The bust-up of Kim Kardashian’s wedding has got me thinking about celebrity and fame in our culture. Now, get ready kids, ‘cuz here comes a “in my day”… In my day, when you wanted to be famous you had to either be an athelete, a pop star, a movie star or a supermodel. When I was a kid, like every other kid in the universe, I imagined being rich and famous and having loads of fans and people who idolized me. I wasn’t sure exactly how I’d become famous, I just knew I wanted to.
Before American Idol, there was Star Search, a gameshow where talented hopefuls came out and either sang, danced, told jokes (there was something called the “spokesmodel” competition, where folks would star in these weird montages in hopes of winning a modeling contract – that was my least favorite part of the show). Star Search was great because, well, first, Ed McMahon was the host, and his patented roar of a voice was pretty great and second, the tallying of the scores was kind of awesome: they would line up the contestants and then flash the number of stars they earned, the loser being quickly whisked behind the curtains, while the victor was promised a spot next week to defend his or her title.
Well, I was obsessed with Star Search and dreamed of going on the show. There was just one problem. I didn’t really have any talent. I had a jump rope that I used as a microphone and would try to sing songs, but my performances were usually met with either polite stares or my audience just getting up and leaving the room. My dancing was worse. And no one can kill a joke like I did: like a Jack the Ripper of comedy, I would try to tell jokes, only to mangle the setup and often deliver the punchline too quickly. I also had the unfortunate habit of trying to pattern my “act” after stuff I saw on television (imagine an effeminite, chubby 9-year old delivering Marsha Warfield’s set – yup, exactly), so most of the time I didn’t even understand the stories I was trying to sell as funny.
I had enough presence of mind to realize that a kid from the South Side of Chicago has a long way to go to get to Star Search and knew that there would have to be steps to take before I could grace the stages of Star Search. My solution came in the form of grade school talent shows. You’ve been to them, I’m sure. I was so excited because this was going to be my ticket to becoming a full-fledged superstar. This was pre-Glee so I didn’t really have a model to look up to as a kid, so I didn’t really understand the concept of talent shows. When the teacher passed around the sign-in sheet for the talent show, we were instructed to write our name down and then write down our talent. I put down “drawing.”
Of course, after having it explained to me that the entertainment value of seeing me sitting on stage doodling was practically nill, I was left with a big question mark over my head over what I could do. I thought I could sing and I corralled a group of friends on the playground and asked them for their unbridled opinion. In a pitchy squeal, I screeched out a boistorous version of “76 Trombones.” The looks were enough, that I started to worry. Then a friend of mine rescued me: Kristy.
Kristy was a fun girl in the 3rd grade who was famous in class for her menagerie. Once I went to her house and it looked like he dad was Dr. Doolittle. She had a big pantry with shelves filled with Kleenex boxes. I looked inside and saw that each Kleenex box had a roosting parakeet, sitting on her eggs. She must’ve had like 30 parakeets. It was disgusting.
So Kristy suggested I perform with her. She had just the thing: we would lip sync to Paula Abdul’s “Opposites Attract” a huge hit at the time. The song was terrible, but the video was pretty cool: Abdul’s dancing around with a rapping cartoon cat. Secretly I wanted to be Paula Abdul (I did mention I was gay, right?), but instead I got cast as the street wise cat. Which meant I had to get my hands on a pair of baggy jeans, a sports jersey of some kind and a baseball cap. None of which I owned.
I ended up borrowing my rapper drag from an older cousin who fancied himself the precursor to Eminem (he thought he was hard). It was great because the jeans were extra baggy, because as chubby as I was, he was fat, so I looked like I was wearing a pair of denim Harem pants. Because I was supposed to be a cat, I had my mom color my nose black and draw whiskers on my face with an eyebrow pencil; a couple weeks earlier I saw a photograph of the cast from Cats and showed it to my mom and asked her to do the makeup like their’s, but she only did the whisker-black nose thing.
So we got my costume together and we got Kristy’s vaguely Paula Abdul look together. And we were so excited about the show. We promised we’d be the best and couldn’t wait until next week when we would wow the audience with our show. One problem: we forgot to practice. I didn’t even know all the words to “Opposites Attract.” We didn’t realize this until we climbed the stage and stood on the shiny, wooden floor and looked at each other in panic. Our teacher pressed the “play” button and Kristy’s cassingle of “Opposites Attract” boomed out of my Fisher Price tape player, and we started to move uncertainly from side-to-side.
We began to listen carefully to the lyrics and instead of trying to move to the beat, we decided to act out the words to the song. So when Abdul chirps, “I don’t like cigarettes and he likes to smoke” I would mime smoking, while Kristy would pinch her nose and wave her hand in front of her face in fake disgust. When the lyrics said, “It ain’t fiction, just a natural thang” we’d pretend we’re reading a book (a fiction book, get it? The audience didn’t, either) And then the chorus goes, “Two steps forward, two steps back, we come together ‘cuz opposites attract.” We pranced two steps up and two steps down like show ponies, and then just sort of stand there and improvise some hand gestures to convey that we’re “opposites” but that we somehow “attract.” And then I’d remember I was a cat, so when Kristy was “singing” I would pretend I was washing myself with my “paw.” It was a disaster and we knew it, acutely and couldn’t wait to get off the stage. The song was only about 3 and a half minutes long, but it felt like hours. Because this was a Catholic school and we were brainwashed with the notions of charity and kindness, our hurried exit was accompanied by the sporadic claps of the school kids.
We charged to the hallway and started to pace nervously – probably the only time an 9-year old looks like an expectant father in an 1950’s sitcom. The first thing out of Kristy’s mouth was, “Do you think they noticed?”
“I think we were okay,” I said. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and saw then when I was “washing” myself as the cat, I smeared the penciled whisker on the left side of my face, so I ended up looking less like a castmember of Cats and more like a castmember of Oliver! We went back to the seats to watch the rest of the show, which predictably was excellent. A group of boys that were so tough, I found them intimidating, so I never hung out with them, crafting a really clever improve/comedy sketch about gym class; I was torn between being impressed and enjoying the skit, and nursing a massive dose of envy and not only their talent, but at the fact that they rehearsed (and no, Mr. Brett Ranter, rehearsals aren’t just for fags).
You would think this humbling experience would have discouraged me from joining anymore talent shows, or at least get me to practice before getting on stage. You’d be wrong. The following year, I announced I would entertain by singing that old chestnut “San Francisco” (some serious foreshadowing, huh?). I had a tape of Judy Garland singing it (I know, I know, don’t say it…) and I played it once and thought, “this is a great song.” I told my teacher that I’d do it. One problem: I never bothered to learn the lyrics.
So, yet again, I found myself standing on the stage, looking out at the faces of students, teachers and parents (this talent show was a bigger deal, if I remember). And I started out strong for the first verse and then, because I couldn’t remember anything else, I kept repeating the verse over and over. For about three minutes I’m singing the same sentence again and again. I started to feel that there should be an ending, and because I didn’t know the end of the song, I just merely repeated the verse, but instead, I drew it out and gave it some “razzle dazzle” by “bringing it home” and belting out the last couple words. I even had the nerve to do jazz hands and get down on one knee. Again, smattering of applause as I took my bows.
Looking back at these two experiences that I’d call “my brushes with fame” I can’t understand why I was surprised that I never made it to Star Search. Whenever I watched a Burger King commercial with some toe-headed moppet I’d rage at the television, “I can eat hamburgers! How come I’m not on TV!” I would go almost limp with frustration when I saw snaggle-toothed children play Candyland or Uno. I read everything I could get my hands on about child stars, that was age-appropriate for a 10-year old. I didn’t realize that most child stars live lives of uncomprimising misery, often punctuated by drug abuse, alcoholism and early death. I just wanted to be famous and meet Mr T. and have my own catchphrase.
Well, none of it ever happened. Star Search got cancelled, and in a sense so did my hunger for the spotlight and Hollywood stardom. I started to write more and found that my writing got a lot more attention than my singing or dancing ever did – and it was the good kind of attention, not the “Oh, no, he’s doing it again” kind of attention. I’d love to tell you that at the end of all this I’m a fanastically wealthy, best-selling author, with shelves groaning underneath the weight of all my literary awards. But I’m not. Still, I’m not that frantically envious kid either. Oh sure, sometimes I’ll get pissed if I’m at a Barnes and Noble and see that Snookie, the Situation or Lance Bass have published books and I’m still toiling away at this blog, but at least my goal of success is somewhat within my reach this time. And if not, I can always dust off my act and try it out on American Idol. Only this time, I’ll make sure I rehearse at least once.