how to be really famous, lessons from John Mayer and Warren Beatty

John Mayer was on Charlie Rose last night. It was an illuminating interview made more interesting by the fact that Mayer turns out to be smart and articulate. He said,

“George Clooney is who everyone should aspire to be. Make a big [movie]. [Then] make a black and white one.” (46 minute mark).

This is an interesting idea: that a celebrity should look for broad work for a large audience, and narrow work for a smaller one. Celebrities used to aim for greatness and work hard to stay there. Now they refuse the captivity of stardom and presume to work on a variety of projects.

The first time I saw this idea, it came from Steven Soderbergh who said,

“If you blow this [his current film] you will be doing art-house movies for the rest of your life and that’s as bad as doing big budget things. I wanted to do both.” (from an interview with Elvis Mitchell on IFC Focus. Recalled from memory and might be incorrect.)

At the time, I was writing a book called Transformations and I seized on this as an example of how hungry we are (famous people and non famous alike) for a breadth of experience. For Victorians, generally speaking, it was enough to fix upon a single identity and to perform it with great constancy and sincerity. At the writing of Transformations, 10 years ago, people seemed to want many selves and the right to move back and forth between them. And this may be Mayer’s motive. Or not.

What’s striking is this. They are learning. Celebrities are beginning to explore and master this thing called a celebrity.

What from Soderbergh was a wild idea is moving closer to something like standard celebrity practice. Mayer is thinking about it because Clooney is thinking about it. And it may be that Clooney is thinking about it because Soderbergh was. (They did a movie together called Out of Sight in 1998.) Many actors and musicians change “altitude,” persona, and projects in this way. (James Franco may be the most conspicuous case in point.)

And a good thing too. Celebrity is a terrifying thing to have happen to you. It feels good at the moment of your ascension. You are wealthy and adored. You are safe. You have made it.

But the truth is celebrity is a place of great peril. Being loved by everyone is a terrible thing. You are not safe. Bad people want a chunk of what you have. And they are prepared to give you anything to get it. You have a weakness for cocaine? You are now surrounded by people who just happen to have some. They don’t care that this is your kryptonite. And what these monsters don’t take from you, the entertainment press will. Say goodbye to your privacy. Say goodbye to the control of your public image. This now belongs to airheads at 7 o’clock, people who are prepared to spend your career capital to build their own.

In a perfect world, we would give young celebrities give fair warning. This could sound like something out of the early Soviet space program.

“Look, almost no one has done this before. We think we’ve got the engineering right. The construction, well, I guess you will see once you get up there. We tested this with a primate and that went surprisingly well. So we’re feeling pretty good about the whole thing. Good luck!”

Am I being hyperbolic? Surely celebrities are not the proper objects of our sympathy. I mean, how bad could it be to be this beautiful, wealthy, powerful, and famous?

Here’s how bad it can be.

Imagine you are someone so famous and attractive that women, famous women, have made an open secret of their wish to bed you. Every time you make a new film, one of these women turns up on set with a cheshire grin and a look of expectation. Temptation is always at hand. And this is not ordinary temptation. This is not, “should I have a second slice of cheese cake?” temptation. This is a visit from a women who is almost endlessly beautiful and charismatic. And she doesn’t want to marry you. She is just looking for a trophy.

Now imagine this person is your significant other. You live with the knowledge that he or she is ALWAYS being tempted by the world’s most gifted temptresses. If fidelity matters to you, your life now teeters on tragedy. In a perfect world, your relationship is your respite from the perils of celebrity. But now it is a staging area for the perils of celebrity. You are not safe even here.

Celebrity is hard. But it is presumably not impossible. We see some celebs enjoying enduring careers. They are figuring out how to do it. But the method is still unclear, as Mayer told Charlie Rose.

“At 2010, I go, ‘I’m at the end of this idea.’ … This is not working. … I always say, no one dreams past their third record. … And you’re not quite sure how to say, ‘I don’t have a plan for this.’ You’re not quite sure how to ask someone what to do. And you’re not sure how to say, ‘I think I should take a break.’ … I had come to the end of an old idea…and I didn’t know where to go.” (44 minute mark)

There it is. Even for a guy this smart. Even for a guy taking his cue from older celebrities. There are moments when you are out in space. I mean, actually outside the capsule.

In a perfect world, it would be ‘anthropologist to the rescue.’ Someone like me or you, dear reader, would interview the smartest celebrities and best agents, codify their best practices, reverse engineer the things people are doing right but can’t quite articulate, and commit these to a small book and a small consulting practice.

But that’s not going to happen because there is no business model. There are not enough celebrities out there to cover even a small print run. And there are not enough clients a) because celebs don’t see the peril, or b) because they think they are the exception. because their lives are enchanted. (Becoming famous is an enchantment.) Plus everyone already has “their people,” and these people are a formidable barrier to entry. They believe they knew better, even after Icarus has fallen.

The only way to make this work is perhaps this: to suggest that the celebs who are learning to manage celebrity are also learning to master multiplicity…and that’s everybody’s problem. All of us are many people. Each of us is a house of many mansions. This book has a vastly larger audience. Actually, this audience consists of (and publishers quite like this “figure”) everyone. Everyone is a nice round figure. The back cover copy practically writes itself: “Not since the bible has a book been this necessary!”

Surely someone out there wants to write this book. I am happy to act as your consulting anthropologist. Have a go! What’s the worst that can happen? Tremendous wealth and fame?


post script:

You can find the Charlie Rose interview with John Mayer here.

The image is from Eric Chan on Flickr and Wikipedia.



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Grant McCracken

I'm an anthropologist & author of Chief Culture Officer. You can reach me at