to embrace death as a welcome release from his suffering.

He remembered a film he’d once seen about a man who was born on December 25th, and had become a werewolf as a punishment for sharing a birthday with Jesus Christ. It was a stupid film, but Peter couldn’t help feeling that perhaps to be born on Christmas Day was unlucky. It hadn’t done Caroline many favours.

She had been born premature and blue, as her mother had never tired of telling people, a good three weeks early. Thirty years on, Caroline Noelle French, nee Roberts, had died whilst being delivered of a stillborn baby girl leaving Peter to mourn a wife whose face still haunted him and a daughter he would never know.

Strange as it may seem, Peter didn’t hate this time of year. He still hung decorations and fairy lights about the house and on the tree in the back garden. The many happy memories of past Christmases spent with Caroline took the edge off the pain, and he knew she’d have been disappointed if he’d left the house bare.

He poured himself another whiskey, his fourth – no, fifth, wasn’t it? He’d lost count – then he switched on the television, turning the volume low enough just to fill the silence. He took up the remote control and channel hopped between a circus, a carol service, news, and the film ‘White Christmas’. There was nothing he really wanted to see, but the moving images gave the illusion of having company.

Caroline would have watched ‘White Christmas’ and cried at it. She could be funny like that: weeping at sentimental films yet so brave and able to cope in the face of real tragedy.

The night she’d been taken to hospital: she’d called the ambulance herself, and hadn’t woken him until moments before it arrived. Peter remembered her shaking him gently, saying something about how she couldn’t feel the baby moving, how it was hurting badly, but that he wasn’t to worry, the ambulance was on its way. The resolution in her voice could barely disguise the quaver there.

In the ambulance, Caroline had held his hand – shouldn’t it have been the other way round? – and told him to be strong, and that things happened for a reason and it was best to accept. She must have known she wouldn’t make it.

Peter rubbed his eyes. He’d had too much to drink; he was getting maudlin. He turned the television’s volume up and caught the white-gowned choir singing ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’.

For the second time that evening, he thought of the words of that song and imagined Caroline as a sleeping town. He pictured her spine as a cobbled road; saw the soft curves of her body forming churches, houses, schools and inns; blurring the horizon as she lay beneath a sky made from her black, black hair that was prickled by myriad tiny stars.  He wished he could be now in the little town of Caroline, walking its winding streets, losing himself in its most secret places.

‘…Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light…’ The choir sang.

It was at this moment, that joker Fate decided the light bulb should blow. The fairy lights that lined the walls and edged the TV gave adequate illumination; Peter decided to leave searching for a new bulb until morning, or more correctly, he’d do what he always did and take the bulb from the bedside table lamp, which wouldn’t get replaced until well into the New Year. He walked to the far end of the room and opened the curtains. The lights on the tree seemed to blaze brighter now, in comparison with the lightless house.

Behind him, the choir continued, ‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight…’

Peter shuddered. He’d always found that line to have a strangely menacing undercurrent. Especially as his brightest hope and his darkest fear were one and the same: that his wife and daughter would come back.

This was the first time he had allowed himself to shape the thought. He wished, oh how he wished, that they would return to him now, but at the same time he realised that should his dead wife and child manifest before him he’d probably run screaming.

Could that happen? Could wanting something enough bring it into being?

‘Caroline,’ he whispered, his breath misting the window pane, ‘Caroline.’ His voice bounced back at him in a silent echo he only felt.

Peter poured himself another drink. His fifth? Sixth? He was past caring. And the choir sang on:

‘…How silently, how silently…’

The sound of their clear voices was almost drowned by the pounding of Peter’s heart. Beyond the jewelled tree something stirred. Wind lifted snow into a Dervish dance. Peter pressed closer to the window as the random swirling began to take shape.

In the midst of the blur there seemed to be a figure; frosted, ethereal, a Madonna of the Snows, with an ice child in her arms. Peter slammed his fist against the glass shattering it. He didn’t notice that his wrist was cut and bleeding; didn’t notice the deep red life-blood pat, pat, patting onto the soft beige carpet. He didn’t feel the sting of the gash, nor the anxious pulsing of the lacerated vein. All he was aware of was the vision unfolding before him: the wondrous gift of his black haired, honey-skinned wife remade in coldest white.

‘Caroline!’ he shouted.

The figure raised a finger to her cool lips to silence him. He pushed at the window. It gave beneath his hands allowing him to pass through it. He glanced briefly over his shoulder; the glass he had slipped through was intact except for the corner his fist had smashed.

The back garden was a carpet of snow that glittered like broken glass beneath the full pale Moon. Above the tree the beckoning figure hung in the air; one arm outstretched, the other cradling her child. Peter felt himself floating across the lawn and rising towards them.

‘We came for you.’ Caroline said, her voice an icy whisper from lips once red, now white.

‘Why not before? I’ve prayed for this for so long.’

‘It wasn’t your time. Now it is.’ she answered as they rose.

Peter looked back at the house. It was ill-lit, but through the window he could just make out his body slumped on the floor, a dark pool of mingled blood and whiskey spreading beneath his lifeless wrist.

Caroline glanced up at the Moon, which seemed to brighten in response to her, then back at the house. Peter followed her gaze to the face of his dead body, picked out by a watery beam of light. He looked quite peaceful, he thought; pale and still, sleeping death’s sleep: deep and dreamless.

*

© Suzanne Barbieri 1995/2011

 

By SJB