Reading Women

Does Fame Come At the Cost of Personhood?


In this excerpt from her memoir ‘Fame,’ actress Justine Bateman evokes the way growing up under the microscope can warp human interaction.



It’s a whole other plane of living, fame. Another plane of existence. A parallel universe laid over this one, the “real” one. Or really just the one most everyone else is on. Is it real? Which one is real? Both of them? You can’t get out. No one will let you. You cannot be not-famous. You haven’t changed, but everyone, EVERYONE, looks at your sheath. Not you. You are separate. You’re separate and you’re not real, even. You’re not there, even. You’re not there. You change everything when you walk into a room, but you’re not there. We can talk about you like you’re not there, because you’re not-a-person. We can rip into you because you’re not real. It’s like in a film, when you’re killing a lifelike robot, a replica. Should we feel bad about it? Morally? Is it morally right to kill a replica if they’re not-a-person? Celebrities, same thing. Rip them apart, rip them a new asshole.

“They signed up for this. They asked for this. They wanted this. Well, here’s what you get. I hate you. I love you. I want to rip your head off.”

I was in an elevator once. An elevator, seven feet by six, something like that, the average size of an elevator. Small. You’ve been in an elevator. OK, put three people in there. Three people. I’m one of them. The other two are people I don’t know. They know each other, they’re together. OK. They’re talking. They’re talking about me. Me.

They say, “Her hair is darker on TV.” Me. I’m standing there. If I had reached my arm out, I would touch one of them, close. Talking about me, but I’m not there. I’m a poster? An image on a poster? Or I’m on TV. I’m . . . There’s a TV in the elevator and I’m just on it. I’m not really there. Is that it?

“You know I can hear you.”

This was after they’d said some other stuff. Can’t remember. Some other stuff before they said my hair was darker or lighter, whatever. It’s happened before. People looking at me, talking about me, gesturing. Everywhere. Everybody. Thinking I can’t see them, hear them. Assuming? Hoping? Assuming I can’t see them recognize me, watching me, whispering about me. Assume I can’t hear.

So, “You know I can hear you.”

I already feel bad, they don’t see me, don’t want to see me, have shut me out.

YOU’RE OVER THERE AND NOT-A-PERSON. We will ignore you. Make you feel shitty.

OK, I’m already there and, “You know I can hear you.”

They look at me slightly shocked, offended. Offended that I spoke? That I interrupted them. ThatI dared to interrupt them. Me and my not-a-person status interrupting them. Two friends, two close friends having a discussion about me. DO NOT INTERRUPT. Who do you think you are, interrupting us? We who are real and having a real conversation. Goddammit, a private conversation. How dare you. Who are you? You’re not even a real person. We will treat you as if you are a joke even. Not-a-real-person and a joke. A monkey who performs for us, but DOES NOT SPEAK. We will give you money and attention and we will watch your shows and pay for theater tickets to your plays and to your movies and we will buy your magazines, the ones you are on the cover of, being-yourself or not-being-yourself, and we will participate in your Fame. We will support it and keep it robust because we need it to stay there, we need it to be real and big and tangible. BUT YOU WILL NOT INTERRUPT THE CONVERSATIONS OF REAL PEOPLE. You are not real.

“You know I can hear you. I’m right here.”

Me almost, under the skin, apoplectic. I can’t believe they don’t understand the fucking laws of physics or the carry of sound in the air or the fucking proximity of our three bodies.

“I can hear you.”

They look at me with small shock, but more offense. They are offended. I broke the rule. I shattered the fourth wall. I reached across the membrane between my plane of living and theirs. Out of my world, into the “real” world, and they were offended. I had been . . . rude? I was rude. I was rude for doing that to them. I can’t be in their world, their “real” world. Get the fuck out of our world.

A good friend of mine, a wife of a famous actor, told me about a time, one of the many times, that she was seen as not-a-person. Even worse, an obstacle. An obstacle between the fans and her husband, someone to be circumnavigated, or to be used to get to her husband. She told me about one day, late afternoon, a woman with eight teenagers was at her front gate, trying to talk to her son there, on the other side of the gate.

My friend’s son, seven years old or so, trying to shoot baskets in his front yard, and this woman cry- ing out to him to “go get your dad. We’re here to see your dad.” As if he, the son, is also someone to circumnavigate or to use to get to the famous person. “Go get your dad for me.” My friend, the boy’s mother, she comes out.

“This is a private home. You need to leave right now.”

The woman, indignant, INDIGNANT. Outraged at being questioned, at being (possibly) turned away. She wasn’t having that. She’d had a fucking plan.

“But, we drove 60 miles! How dare you!” she bellowed at my friend. “How dare you. You’re going to deny my kids seeing him?”

Can you stand this? Can you imagine? “WE DROVE 60 MILES.” You told these teenagers, per- haps coordinated with their parents, put these teen- agers into your car, and drove an hour or more, and then expected, demanded, that this child and this wife produce this famous person. Because they are not-people. Not the boy, not my friend, not the famous actor. None of them.

This happens; this happens a lot. You retreat, then, if you’re famous. You have a world, and there’s this other world. But, you are shut out. Don’t have an opinion.

“Shut up, you fucking actress. You dumb fucking actress.” Shut up.

So, you build your world up. You have friends, you make friends. You make a world, you populate your world. People you trust. People you don’t trust, but at least treat you as a person. Not as not-a- person. You let them around. Maybe not in, you don’t let them in, but you let them around, because with them you are at least not not-a-person. You have good friends, and you have your “team.” Your agent, your manager, your publicist, like I mentioned before. You have these. They depend on your Fame, your level of Fame; they make a commission on the work that needs your Fame. The Fame is the fuel, the currency. You pay the publicist to help control the Fame or generate direction, action. You take that Fame and . . . You don’t take the Fame; the Fame takes you and you have opportunities because of it. You have work opportunities and everyone is happy and needs the Fame to continue because it is the fuel for the machine. The machine will spit out nothing without the Fame. So, you want to leave? Go and just be a “real” person? You want to take off? No. People have done it. Some people have done it. At the height. Dave Chappelle, Josh Hartnett, Meg Tilly. I’ve heard of some who left abruptly, out, like that. Gone. And then back, sometimes back. But, the TEAM. Dependencies. Not bad. It’s good, They’re not bad, the team; there’s a purpose. But, the Fame, see? The Fame must continue.

Excerpted from FAME: The Hijacking of Reality by Justine Bateman available now wherever books are sold.

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