What if I am not real?


My face was an inch from the wall and I was shouting my lines as fast and loud as seemed possible. “Faster,” came the command. “LOUDER!” I sent a hand down my red, television power tie, took a deep breath, and shot my lines as if I’d just landed on the French coast and either had to repel the Germans with my words or die on this horrible beach. I would have gladly had death.

I still have the handwritten notes I was directed to make. “Give the producers what they want.” “SMILE MORE.” “Great television is controlled chaos.” “Celebrities must be on TV all the time.” “Nothing is worse than being a boring talking head.”

That’s what I was: a boring talking head.

I had a regular, weekly gig on CTV. One of those panel affairs where a host asks you to comment on the news. I’d been watching programs like this since I was a teen. The MacNeil Lehrer Report, with Shields and Gigot. Brian Lamb’s C-SPAN, featuring folks like David Frum, R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., Andrew Sullivan, and Christopher Hitchens. Now I was  on television, trying to come up with intelligent sounding, 8-second answers to questions like “Are the Iranians to be trusted?”

Did I look like an idiot? Did I suck?

They kept asking me to come back, so I must have been presentable. Still, the questions nagged me, so I was in Hollywood to gather up television tips. Each morning I passed The Price is Right queue and signed into Bronson Studio. An elevator took me to the floor which my television coach shared with Judge Judy.

My assignment, as I soon learned, was to craft a pitch that I’d then attempt to sell to small- and mid-market morning show producers across the nation, via Skype. Then I’d take my segment on the road, performing it in each city where a producer had said the magical word: yes.

Clint Arthur, my coach for the week and the fellow behind Celebrity LaunchPad, had a backstory that I found familiar. In the late 1990s he was driving a cab in LA. His screenplays were going nowhere. He was broke and miserable. His high school creative writing teacher was Frank McCourt, and his dream was to write something as poetic as Angela’s Ashes. His reality, however, was that it was New Year’s Eve, 1999, and while everyone else was partying like it was the year it was, he’d be working his low-wage, dead-end job.

The next day Clint burned all his screenplays, and walked away from his dream. He went to Wharton and after graduating nearly accepted a job that would have had him in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Things like that make you think, and Clint is a thoughtful person.

I’ve just finished my pitch to a Fox News affiliate in Nevada:

“Louder,” Clint says. “More ENERGY!”

“I’m an introvert,” I growl. “This is me doing high energy.”

“I’m an introvert, too,” he says.

Hollywood is full of introverts, and it makes sense to me why that’s so. Introverts spend a lot of time thinking and doing inner work. They are driven by demons no one else can perceive. When you stand on a stage, in front of an audience or a camera, it’s a solitary and not a social act. Most celebrities aren’t pursuing the company of an audience, they are chasing a version of themselves that can only exist if others are paying attention. It’s as if some people aren’t real until they have become real to everyone.

There is a half-dozen of us taking the Celebrity LaunchPad workshop. A Beverly Hills “Dentist to the Stars,” The Divine Kika, a San Jose doctor with a hair restoration practice, a body builder. The woman sitting next to me has been through this course before. She’s something of a pro now, having done a bunch of morning television programs as America’s favourite trans grandmother. Her segment provides “coming out” tips, and her main prop is cookies. (“When the cookies come out of the oven, you come out to your grandchildren!”)

America’s favourite trans grandmother is not happy. Yesterday she saw Elton John in a restaurant and didn’t make the effort to get a selfie. In the universe over which Clint Arthur presides, that’s an unpardonable sin. We’ve been instructed again and again to get the celebrity selfies. “Hustle your celebrity,” Clint tells us. “Celebrities are seen with other celebrities.”

The energy thing I understand. The bigness, the loudness, the props—it all feels deeply unnatural to me, but I get it. That’s show business, so suck it up, buttercup. On the other hand, pestering Elton John for a selfie while he’s trying to eat his spaghetti is crossing a line. It’s a matter of common manners, but it’s more than that. I’m not a star-struck person. Fussing over the famous feels vulgar and unseemly. They are human beings, like the rest of us, right?

I’m torn between these two worlds. I like my boring, talking head gig. But a week in LA has made an impression. The person who flies home is a bigger person. In a North Hollywood stationery shop I’ve found a card that reads “Do it with passion or not at all.” When I get home to Toronto I house it in a suitably big, loud, shiny frame and place it where it’s visible when I write. “Do it with passion or not at all” is a decent summary of what I learned in Hollywood.

The only problem is the word it.

In Hollywood I played the part of a boring talking head who goes to LA to pursue fame. But the boring talking head is a role, too, and so is the newspaper columnist gig that got me on TV in the first place. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, a tree is not a celebrity. What if I am also chasing a version of myself that can only exist if others are paying attention. What if it turns out that I am not real?

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