Why does celebrity have such allure, such seduction? Living in London, I’ve walked past, cycled alongside, shared a bar with and served coffee to a handful of famous people, A-listers and Z-listers alike, but normally I like to think I’m a sensible enough person to treat them like any other human being going about their business.
So I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that tonight I was shamefully starstruck and actually asked a famous artist for a photograph.
First I want to explain myself a bit more. The bit about seeing celebs as being normal people, I mean. Oh and to forewarn you, gentle reader, be prepared for some name-dropping in this post. But only for the purposes of the subject, I promise you.
I once told a friend that I see these personalities as people who simply do a different kind of job and at the end of the day, if they’re in a bar enjoying a drink, the last thing they’d want is some stranger coming up to them and asking for a photograph/autograph. If it was me in their shoes, I’d be rather annoyed by the hassle and just want to enjoy my rum and coke in peace. This scenario actually happened in the Conaught in Mayfair, when the actor Chris Hemsworth (aka Thor) strolled into the hotel bar with his entourage and enjoyed a drink on the other side of the room. We were all rather starstruck by his presence, but I insisted on leaving him alone because I imagined how I’d feel if some daft bugger wanted a photo while I was out boozing with my mates. Despite refraining from harrying the gorgeous actor, we all left the bar feeling a bit cheated, as though it was our right to be seen schmoozing with this celebrity and then post it for our friends to see on Facebook.
But why was this so important?! He was, after all, just an attractive actor who has starred in some successful Hollywood movies.
I suppose another example is the time I once met a politician. Picture the scene: It’s a dark, rainy night in November, I’m cycling home from my shift at Costa Coffee, pedalling through the puddles on Embankment. Ahead I see a distinctive blue bicycle from the Barclay’s Hire Scheme, also known as a Boris Bike by us Londoners because the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is associated with championing the scheme. Perched atop this blue velocipede was a similarly distinctive form; his white hair peeking out from under his cycle helmet, the tailcoat of his suit flapping in the wind. It was none other than the mayor himself, evidently cycling home after a day at the office.
The traffic lights ahead turned to red, and I pulled up alongside Boris. I had turned my head to see if it really was him, thus making eye contact: the deal was sealed; there was no way I couldn’t at least greet the man with a cheery ‘good evening’. I also asked how his day had been, for good measure. We exchanged a few lines of pleasantries while waiting for the lights to change, then Boris cycled off into the night with a quaverly ‘Take care!’
I have to say that this encounter was somewhat surreal, but I was also rather proud that I, a lowly barista working at a coffee chain, had just had a very normal ‘how’d you do’ conversation with the mayor of London. Not a camera or autograph book in sight. It was pretty much how I reckon most exchanges between individuals should take place, no matter what job they do in life. We’re born, we spend some time on this planet, then we die. If that’s a person’s lot in this life, we should endeavor to treat each other equally regardless of how we spend the time on this planet.
So why did I feel a quivering, starstruck wreck in the presence of Grayson Perry tonight?
Let’s set the scene for the evening. I had been working with the Rebecca Hossack Gallery all day, setting up the stand at the London Original Print Fair in the Royal Academy of Arts. The clock struck six, I finished work and stayed on at the stand as the guests began to arrive. My colleague Emily suddenly announced that she’d seen Grayson Perry near the champagne table. Had I seen him too, she asked. No, I replied, but I was going to change this fact immediately.
I asked Emily if she’d like another glass of champagne and made a beeline for the beverages. Sure enough, there was my idol, hero and a source of inspiration, Mr. Grayson Perry, stood looking reliably flamboyant in a blue cocktail frock, heels and a huge pearl necklace.
I sauntered past and noticed his glass was empty as he stood chatting to another gentleman. I approached the drinks table and dutifully got Emily’s champagne as well as one for myself. I looked back at Mr. Perry and had a sudden desire to walk up to this man, shake his hand and tell him how bloody brilliant I thought he was.
Despite this urge, I took my champagne and walked back to the Rebecca Hossack stand, to give Emily her drink.
But it didn’t end there, gentle reader. Oh no.
As I returned to our stand, I thought ‘If I don’t do this, I will regret it forever. There in the room is an artist who inspires you, and you have an opportunity to speak to him… Go and shake his hand.’ I walked right past Emily with my drinks, and walked full circle back to the beverages where Perry was still talking to his friend.
Feeling rather foolish, I marched towards Grayson & co and successfully suspended their conversation in the politest way possible: “Sorry to interrupt,” I said to Perry meekly, “But I wonder if I could have a shake of your hand and a photograph in exchange for this glass of champagne…”
Bingo! Grayson laughs aloud and sets down his empty glass, tucking his gorgeous blue handbag under one arm in order to simultaneously shake my hand and accept the proffered alcohol. And bingo again, I get not just one photo, but two.
What a legend. He really is as down-to-earth as I’d imagined (why would he be anything else?) and seemed rather amused by my gushing display of admiration. He asked why I was at the show and I invited him to come and see the stand I worked at. I told him how he was something of a hero for me, and congratulated him on his tv series that explored taste in relation to class.
But for some reason I felt compelled to hurry away and leave him in peace. Perhaps it was the unshakable fact I’d interrupted his conversation and become an imposition, asking for a photo …or perhaps it was my feelings of foolishness for having been so fawning and full of worship… either way I suddenly needed to fly away. Curse these feelings!
I suppose the different reaction I had to each celebrity relates to how much of an impact they have had in my life. Hemsworth is an A-list actor, adored by men and women for his attractiveness and charisma; but for me is just a performer with a very well-paid job. Johnson is an outspoken public figure, respected and ridiculed alike as a politician and someone who for me seems to be a likeable, decent gentleman who has done a lot of good for this city, and again is just an ordinary bloke with a very well-paid job. But Perry is the odd-one out, and not just because he’s a bloke who likes to wear frocks.
As you’ve already gathered, the man is an inspiration to me. I respect and admire his attitude, his creative talent, his intelligence and wit. As a successful artist who has made productive contributions to the spheres of art, politics and culture, he is someone I aspire to be.
And I suppose that is the allure of celebrity. We feel starstruck in the presence of people we would like to become. Or in the very least people we would like to emulate.
So while I still feel a twinge of embarrassment for my silly, adoring behaviour, I am also rather proud that I was brave enough to walk up to someone I admire and respect and simply ask to shake their hand. And based on this experience, I’d recommend others to try it too.
Just remember to have a spare glass of champagne in your hand when you do it.