Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Wouldn't you rather be rich and obscure?

For a brief period when I was a teenager, I thought (as many teenagers do) that I wanted to be rich and famous when I grew up.

Thank heavens I thought it through before I ever made that happen.

Yes, many teenagers want to be celebrities. That's because many teenagers can't think about what's happening more than about three days ahead. (I feel confident saying this, because I was one of them. Hormones... they melt your brains, I tells ya.) If they were to consider it for more than a minute or two, they might come up with a few reasons why being a wealthy celebrity isn't all it's cracked up to be.

First, there's the constant flocking. Teenagers think it would be fun to stroll down the red carpet being cheered by adoring fans, while the paparazzi take dozens of photos and the fan magazine reporters describe everything they see in excruciating detail for the folks at home. And it probably would be, the first half-dozen times it happened. But then you'd start to realize that the fans and the reporters and the random people with cell phone cameras were following you at the mall, and in the grocery store, and when you went out to check your mail, and (horrors) at the pool or the gym. Everywhere you went, there would be people with cameras, people who wanted to shake your hand and talk exhaustively about your last project, people who yelled inane catchphrases at you, people who wanted just one more autograph. You'd always wonder whether people really liked you for yourself, or whether they only took an interest in you because you were famous or wealthy or had clout with other famous people. How long before that got old?

And then you'd have the real loons to deal with: the crazy stalkers who called you at 2:30 in the morning or tried to break into your home or tailed your spouse and children so they could talk to you about their unified field theories, the evil people who tried to blackmail you because they once saw you doing something wrong or stupid, and the reporters who would do ANYTHING -- and think hard about what that word really means -- to get the latest scoop story on you. At worst, you might become like the late Michael Jackson, a prisoner of his own celebrity who had to resort to elaborate disguises if he wanted to leave his home and go into a public place unmolested, and who encouraged his children to wear masks or veils to conceal their identity from would-be kidnappers.

Speaking of reporters, you'd have to get used to dressing for them every day, not for yourself or for your family or friends. It wouldn't be so bad on days when you looked nice, but if you slipped up even for a minute -- if you spilled food or drink on yourself by accident, or if there were a grease spot on your shirt, or if your nose were a little shiny, or if you'd been sweating heavily, or if you were having a bad hair day, or gained a few ounces, or if you failed to maintain an immaculate bikini wax at all times -- the press would take pictures of it and crucify you publicly for your minor lapse in fashion sense. (I can only imagine how this would work for your humble writer, no fashion plate even on my best days. As a wife and the guardian of a seventh grader, I find myself playing taxi driver pretty often. Imagine if I put on my knee-length caftan as a cover-up one morning, just to drive Captain Midnight to work, and some paparazzo snapped a quick pic of me in the car. For the next week or so I'd be squirming at the supermarket tabloids featuring that horrible photo under headlines like "Soozcat Caught in Fashion Faux Pas" and "Oh Caftan, My Caftan." I'll pass, thanks.)

Then, too, your time and interests would no longer be your own. Get caught reading a book in public, and people want to know why you picked it (uh, because it's interesting?); buy something you like at a store, and start an unexpected run on the hapless business; get second-guessed at every turn by every armchair critic, based on every private interest the media can dig up as well as every preference you've ever made public. You want people to know and mock your guilty pleasures? And if you've made or inherited money as part of your celebrity, that money isn't yours to spend either. Every hard-case sob sister and charity organization in the world will come to you asking for money -- and when you have to decline some of them, as you will eventually do because you don't have unlimited money or because you don't support their cause, they'll be furious and start bad-mouthing you to anyone who will listen.

Let's not forget the mean kids -- the ones who tormented you and made your life unbearable in high school. These people never really go away, they just go to Hollywood. Sometimes they inexplicably become famous in their own right, as with Perez Hilton. And sometimes they apply their venom in other ways, by sidling up to celebrities and trying to backstab them, Emperor's New Clothes-style. Can't you imagine one of these talking to Cate Blanchett, trying to convince this lovely and talented woman (who probably doesn't have the time or inclination to fuss over what to wear) that she ought to walk a red carpet clad only in my grandma's afghan?

Image evilly stolen from Getty Images. Eeeevil.
Let's face it: not everyone is cut out to be famous. There are certain pressures associated with fame that most people are simply not constitutionally equipped to handle. If you weren't already well aware of this before the advent of "reality TV," you should have attained enlightenment while watching Susan Boyle have a nervous breakdown in real time, or seeing Jon and Kate Gosselin destroy their marriage and family for the entertainment of the masses. I'm not excusing those celebrities who make fools of themselves -- who go out and get publicly smashed, shave their heads, run around sans underwear, et cetera -- but they really don't live with the kinds of circumstances that support or encourage normal human behavior.

Now, let's consider for a moment the relatively obscure life of Jack C. Taylor. You probably wouldn't be able to pick Taylor out of a crowd, unless you knew what you were looking for -- he's a grandfatherly-looking man in his mid-80s, with white hair and piercing eyes. His experience is similar to that of many Americans of his age: Taylor dropped out of college, he was a Navy fighter pilot during World War II, and started out his business career selling cars for a Cadillac dealership in St. Louis. Eventually, when he started his own business, he named it after the aircraft carrier from whose decks he had flown many of his missions during the war: the Enterprise. The Taylor family owns Enterprise Rent-a-Car; Taylor himself is worth about 9.5 billion dollars, and is about the 40th-richest person in the world. And unless you happen to work for Enterprise or you read Forbes magazine religiously, you've probably never heard of him before now. He could walk into your local Quik-Mart and buy a packet of powdered sugar Donettes, and you'd never know he was a billionaire.

That's more my speed: rich and obscure. And hey, since my obscurity is secured, I'm already halfway there!