Saturday, May 15, 2021

I Never Wanted to Be a Star

When I was a deejay, one of the first lessons I learned was that not everyone would like my show.  Yes, nearly every deejay has a group of loyal listeners (I still have some of the fan letters folks sent me over the years), but there were always certain folks who just did not like you, for whatever reason. Lucky for me, I was on the air in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s-- the era before social media. The people who disliked your show back then could write you a letter, or maybe phone the station (where the receptionist would take their message), but there was no way for listeners to make their feelings known immediately. That was probably a good thing.

I can't imagine what it must be like to wake up today and find you're the topic of an irate discussion on a website read by millions, where folks can trash your show (or you personally) and get lots of "likes" for doing it.  Today, since people might be listening to you online, the fans can come from just about anywhere...but so can the haters. And thanks to the internet, folks can react almost in real time-- criticizing something you said, correcting you, letting you know they loved X or hated Y. And it's all public: anyone can read it, and even if you respond, it could be taking place on so many different sites that it's impossible to reach every person voting on whether you're the best or the worst. 

What brought this to mind was the news that Ellen DeGeneres is ending her syndicated talk show. I still remember how controversial it was when she "officially" came out as gay: she made her announcement in April 1997 on the cover of Time magazine, and some stores refused to carry it. Fast forward to 2021 when the news that an entertainer is gay is no longer seen as a potential career-ender, the way it still was in the 1990s.  Attitudes changed, and since 2003, Ellen has had a very successful (and lucrative) career hosting her own syndicated talk show. She had a reputation for being nice, friendly, and generous. At the end of each show, she told people to be kind to one another. People believed her.  

And then everything changed. By late 2019, some extremely negative stories about her had begun to surface, and by 2020, there were accusations that behind the scenes at her show, far from being a happy place, there was a toxic work environment. It's an interesting phenomenon. People had built her up and praised her and put her on a pedestal. And now, she was the object of scorn, ridicule, and condemnation. I've never met her, so I have no idea if the "good Ellen" or the "bad Ellen" is the real Ellen, but it didn't take long for folks on social media to begin weighing in. Most asserted she was really not the kindhearted, easy-going person she claimed to be. 

Ellen seemed surprised that so many people turned on her. And whether it's an act or not, she also seemed hurt. And in the end, she decided it was time to end her talk show. Truth be told, the controversies had eaten into her ratings; but even if there hadn't been any negative publicity, many TV shows over the past several years have seen their ratings slide, and hers was one of them. She probably could have hung on, but now that her image as a "nice person" was gone, doing her show was probably not as enjoyable. Nor, I am sure, was fielding all the criticism.  And while she's rich and she'll be just fine, I don't think she expected that fame would come with increased scrutiny, or that she would lose her popularity the way she did.

I have a button I got in 1976, a promotional item for a Cliff Richard album entitled "I'm Nearly Famous."  I've often thought it's better to be nearly famous, rather than so well-known that you have to constantly maintain a certain image, and people all over the world feel they have the right to judge you-- even when they don't really know you.  When I make a mistake or say something on a podcast that folks disagree with, yes some of them might make a rude remark on social media; but I'm not the subject of millions of fans endlessly discussing whether I'm the worst person who ever lived. And while I understand that celebrities know the tradeoff (they will make a lot of money, but they won't have a lot of privacy), watching yet another celebrity get built up and then ripped apart makes me glad I never did become all that famous. Fame can be a lot of fun, but as many celebrities know all too well, it can also be destructive. And that's probably why I never wanted to be a star.      

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