Through the looking glass of fame

Photo courtesy of USC Photo/Gus Ruelas The University of Southern California recently bought a letter at a London auction, penned in 1891 by C.L. Dodgson. The only reason that anyone cares about a really old letter from C.L Dodgson is because he wrote books under a pen name -  Lewis Carroll. It's a three page letter, on sepia-toned paper with perfectly old-timey slanted script. The letter seems to have the sole purpose of explaining to his friend, Mrs. Symonds, why Carroll hates being famous. He says:

“All of that sort of publicity leads to strangers hearing of my real name in connection with the books, and to my being pointed out to, and stared at by, strangers, and being treated as a ‘lion.’ And I hate all of that so intensely that sometimes I almost wish I had never written any books at all."

It's fairly shocking to learn that Lewis Carroll was so appalled by fame that he had some regrets about writing Alice in Wonderland. (It's also surprising to learn that he was such a fan of underlining.) But clearly, he really didn't like that whole celebrity thing.

What did it even mean to be famous in 1891? What was it like to be a celebrity in the days before TMZ and paparazzi and Twitter fights? Were people hiding in the bushes at Thomas Edison's house? Did W.E.B. Du Bois get hounded for autographs while getting his mustache groomed at the barber shop? Could it really have been all that bad?

Yes, clearly for Carroll it could, because some people are just not cut out to be famous.

I am also one of those people. Now, let me state this clearly, before anonymous internet commenters beat me to it: I am not claiming any major type of fame here. I had a taste of that celebrity lifestyle when I acted in movies that did well at the box office. I had that mobbed-in-malls, autograph requesting, red-carpet walking lifestyle for a few years -- until I was 22 and realized, like Carroll: I hated it. I found the rejection, the lack of privacy and acting as a puppet for someone else's writing to be increasingly harsh and unsatisfying. It threatened to completely overwhelm me. Panic attacks struck and I found myself gasping for breath in dark corners, clutching my chest in an attempt to keep my heart from ricocheting off my ribs and busting through the skin.

So, I quit.

But sometimes when people find out that I used to be an actor, they often ask, with this wide-eyed expression, why I would ever leave Hollywood. I try to explain that it's just a job, with all its pros and cons, and sometimes you get tired of a job and want to try something new. Some people give me this look that apparently people have been giving for 124 years, because Carroll references it in his letter:

"Of course there are plenty of people who like being looked at as a notoriety and there are plenty who can't understand why I don't share that feeling. And they probably would not understand how it can be that human beings should have different tastes. But it is true, nevertheless."

Not everyone is cut out to be a doctor, likewise, not everyone is cut out to be famous. Yet, unlike being a doctor, most people think they would be pretty good at being famous.

But we see people who are bad at being famous all the time. Some celebrities crash their cars, go on bigoted rants and get dragged out of theaters in handcuffs. The problem comes when we fail to remember that these are people simply doing a job. If someone is a bad bartender, they get fired, but unfortunately, it appears to be quite difficult to fire a celebrity. Poor job performance just seems to get them promoted up the celebrity hierarchy.

This disastrous behavior could be blamed on money or power or access to every indulgence imaginable, but I believe it's the result of being treated - as Carroll said - as a "lion." It sounds enviable, after all, who wouldn't want special treatment? But in reality, "special" inherently means "different." And it's hard to be different.

I've recently realized that in my desperate attempt to not be a lion, I became an ostrich. By pretending that 18 years of my life never happened, I was simply sticking my head in the sand. We all have a past that stomps its feet and demands to be dealt with. My past pops up during 90's movie marathons, regardless of whether I acknowledge it or not. While the past is not deserving of a staring role in the present moment, it can be worthy of a little thank you in the credits somewhere. Because where would any of us be without it?

I hope that Lewis Carroll got to a point where he could see that the work he did meant something to people and realized that he was not required to be a lion or an ostrich or even Lewis Carroll.

All he ever needed to be was C.L Dodgson.

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"So, what is Robin Williams like?"

Sometimes I try to estimate how many times I've been asked this question over the years. And if you replace Robin's name with Will Smith/Pierce Brosnan/Sally Field/Timothy Dalton....

Innumerable times.

I understand why. These people are beloved. Folks want to know if he was funny or she was nice or he was high. I get it.

But I'm curious, how do people expect me to answer? All of those actors were lovely and that's how I respond. But even if they weren't - I'm NEVER going to say that. Why would I slam anyone to you, a person who I just met at the grocery store? Would you say something other than "they're great" about your co-workers to a random person in the cereal aisle?

I guess people want a funny little tidbit about what that famous person was like, but here's the truth -- I am too preoccupied trying to look composed while chatting with a stranger and simultaneously attempting to hide the dandruff shampoo in my cart to come up with a pithy story at that moment. Plus the fact that it was like, 20 years ago, and many of those stories are not crystal clear anymore.

It also brings up another uncomfortable aspect of this whole thing. If that's the first/only thing you ask me - maybe you don't really care anything about me as a person. Maybe you are just using me to get a story about someone else. It's like having a super popular older brother and everyone just wants to know about him.

I'm interesting, too. Not because I might be able to tell you something funny about Robin Williams, but because I've danced in the baraat at an Indian wedding, once fed carrots to a wallaby and have undergone hypnosis. And I'll bet you're interesting, too, but I'll never know because I'm trying to come up with a cute story you can retweet.

But since I still get asked, I'll go on autopilot and say the thing I've said a bajillion times:

"Yeah, he/she was really great..."

And it will be true.

But I'll always wonder if there wasn't a more interesting conversation we could have had.

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Storytelling: honesty or exploitation?

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When I first decided to be a little more open with my writing, I was really nervous. I was concerned about interaction with the faceless "public." But I soon realized that I absolutely love getting your emails and Facebook messages. Connecting with you all is a joy. I'm honored that you would reach out to share your stories and ask me questions. (You also tend to be a kind and hilarious group of people who write well, so that's pretty damn cool.)

Recently, I got an email that really made me think. I believe that it said some decent things in the beginning, but in typical me-style, I skipped right over them and got to the part that made me squirm.

...the only issue I have with your blog posts is that you keep pointing out that you "were" an actor. If you want to move on from your past as much as your posts seem to illustrate, why do you keep bringing up the fact that you were once an actor publicly on this blog? Are you exploiting the fact that you were once an actor to promote your book and blog site?

Ouch.

But after I licked my wounds for a bit, I realized that I really wanted to answer this question.

When I left L.A, I hid from my former career for more than 10 years. I rarely talked about it, even to my closest friends. I denied it when people recognized me. I was ashamed of the way it made me stand out and how I was treated differently from other people. I felt like a freak.

I've since decided that negating 18 years of one's existence isn't healthy and I wanted to have the freedom to talk about my life from age 4 - 22. And by "talk" I mean "write" because I'm a writer and that's what I do. I write about it, because my past exists, and I look like an idiot when I pretend there is not an elephant in the room. I'd rather invite that elephant to sit down and rest a while and not worry about trying to hide behind the ficus plant.

More than that, I wanted to write about the stuff that few others seemed to be talking about. Like the fact that actors are normal people. The fact that the entertainment industry is not automatically the right path for everyone. The fact that when you see the sausage being made, sometimes you don't want to be part of it. The fact that people, regardless of their profession, can change their minds and chose a dream that looks different from what people expected of them.

Am I exploiting my life? I don't know. Cheryl Strayed wrote Wild about walking the Pacific Crest Trail. In it, she talks about her past - so is she "exploiting" her drug history? Her mother's death? Maybe she is exploiting Pacific Crest Trail itself?

Writers tend to write what they know. Which is a good thing, because when we write about things we don't know - it makes for some pretty shitty reading material.

But he went on:

Almost a little hypocritical if you ask me. I honestly believe if you wanted to step away from your celebrity status completely, then you should change you name, make a classified pseudonym for all your public posts, and creative writing projects.

While I want to thank this person for his career advice, I also want to add that I've been doing that for years. I did change my name and have another successful blog that has absolutely nothing to do with my former career. I also wrote for non-profits and did communications consulting. You don't know about any of that...well...because I used a pseudonym.

In addition to that writing, I also want to write about pop culture. I'm a sociology nerd who reads soc textbooks for fun. I'm fascinated by the way we structure and institutionalize our lives and the way we, as a society, behave.  I want to write about the cultural pressures that come along with choosing a different path in life and I don't want to feel like I have to hide who I am. And who I am includes (but is not exclusively limited to) my past.

I wanted to write about some of my personal experiences because I think they are a way in which I can contribute to the conversation. I have some stuff to say that I hope can be of use to someone. I've shared some things about my life, and in return, people have told me the most wonderful, intriguing, inspiring things about their lives. That connection through storytelling is what it's all about for me. And I can't connect if I'm not honest about who I am.

He concluded by saying that actors have amazing opportunities and that:

This aspect alone in my mind is well worth the tradeoff of being labeled a "celebrity" with a "fan"base.

To that I say - awesome, you should go be famous. Enjoy.

And, if after this you still find me to be an exploitive hypocrite who was wrong to leave my job - that's okay. Luckily there are lots of other things that you can read on the internet.

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Autographs

Recently, I've had a bunch of requests for autographs - which is very kind and sweet and I'm flattered. However...

I've been tip-toeing around this and trying to figure out how to not hurt anyone's feelings (and how not to sound like a jackass) -- but I've decided to come clean.

Here's the deal:

Signing autographs makes me wildly uncomfortable.

Because when I sign an autograph, it puts me back into this little actor box that just doesn't fit me anymore. It makes me the "celebrity" and the other person is the "fan" and that just feels icky. I think we are both much more than those narrow parameters.

And really, what is the point? Does anyone actually know what my signature looks like? If my husband/friend/mailman scribbled "Best Wishes, Lisa Jakub" on an index card, would anybody know the difference? As long as they got the spelling right, probably not.

Even if I did sign it, so what?

It makes me feel creepy that someone would value something just because, what, I wrote on it? We haven't established any kind of connection or relationship. I don't get to know anything about you, like where you grew up, or if you are a dog person or a cat person. And you don't know anything more about me, except that my Ls are very loopy.

So, I'm not going to do autographs. But if you want to email me or communicate through Facebook or Twitter, I always do my very best to respond. (It just might take me a little while.) Instead of doing the autograph thing, let's have a conversation about something like two normal people.

Now, when my book comes out, I might be convinced to sign that....but that's a whole different deal. (ETA: the book is out. And I do sign and personalize it. Click here.)

I hope that's cool with you guys.

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Beyond the Bed, Bath and Beyond

I went to the Bed, Bath and Beyond a few days ago. I had to run in to get a new cartridge for my SodaStream machine because mine ran out and I have a serious addiction to bubbly water with a slice of lemon. I live in a college town and the kids are just getting back to school, so the place was packed. There were freshman and parents standing in the aisles, looking overwhelmed and dazed about what was about to happen to them.

I grabbed what I needed and got in line to pay when I noticed a girl and her father who were shopping together. The daughter was wearing a university sweatshirt and her father kept pushing up his glasses, clearly stressed out about choosing a desk lamp for her dorm. They looked ready to come to blows over color preference. He was showing her the features of the lamp he liked and she was having none of it. She liked the purple one.

I tried not to stare, but I love watching the kids come back to school. I tend to be enamored with normalcy. Since I started acting as a pre-schooler and worked consistently until I retired, I never got to be a full-time student until I attended college at age 28. By then, I was living in a four-bedroom house with my husband - so the experience was not at all traditional. I never got to fight with my dad about dorm furniture. I certainly had other exciting opportunities in my childhood, but there were many normal kid things that I missed out on. So, when I see others participating in these kinds of traditional life moments, I can't help but find them intriguingly beautiful.

When the lamp battle was over, the father and daughter got in line behind me, both fuming slightly. When I stepped up to pay, the woman at the checkout stared at me. I started chit-chatting, which is what I tend to do, in the hopes that comments about the weather might divert attention from what I know is the real issue. She would not be deterred.

Had I seen Mrs. Doubtfire? I looked a lot like that girl. No, I looked JUST like that girl.

I responded by saying "I get that a lot" which is my go-to phrase because it is true.

She kept staring at me while I fumbled with my wallet. The dad behind me was tapping his credit card on the handle of the overflowing cart. I glanced back at the tower of shower caddies and plastic drawer sets and the purple, THAT'S RIGHT, DAD, PURPLE desk lamp in the cart. As I was signing the slip, I heard the dad telling his daughter that he really thought she needed just one more set of towels. Her sharp sigh indicated that she felt her current towel situation was sufficient.

I quickly grabbed my bag and left before the cashier could ask any more specific questions.

If I had been totally truthful, I would have admitted to the checkout woman that yes, when I was 14, for a few months I had filmed a movie. And now I'm in my thirties and I live in Virginia and although I'm thrilled that the movie was important to people, it's strange to still be asked about it.

But if I had confessed, there would have been the calling over of other employees and selfies and questions holding up of the line and trapping everyone behind me in a movie-worshipping vortex. Because that's what happens.

What I really wanted was for that dad and daughter to get out of the Bed, Bath and Beyond. I wanted them to set up her crappy dorm room with the purple desk lamp and the not-quite-enough towels. I wanted them to eat take-out burritos and chips out of a greasy bag.

Because then they would sit on the floor and the dad would realize it's not just the towels he's worried about. Maybe he gets up the guts to say he's proud of her, or maybe he just says something about her needing to work hard and get good grades because she's a smart girl.

And then the daughter would be embarrassed but secretly thrilled the way we all are when our dads say something dorky but sweet. And maybe she admits to being nervous about starting college and maybe she doesn't - but either way, she feels strengthened by the fact that at this moment, all she has to do is eat a burrito with her dad who let her get the purple lamp anyway.

I wanted their night to be about her brave venture into the terrifying, thrilling world of college. I did not want it to be about the fact that a retired actor was in front of them in line at the Bed, Bath and Beyond. I didn't want the focus of their conversation to be what I did more than two decades ago.

I know I romanticize the normal and that my adoration for the mundane could be a "grass is greener" situation. But I love those traditional social milestones and so I want them for others. I truly believe there is something inherently wonderful about the simple things in life - the connections, the transitions, the moments of silence. I love being able to acknowledge and enjoy them.

Maybe the none of it went down the way it went in my head, maybe there was not a single special moment or take-out burrito.

But I really hope there was.

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Spinning out of control

I suck at being recognized. Some actors are really good at it. Sally Field is masterful. She is sweet, calm and gracious.

I am not masterful.

I panic.

It's not that I'm annoyed by people - it's just that I get really nervous because I want to be what they expect of me. I want, for one mere moment of my life, to be cool. Instead, my neck turns bright red and I knock over a water-glass and say something inappropriate because that's what happens when I'm uncomfortable. And when the attention is on me, I'm inevitably uncomfortable.

Then, I end up feeling like I've failed yet again. People walk away and I imagine them saying "Well, that was...awkward."

Sometimes, my awkwardness is only enhanced by the situation.

I used to take these spin classes. If you have ever been in a spin class, you know it is not an attractive time. You sweat, grimace and curse the apparently genital-free person who invented bicycle seats. It’s downright masochistic that they put mirrors in there.

One day, I was working really hard and climbing the imaginary hill. The spin instructor was looking at me, so much that I checked my sports bra just to make sure everything was still in its proper place. She squinted at me with her head cocked to the side. I hoped that maybe she just had sweat in her eyes.

Then, she hoped off her bike, mid-spin and ran to the stereo. She proceeded to shuffle through her songs. She came up with what she wanted, and blasted it. It was Jump Around, the song to which I danced ineptly in Mrs. Doubtfire.

She stared at me, searching for some spark of acknowledgement. I kept my head down and attempted to pedal fast enough that my bike could fly off its stationary bar and slam through the wall and into the parking lot where I could make my getaway.

She yelled to me over the music “HEY! DO YOU LIKE THIS SONG? DOES IT MAKE YOU WANT TO DANCE?” I smiled. Because when I don’t know what to say, I smile. It's like a reflex. Whereas other people wittily retort, I smile and freeze like a wax museum version of myself.

When that song ended, she hopped off again and played another song, Gettin’ Jiggy wit It.

Because it was sung by Will Smith.

Who I worked with on Independence Day.

Yeah, it was something of a stretch, but apparently she begged to differ. She looked to me, raised her eyebrows and nodded, pointing at me with both index fingers all while getting jiggy herself.

“YEAH! RIGHT?” she yelled at me.

"Oh." I said. "Ha."

Which was all I could think of to say.

She seemed to be some sort of musical stalker. I glanced around the room. Did any of the other 30 spinners see what was going on? Thankfully, everyone else seemed more concerned about how much their own asses were burning to notice that I had my own personal soundtrack playing.

There was nothing else to do but keep my head down and cycle faster. And hope she didn't have a cell phone camera. After class, I got my foot stuck in the pedal and fell off my bike because I was trying rush out without being noticed. Guess how that turned out?

So, if we run into each other out in the world, just be forewarned: I am no Sally Field. I will likely trip over something and swear in front of your children.

And I am probably going to be sweating.

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The Happy Birthday person

The anonymity of the internet can be a dangerous thing. It gives people the chance to voice their most nasty thoughts without having any accountability. Comment sections can be brutal, heartless and shockingly cruel. They tend to look like something you'd see in the Roman Colosseum circa 80 AD. They even have a handy little "thumbs down" button. But that is just half the story. The internet also allows for connection on a level that is broader than ever before. Some might say that it's a superficial connection, but since Facebook is the only reasonable way for me to stay in touch with my friends in Zimbabwe, it doesn't feel superficial to me. It offers access to people you couldn't reach before and there can be a true sense of community. It might feel a little different from a community that is created by a cul-de-sac but it's a community, none the less.

There is someone on the IMDB  message boards who wishes me a happy birthday every year.

On my actual birthday.

That's pretty awesome.

It's so easy to become infuriated with the media. It just takes one story about Anne Hathaway ducking into the car of a total stranger so that she can ditch TMZ, and I'm ready to go on an obscenity-filled rampage. But then, I am reminded that most people are not like that. Most people who are interested in movies simply love film and love actors and want to connect. I've met many of you via Facebook, Twitter and email over the past several weeks since I've started this blog. And you know what?  You're cool.

Since I've been completely hiding from my old life for the past decade, I've not had the proper venue for acknowledging the kind act of that dedicated birthday well-wisher. I always felt too shy to say it before. But I've been getting braver lately.

So, thanks, No-one2 for all your thoughtful messages. They have meant a lot to me.

And thank you to everyone who has written and welcomed me with open arms. I've loved hearing your stories of how you took the path less traveled and made difficult choices to pursue your own happiness.

I'll quote someone who emailed me and say that it's been wonderful to connect with you, "one normal person to another."

Isn't that what it's all about, anyway?

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Fan mail

Recently, some of Taylor Swift’s fan mail was found in a dumpster, apparently it accidently ended up with some other papers that were headed to the recycling center. First – Is anyone else surprised that people still send fan mail? Not fan tweets? Fan Facebook? Fan texts? Since our entire lives are now online, fan snail-mail just seems so quaint. It's like sending away to get a Little Orphan Annie decoder ring.

Second – I used to get fan mail. Granted, a lot of mine came from gentlemen who were incarcerated but some of it was from non-convicts, as well. When I was a kid, becoming pen-pals with fans was a great way to get a stalker, so I was never allowed to write back. While it’s really lovely to have people tell you that they like you, it’s also a little awkward, because you can’t reciprocate their appreciation. To me, fan mail always felt like that uncomfortable moment when someone comes up to you and starts a conversation and asks about your dog by name but for the life of you -  you can’t remember who they are. I stopped reading the letters. My fan mail all got piled up behind the china cabinet with the dust bunnies.

Third – Be honest. What do you do with your mail? You know, that birthday card from Grandma that had $10 tucked inside, or that Christmas card from the very blond family down the street. You read it. You think, “that’s so nice” and then you throw it out, shoving it underneath the coffee grinds so that you don’t have to look at it and feel guilty.

I’m just saying, maybe we don’t need to refer to this as a “shocking discovery.” I can think of a lot more shocking things we could find in a dumpster in Tennessee.

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