Monday, October 8, 2018

Celebrity Encounters: Life Lessons We Can Learn

Sifting through old photos as I work on my long-postponed memoir, I recently came across a pair of vintage pictures that evoked some special memories.

In their youth, my parents both had well-publicized encounters with celebrities of the day. My father, a test pilot, appeared in a news photo shaking hands with Howard Hughes. My mother, a pioneer flight attendant for American Airlines, was pictured in newspapers nationwide giving First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt a tour of the airline's new Los Angeles facilities.

My father, Jim McCoy, and Howard Hughes

My mother, Ethel (later Caron) Curtis and Eleanor Roosevelt

My father, who had been a child actor in silent films, was nonchalant about his latest brush with fame.

"No big deal," he said. "Who cares? He may be famous, but he's just another person."

My mother was more inspired by her encounter with Eleanor Roosevelt. "She was just wonderful," she remembered with a smile. "She was so kind, so gracious. She made everyone else around her seem like a celebrity. She made me feel so valued, so much more clever and interesting than I probably ever really was!"

Both of them had an instructive perspective. My father was right: celebrities are just people. And my mother was right, too: some celebrities can inspire and delight us.

Celebrities have held a prominent place in our imaginations, particularly in the past century of advances in film, television and publishing. Although not all of us are prone to fandom, an encounter with a famous or semi-famous person can be memorable -- and instructive. Celebrity itself has been an evolving concept in recent years as so many build their brands, their You Tube Channels and flocks of followers on social media. And some -- like the Kardashians -- are famous simply for being famous.

In recent years, celebrity mania has seemed pandemic -- as supermarket tabloids obsess about the baby bumps, the contentious divorces and the scandalous secrets of the rich and famous, as a reality t.v. star inhabits the White House and books of advice on life and living, allegedly penned by celebrities barely old enough to vote appear on best seller lists.

Even those of us who don't tend toward fandom may have our occasional fantasies. What must it be like to have widespread acclaim and abundant resources? What must it be like to do work one loves?
What must it be like to work with and socialize with people who are household names? What must it be like to be known and admired by so many?

Living most of my life in Los Angeles, and having encountered quite a few well-known people in my career as a magazine journalist and in my adventures on the television talk show circuit, I've met a number of celebrities -- and learned some lasting lessons from these encounters.

1. Never make assumptions about another's life.  This was one of my earliest lessons, learned as a child.  I never missed an episode of "The Mickey Mouse Club" and adored the Mouseketeers. I thought they must have wonderful lives and I yearned to be one of them. My best friend Mary and I both had a crush on Mouseketeer Lonnie Burr and, having read that he lived in nearby Glendale, Mary looked through the local phone book and actually found a listing for him! She called, planning to just hear his voice and hang up. But when his mother called him to the phone and he said "Hello" she was mesmerized. Without thinking, she invited him to a party-- an event that didn't exist until that very moment -- the next week at her house and he agreed to come.

When Lonnie and his mother arrived for the hastily-arranged party, I quickly realized that his life was not perfect after all.  Like any 13-year-old, he was a little self-conscious, worried about acne (thus declining a piece of chocolate cake) and pretended not to hear his mother's narrative as he played party games with neighborhood kids. His mother, a children's talent agent, regaled my mother with the truth about his professional life: he was under great pressure to generate fan mail in order to stay on the show and so she hoped that all of us at the party would send him fan letters. She went on about his career accomplishments well before his current gig and her plans for him in the years to come. Overhearing her, I understood at once that his life was different from mine, but certainly no happier.

While he was unfailingly gracious at the party, I knew somehow -- deep down -- that his fame was no protection against loneliness or depression.

Lonnie confirmed this in a series of emails in the wake of my 2011 blog post about the party (Mouseketeer Party) and in a more recent exchange when I told him that I would be writing about the party again in my  memoir in progress. He replied, mentioning his own memoir The Accidental Mouseketeer: Before and After the Mickey Mouse Club, published a few years ago. I read his book when it first came out and found it both fascinating and chilling. Now a Broadway veteran, a college teacher and a writer, Lonnie remembers his years as a child star with horror. "It's a horrible thing to do to a child, no matter how altruistic the parent(s) may be" he wrote. "No child should be a professional until after the age of 18 or after finishing high school. Let them enjoy artistic pursuits for fun, as an amateur, until then. I began therapy at 20 after a suicide attempt, much of which, but not all, had to do with my childhood experiences of being in the 'biz.'"

So, thanks to Lonnie, I learned early on that fame is no guarantee of happiness or fulfilling relationships or even a positive self-image. In fact, the demands of a life in the spotlight, especially at a tender age, might make all of this more elusive.

2. Fame doesn't confer wisdom or altruism or make a celebrity trustworthy.  We're conditioned, seeing famous people doing commercials, product endorsements and political statements, to regard celebrities as experts with a certain amount of instant credibility. That trust is, too often, misplaced. It's true that some celebrities are wise and insightful. They probably always were. And some are ignorant and uninformed. And still others are just plain nuts. So overall, they're pretty much like all the rest of us.

Some. however, do put the platform of their celebrity to good use for charitable and or otherwise worthy causes. And there are others who will say anything, endorse anything or anybody, just to keep their name in the news.

I learned this during one of my first celebrity encounters as a young journalist assigned to interview Arthur Godfrey, a mainstay of early television and the spokesperson for an environmental group, about his concerns for the environment. During our interview over lunch at Hollywood's Brown Derby restaurant, I quickly discovered that he had no interest whatsoever in the environment.

"Who cares about that?" he said dismissively, wheezing as he slid over to my side of the banquette. He nuzzled my ear and whispered "I've had a vasectomy."

I stared down at my Cobb salad, aghast. Unbelieving.


He leaned heavily against me. "I've had a vasectomy, so I'm safe."

It couldn't be. It was topic. So bizarre. And he was so....old. I decided to play clueless and pretend this wasn't happening.

I smiled and said "That's interesting. Was it your concern about overpopulation affecting the environment that led to your decision to get a vasectomy?"

He stared at me for a moment, then sighed and moved back to his side of the banquette. And we both left the interview disappointed.

3. Celebrities are -- beneath the glitter -- just people and many revel in their ordinariness. I learned this from my father and also from numerous encounters with celebrities through the years. Some are very good people. Some not so good. Some, caught in a frustrated or angry moment, may be forever misunderstood. And some revel in moments of ordinariness.

I remember encounters with three very different older women in green rooms over the years.

In the first, I walked into a nearly deserted green room, lined with tables and vending machines, backstage at the Los Angeles Music Center, arriving early for a stint as a super in a performance of the Metropolitan Opera Company, on an assignment for Opera Magazine. There was a non-descript older woman, dressed casually, sitting at one of the tables. She had a bunch of postcards in front of her. She looked up with a smile.

"I'm trying to pick just the right postcard to send to my daughter," she said, motioning for me to sit down beside her. "Which one would you say is most typical of Los Angeles? I want her to have a real feel for this place." As we looked over the postcards, an older man walked through the room.

"Hi, Bubbles..." he said as he passed. And I realized with a start that the postcard lady was Beverly Sills, the acclaimed opera star. She didn't blink. "So," she said, as before. "Which one do you think would be best?"

And I realized that this ordinary moment was a luxury for her.

The same was true of another older woman sitting in the green room of the Sally Jessy Raphael Show some years later. She was eating a salad out of a plastic container and looked up as I came in. I was fighting my stage fright, as usual, with false bravado: "HI! I'm Kathy McCoy and YOU are...???" She gave me a funny look. There was a pause. And then she said "I'm Bella Abzug..." I was crestfallen not to have recognized her and made a lame joke. "Didn't recognize you without one of your hats..." I mumbled. She shrugged. "It's okay," she said. "Nice to be invisible sometimes." And she went back to her salad.

The third older woman was less sanguine. In fact she was pissed off big time. I saw her the minute I walked into the green room at The Today Show which was just winding down its live broadcast. The Falklands War had broken out that morning and several of the guests -- including me and this pissed off lady -- were told that, due to expanded war coverage, our segments would be filmed for future broadcast after the live show ended. I sat down and looked at her. Her face was familiar. She was wearing a dark print dress, her legs apart , the tops of her knee length stockings showing. She glared at me and then looked past me as Gene Shalit entered the room.  "It's not bad enough that I'm being pre-empted by some silly war?" she asked. "But I have to wait for HER...?" She gestured dismissively toward me. "SHE'S going to film her segment first?"

Gene Shalit slid by me with an apologetic look. "She's filming first because Bryant Gumbel has a plane to catch," he explained. "I'm truly sorry, Miss Merman."

I looked up. Ethel Merman? Yes, of course it was. Bryant Gumbel walked into the room and, sensing the tension, quietly asked an assistant to make a later plane reservation for him. Then he smiled at Ethel Merman. "You can go first," he said. "Kathy and I will wait. I'm black. I'm used to waiting." She didn't catch the irony, just nodded and said "Fine."

Remembering less tempestuous ordinary moments with well known people, I think of a celebrity junket one evening in the early Seventies from L.A. to San Diego and back. I had been invited to tag along on this adventure by a friend who, as a television series star, had been tapped for this decidedly non-glamorous event. It was like a fever dream with an odd assortment of celebrities who would be making an appearance to add glitz to a charity fundraiser with the cream of San Diego society. They were to mingle with attendees during the pre-dinner festivities, then disappear, whisked off in an old school bus back to the airport and the return flight to L.A.. Dinner wasn't on the celeb agenda. It wasn't even an option. Despite their hunger and weariness, not one of the celebrities acted like a diva or went into an entitled snit. On the bus to the San Diego airport, the people sitting closest to me -- Rudy Vallee, Margaret O'Brien, Loretta Swit and a young adult Jay North  -- were joking about this being the Starving Celebrity junket. "Right now, I'd give my fortune for a hot dog," Rudy Vallee said and everyone laughed. Loretta Swit, sitting beside me, picked up the narrative: "Yes, this is all really happening. The glamour! The excitement! The hunger....!" We laughed again. It was after midnight when yet another bus dropped us at the dark, deserted parking garage in the Century City area of Los Angeles where this fever dream had begun hours earlier. Jay North, who had morphed over the years from Dennis the Menace to a very gracious young man, walked Loretta and me to our cars. We were still smiling.

Perhaps my fondest ordinary celebrity moment was during a interview with James Herriott, the humble British vet who wrote a series of best selling books including "All Creatures Great and Small", spawning a popular television series based on his life. He was delightful. We were sitting in a booth at the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel and he was greatly enjoying a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice, a rarity where he lived. Then he spotted someone sitting in the next booth and his eyes widened. "It's Neil Armstrong!" he whispered. "Oh, my! I admire him so much. Now there's someone who has really achieved something! How incredible to see him!" He thought of going over to say "Hello" and maybe ask for an autograph. But he decided against it. "He's eating breakfast," he said. "I don't want to be a bother. It's a thrill enough just to see him."

4. Like the rest of us, celebrities are more complex than their public images.

Because they are, at once, so familiar to us and yet total strangers, it's easy to label, categorize, idealize or demonize a celebrity -- and be wrong each time. Some celebrities share much of themselves with the public while others give only a glimpse of the real and complex individuals they happen to be. Even more than we tend to see each other in black and white, hero or villain terms, we tend to label our celebrities as saints or sinners, good guys or total jerks. But, of course, it's rarely that simple. Meeting someone famous gives you only a tiny glimpse into the complex people they are -- and sometimes what you see is a surprise.

You might see goodness in a celebrity with a less than stellar public persona or a hint of steeliness and toughness or brusqueness in someone you had always imagined perpetually sweet and friendly. And you learn, if you look closely with an open mind, that celebrities, like the rest of us, are a combination of many different traits.

I've found this to be true over and over again in encounters with celebrities during my appearances on television talk shows:

  • Despite his sometimes controversial television reputation, Geraldo Rivera is very thoughtful and kind off-camera to his talk show guests. Unlike some hosts who don't bother to meet with non-celebrity guests prior to the show, he sat with me when I was in make-up, talking about the show and the topics he hoped we would cover. Noticing that I was having problems with my throat in the wake of a bad cold, he offered me a cup of hot tea and honey. And, during breaks in the taping, he would ask me how I was feeling and offer encouragement as well as more tea and honey.
  • Richard Simmons is just as sweet and kind off camera as he is on. He gave me warm hugs and re-did my eye makeup -- beautifully -- when I arrived to appear on his show. But he can also be a tough-minded boss with clear-cut rules. His daily show, back in the 1980's, had three segments: the interview, a cooking interlude and then exercise. The host, the guest and the studio audience always wound up the show all exercising together. Rule #1 was that no one was allowed to stand around and watch the exercise. You either joined in or left the studio. The day I appeared, there was a group of teenage girls in the audience who had come to the show with their somewhat thuggish boyfriends. The boyfriends scoffed at the notion of doing the exercises. With a few stern words, delivered with an air of quiet, no-nonsense steeliness, Richard banished them from the soundstage.
  • Katie Couric can ask tough questions on camera, but off duty, she tears up at unguarded moments. Once, in the makeup room at The Today Show, she was getting a touch up while I was getting made up. On the television monitor, tuned in to Today's live broadcast, was a previously filmed interview she had done with Barbra Streisand. Talking about her difficult relationship with her mother, Streisand suddenly fought tears as she said "My mother never told me that she loved me." Watching this, both Katie Couric and I teared up in tandem as both make-up artists cried "No! No!" and delicately dabbed our eyes with tissues to keep our eye makeup from streaking. She reached out her hand to me. "Oh, you're a crier, too!" she said. "I love it! So nice to meet you. I wish I were doing your interview today. Well, maybe next time..." and she squeezed my hand.
  • Oprah has a well-earned reputation as someone who has made a major difference for so many. She has been generous in her celebrity and championed causes that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. But her on-camera caring, while genuine, doesn't necessarily translate into off-camera congeniality, especially toward non-celebrity guests. She rarely meets with such guests before or after the show, though we did commiserate briefly about our shared weight fluctuations during a break in filming during my second appearance on her show and, afterwards, she did send an aide after me with an autographed picture as I was leaving the building. But mostly, she was all business, keeping tight control of every aspect of the show. She was extremely tough and didn't suffer fools  -- major assets, to be sure, in building a stellar career in a highly competitive field but a bit of a shock to the uninitiated. Both her caring and her brusqueness are all part of the inimitable Oprah.

5. When the power of celebrity is paired with kindness and empathy, some celebrity encounters can, indeed, be life-changing.

Most celebrity encounters are fleetingly memorable, but largely uneventful. Meeting a famous person makes an interesting story but doesn't usually change your life in any measurable or meaningful way.

Except sometimes. Sometimes you meet a celebrity who reaches out to you in a way that makes a major difference in your life.

The combination of kindness and the power of fame can be transformative to those who come in contact with someone so gifted.

In my youth, I was fortunate to have two life-changing encounters.

I'll never forget the kindness of Davy Jones during my interview with him (as a class project) when we were both 19 years old. I was a shy, scared sophomore journalism major at Northwestern and he a Tony-nominated Broadway star, not yet a Monkee. His patience and sweetness as I let nerves get the better of me, breaking into tears during our interview, helped turn our encounter into a delightful learning experience. Passing me tissues and holding my hand, he suggested that I put down my list of pre-prepared questions and we could just talk. So we talked and my fear began to fall away. This interview, rescued by his kindness, led to an article that not only got me an "A" in class, but also became my first published piece in a national magazine. This experience was critical to helping me overcome my fear of interviewing -- an essential step for a would-be journalist! (I wrote a blog post about this right after his 2012 death: Remembering Davy Jones)

And I'll always remember Cyril Ritchard, the Australian Tony award winning Broadway actor and television star who entranced a generation of kids with his Captain Hook in Mary Martin's "Peter Pan." I first saw the show on television when I was nine years old and fell in love with him immediately. He played the bad guy, but I knew he was kidding. I had a fantasy that someday he would meet my beloved Aunt Molly, fall hopelessly in love with and marry her and adopt me and my siblings, whisking us off to the safety and security we had needed forever. 

While this pivotal meeting of the hearts and thus my adoption never happened, he did soothe my soul nonetheless. We had a regular correspondence. Three years later, when he came to Los Angeles with the show "Visit to a Small Planet", he invited my brother, my friend Mary and me to visit in his dressing room after a matinee. (See my blog post about him and our encounter: Remembering Cyril Ritchard)

During our visit, he showed such interest in who we were and what we thought. I felt so safe and happy in his presence. Finally, I told him quietly, how frightened I was of my father. My eyes filled with tears as I looked up at him. He took my hand, an all-encompassing love and empathy in his eyes. Then he embraced me warmly, saying a quiet prayer asking God to be with me, to protect me, to keep me safe. He suggested that we could be united always in prayer, every day, and that his thoughts would always be with me. That was enough. I envisioned his prayers keeping me safe and that sustained me through many a dark night of my childhood and beyond. It was a brief, yet immensely reassuring connection that warmed me for a lifetime. 

Celebrity encounters can teach or reinforce some powerful lessons: about the importance of not making assumptions about others; about understanding that ordinary people, as well as celebrities, aren't always who they seem, but are complex, fascinating and unique; about the importance of critical thinking and making up one's own mind about an issue instead of simply taking someone's word for it -- whether this person is a celebrity or not. Most important is the lesson that kindness, whenever it happens, can be transformative to someone who so needs a listening ear, an open heart and a moment of caring and empathy. Such moments can, indeed, change a life -- whether or not fame is ever part of the equation.


  1. Dear Kathy, this post was fascinating. Always your stories/posts help me understand my own life better or put events and feeling into perspective for me. This posting did both, but it also, in this time of incivility in our political life, gave me insight into my own response to those who think differently from me. Thank you for that.

    By the way, I'm so eager to read your memoir/autobiography. I'd like to know more about your family life and where your inner strength and determination and deep down tenderness toward others comes from. Peace.

  2. Some amusing anecdotes! I think our left brain knows we shouldn't necessarily believe celebrity endorsements, but our right brain falls for them every time.

  3. Our only child works in the film industry she always states which famous person talked with manners and who did not..Most she would never have a donut with or meal..She said so few make the billions and millions but many act like they should..Many have so little couthness she justs shrugs over their words..She worked for an actor who killed himself, he was so talented but miserable with drugs, he left behind a lady who loved him and 3 children and is was devastating indeed..She is not impressed with celebrities knowing they are so human and full of frailities..She enjoys her life and would never trade it for the bigtime and money and fame..just saying!!!!!!!!!!