Don’t reach for the stars

Culture

20 Sep 2014

‘Meeting Kylie at her intimate gig,’ runs the Mastercard ad. ‘Priceless.’ Wrong: vaguely unfulfilling. And that’s at best. At worst you’ll be cruelly disappointed. Not the fault of poor Kylie, of course — it’s just that meeting your heroes is almost always a bad idea.

Fans dream of ‘hanging with the band’, but in this promotion the winners will be aware, however much they try to forget it, that their encounter with the Aussie pop goddess is entirely dependent on them holding a particular brand of credit card. Had they happened to be with Visa she wouldn’t now be flashing them the enamel and giggling convincingly at their bons mots.

The contractual aspect weighs heavily on the star, too. In Shine A Light, Martin Scorsese’s documentary about the Rolling Stones, Charlie Watts is told he has to do a ‘meet and greet’. His horror is obvious: ‘I thought we just did that?’ No, comes the patient explanation — the person he just met was Bill Clinton. That’s how much Watts dislikes meeting people: he’s even immune to the legendarily charismatic Clinton, a man who Sandi Toksvig declares ‘could easily have persuaded me to change the habits of a lifetime’. Being a fan of Charlie Watts, I know he’s like this, so I would cross continents to avoid meeting him. Much better to be the woman I know who, unaware (at the age of 15) that the man sharing the kitchen with her at a party was the drummer in the Stones, said: ‘Hello, I’m Rachel — what do you do?’ At which point a friend yanked her away. Rachel later apologised to Watts. ‘Don’t be silly,’ he said. ‘It was nice to meet someone who didn’t know who I was for once.’

The remark reveals the pressure of celebrity. ‘You can’t imagine,’ Clive James once said, ‘what it’s like to have several hundred uninstigated conversations every day. Even from the nicest people. In fact the disaster is that you’ll be abrupt and short with someone you should be talking to.’ The tedious other 99 per cent, he explained, have used up your energy. ‘So you have to protect yourself … It’s sheer self-defence. I hated that.’ And that’s from an erudite, socially confident man. How much worse must it be for a celebrity who is shy, clumsy at small talk?

Working at the BBC I encountered plenty of these. Like the guitarist John Williams, collared at a Broadcasting House reception by an adoring fan. He could greet the tsunami of increasingly fulsome praise with nothing more than silent embarrassment. I ended up feeling sorry for both him and the fan. It’s horribly easy for things to go wrong: Stephen Mangan was so nervous at meeting Robert de Niro that he said ‘Hello, I’m Robert de Niro’, after which there was no alternative but to slink away in shame. Even now I can picture Eric Clapton’s smile as the 17-year-old me shook his hand outside the Albert Hall and told him he was ‘bloody brilliant’. What can you say to that, beyond ‘thanks’? Where can the conversation go? What I should have said was: ‘Eric, what is that third chord in “Badge”?’

All of this, mind you, assumes that the star wants to be nice. If they don’t, things get messy. Ringo Starr now refuses point blank to sign autographs. George Harrison took it even further. A friend of mine saw him being asked for his signature in London. ‘Why?’ asked the ex-Beatle. ‘Er… because you’re George Harrison,’ came the confused reply. ‘No I’m not,’ said Harrison. This was no attempt at anonymity — he was deliberately messing with the fan’s head.

Then there’s the story about Alec Guinness, approached by  a woman who explained that her son had seen Star Wars several hundred times, and would dearly love an autograph. ‘Send him over,’ instructed Guinness. He then explained to the boy that he would sign on one condition. ‘Anything,’ said the excited kid. ‘You must never watch Star Wars again,’ intoned the star. The boy’s reaction was as you’d expect. And this is the real problem: a difference of meaning. The sci-fi film which meant everything to the fan meant nothing to Guinness, at least not when he made it. In time it came to mean a reputed £12,000 a week in royalties for the rest of his life, but of course the corollary was it also meant never-ending requests for autographs, a chat, a reprise of ‘These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.’ Stressful? How could it not be? Offensive when you’re the fan who cops the backlash? Ditto.

The sad answer, then, has to be ‘don’t put yourself in the way of the backlash’. Trust me, there is nothing you can say to David Gilmour about how much Dark Side of the Moon means to you that he hasn’t heard a million times before. From what I know of Gilmour, his eyes will glaze over but nothing worse. In other cases you might not be so lucky. So leave your heroes alone. And perhaps, if you are very, very lucky, it might just happen that you bump into them, and that they’re in a good mood. Take my friend Toby, a huge Bob Dylan fan. He knows the pitfalls only too well: one of his other friends, a fellow Bobsessive, flies private jets for a living, and was once thrilled to learn he was going to pilot the great man across the Atlantic. Warned by minders not to speak to Dylan during the flight, on arrival at JFK he stood, as he always does, at the bottom of the aircraft’s steps in order to bid farewell to his client. Dylan rushed straight down from the plane, deliberately avoiding eye contact or even the briefest of mumbled thank-yous, before disappearing into the waiting limo. It was the only time in years of flying immensely rich and powerful people that this had happened to the pilot. So now, in Toby’s words, ‘My friend’s all-time hero is also the rudest man he has ever encountered.’

Toby himself, however, got lucky. Heading to the gents in the Ritz one day, he looked up to see that the man holding the door open for him was Bob Dylan. Toby took the weight of the door. ‘Thanks Bob,’ he said, not quite believing what was happening. ‘That’s made my day.’ ‘Yeah,’ drawled the departing Dylan pleasantly. ‘Me too, man.’


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