Celebrity is an odd phenomenon. Out of the 7.5 billion people in the world, why do we choose to fixate on that select 604,000? (That’s an approximation.) Why do we see authors, athletes, politicians, actors, singers, or dancers doing their jobs and decide that we need to know about their every waking moment? One aspect may be admiring the talent which they show for their art, but there are a lot of talented people in the world. Why don’t we need to know about our accountant’s latest relationship drama? Why don’t we follow our doctors around and take pictures of them from the bushes? On the contrary, when we get stuck in a situation next to a particularly talkative stranger who feels the need to tell us their entire life story, most of us react with either silent annoyance or disinterest. But there is an entire industry devoted to tracking the every move of those whom society has deemed important enough to be called “celebrities.”
I suppose this pattern is a reflection on our culture. Every generation needs a set of role models who are elevated above the rest to represent and advocate for the general population. Bear with me while I wax historical. I promise I’ll be brief. When communication relied on written forms like newspapers and books, authors and politicians ruled public opinion. With the advent of the radio, news was able to spread faster and politicians gathered even more influence. Around this same time, musicians also began to gain popularity. But, as soon as movies and TV entered the scene, the public became instantly entranced by the actors and actresses who showed us a glamorous alternative to the real world. And ever since this media evolution, the stars of our entertainment have taken on larger-than-life personas which leave them responsible for being the poster children of how we wish we could live.
I’m not complaining about this process. It is only natural that those in control over the most widespread method of communication and media would hold the most power and influence. And they say that Communications is too of broad a study! Who wouldn’t want to be full of useless thoughts like these? But even outside my area of study, I fall into the draw of this celebrity culture just as much, if not more than, the average person. I love to keep up with my favorite stars. I have subscriptions to both People and EW magazines and make sure to faithfully read them cover-to-cover every week. If you have a question about pretty much anything in the entertainment world, I’m the one to ask. But no one tell my professor about my regular consumption of such “inferior journalism.” Opinions about entertainment gossip aside, I’m just practicing for my future of legally stalking all sorts of people in the public eye.
But even so, it is a very strange dynamic to meet someone whose professional and personal lives you have read about for months or even years. I have only experienced such an encounter once thus far. For some reason, Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez came to my college campus for a speaking engagement about something having to do with a library. When I received an email telling me that the first 100 students to respond to the invitation would get a free ticket to this event, I kind of freaked out. I loved Laurie as a part of the “Final Five” USA team in Rio 2016 and I gleefully watched her win Dancing with the Stars a few months later. The event was supposed to start about an hour and a half before my best friend and I were supposed to meet up with some friends, so we went with a determined purpose: we wanted to talk to Laurie. We sat for a torturous 45 minutes as some old guy talked about who knows what. Then, during a 15 minute break before Laurie would be introduced, we ran back to our dorm to get money to buy copies of Laurie’s book which was being sold. As I got to the cash register, I turned around to see Laurie standing in the next room. A group of people were already taking pictures with their so I threw my money at the lady selling the book, stole a pen from the old guy selling his books (who, in hindsight, was probably pretty important), and rushed to be next in line to meet the person who had been my one and only idol for the past 90 minutes. Standing there watching her talk to strangers, it occurred to me that I should figure out what I wanted to say. I wasn’t nervous, I just really wasn’t sure how to approach the situation. Before that moment, I had thought I wanted to tell her how I loved watching her do flips and ballroom dance, but once she was in front of me, it felt very odd. I don’t know her and she doesn’t know me. I know she has probably heard it a thousand times and is used to it by now, but isn’t it kind of creepy to tell this seventeen year old girl who I have never met how much I love her?
So, while she was signing my book, I made my decision. I decided I couldn’t go wrong with complimenting her shoes. She politely thanked me and then said that she was gross from being at the beach all morning. I told her that Florida natives take the beach for granted and that we hardly ever go. She replied with a comment about her hometown and then the short-lived conversation hit a lull. As she looked like she was about to walk away and my brush with fame would be over, I suddenly felt this desperation to not let the moment end. I honestly don’t know if it was the excitement of meeting an actual celebrity, wanting to prove to myself that I was able to have a normal conversation with a famous person, or if the college-life has just so ingrained in me the art of not knowing when to end an awkward first meeting. But whatever the reason, I decided to explain to her the difference between Tampa beaches and West Palm beaches. She once again politely replied and I finally accepted that my time was over. As my friend (who up until this point, had been standing speechless with her mouth hanging open) and I thanked her for her time and told her it was nice to meet her, my desperation came back as I realized that I had forgotten to ask for a picture, and this shining moment might be lost forever if I didn’t store a record of it in the Cloud. So I turned back and bothered her one more time. She took the selfie for us, for which I was very grateful because I am self-conscious about my selfie skills, and then I said goodbye. For real this time.
For the entire rest of the day, my friend and I were on cloud nine. She was just so cute and sweet and she has done so much for someone so young. We listened to most of her speech before we had to duck out and meet our friends. At first, we were scared she would be offended that we left while she was still speaking. But then we remembered that we are not her best friends like we thought we were for those beautiful 90 seconds and she definitely would not notice if we left. I still am not sure why this world-famous teenager had that affect on me. She is two years younger than me, and yet just being in her presence was incredibly surreal. And even though my friend laughed at me for talking to Laurie Hernandez about the beach, I am proud of myself. It was a relief to know that if I need to interview any celebrities for my future job, I will not be star-struck into silence. I am proud that I was able to treat her like a normal stranger and engage in normal stranger small-talk, even if I was freaking out on the inside. I am actually proud for the very fact that it was sufficiently awkward in a normal way, instead of in a stereotypical fan-girl way. And as for the feeling of awe that I felt by meeting her, I really can’t explain it. All I can say is that it must be a product of our society’s fascination with stardom which is instilled in all of us. It may remain a mystery to me, but at least I can accept it and move on without letting it take away any of my own unique awkwardness.