Through the looking glass of fame

Photo courtesy of USC Photo/Gus Ruelas
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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26 Replies to “Through the looking glass of fame”

  1. Lisa,

    Your posts are always so thoughtful and honest, I hope you have found the lifestyle you desire.


  2. Cool article. I’m not sure which I’m tickled with more, the way he described it as not wanting to be thought of as a lion, or his underlining. Did he write the whole of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with that huge handwriting? I think that typewriters didn’t come out till around the end of his life. It’s amazing to think how all of these epic books were written before the computer age. Ok, your article has led me down some other strange path… Thanks for sharing

    1. The fondness for underlining is a wonderful thing to know, isn’t it? For whatever reason. There is something so human and humanizing about seeing such artifacts (like his handwriting) about people we otherwise only know through their final, published work.

  3. I always enjoy reading your work. Another one–so well written. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  4. I respect you quitting acting, fame has too high a price. I’m betting those who seem able to be seen by millions, dressed and undressed, are not really happy. They may be treated like a lion, but they are trapped in a cage too

  5. For almost four years, I lived in, what felt like, a fishbowl. It was for a different reason than you, Lisa, but nonetheless, my life didn’t feel like it was my own. I don’t think too much about my past. It’s… well… past. But it also helped shape the person I am today. I can’t change it or make it go away, so I simply choose to accept that it was what it was and live in the present. I think, as humans, because we have the ability to analyze, dissect and pontificate, we tend to over think things. I admire that you knew you weren’t happy and had the courage to say enough is enough and move on. Go you!

    1. Good for you – it sounds like you are dealing with it all in such a healthy way. It’s always so touching for me to realize that many of us have such similar challenges… Thanks for sharing. Go you, too!

  6. The original story, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, was written by Charles Dodgson as a gift for Alice Liddell.

    From Wikipedia:
    Alice was published in 1865, three years after Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and the Reverend Robinson Duckworth rowed in a boat, on 4 July 1862.
    The journey began at Folly Bridge near Oxford and ended five miles away in the village of Godstow. During the trip the Reverend Dodgson told the girls a story that featured a bored little girl named Alice who goes looking for an adventure. The girls loved it, and Alice Liddell asked Dodgson to write it down for her.

    The book was written and illustrated in Dodgson’s hand as a gift to Alice.
    A facsimile was eventually made and can be read here:
    Or purchased online. (I bought one for my granddaughter)

    Mr. Dodgson was a writer, mathematician, logician, and a photographer.
    Fame appears to have been an uncomfortable accident.
    Because his talent was so varied and intense, especially in mathematics, fame might have happened even if he hadn’t written of Alice’s adventures.


  7. That “lion” goes out to seek and devour everyone….I understand. Love You, Deb May the Lord Bless You and Protect You. May the Lord Smile on You and Be Gracious to You. May the Lord Show You His Favor and Give You His Peace.

  8. Great blog post, Lisa! You talk about rejection…this is STILL a difficult thing for me to accept. I suppose for every artist it is too?! I’ve had jobs that weren’t offered to me because people thought my photography “style” didn’t fit their brand. But, it’s funny because I’ve never thought I’ve had a specific style. I think that my style of work is all encompassing–able to appeal to everyone, but, then I realized how subjective photography (and art for that matter) is. I just realize that not everyone is going to like my work, and I can’t possibly please everyone. I’m ok with that…but, I have to admit that job rejection is still a difficult thing to take.

    In your movie career days Lisa…were there movie roles that you REALLY wanted but didn’t get because of such and such reason? Do you think rejection is easier to handle as we enter adulthood?

  9. I once worked overnight shift in a crap coffee and donut joint, early one morning a caravan of trucks and trailers pulled in- catering crew for a movie being filmed. I talked to the girls of the famous people, they were nonchalant about them, said for the most part they were “just folks”. One thing I have learned is how money changes a person- fame and ego, a delicate balance. Hope you stay happy, very worthy of it and fine writer.

  10. Reading your post is like talking with you for awhile. You have a gift for explaining your thoughts through simple words. Thank you.
    I’m sorry to say that I often find myself “in awe” of movie stars; I can’t imagine meeting Meryl Streep or Barbara Streisand, but they are, after all, just people.
    I’m happy that you’ve found a way to enjoy your life the way it’s meant to be for you. I live in a town of 200 people on a farm in MInnesota.
    I grew up in a city. I like being “unnoticed” unless it comes to my website and small business. That is my only want of notice. Thanks for writing.

  11. Love this! New fact of the day. Perhaps Hollywood likens itself to the Jabberwocky…

    “Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
    The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!”

    Well done for getting out of the catching claws in one piece 🙂

  12. I really enjoy your blogs Lisa.
    I think most people consider that famous people can have their hearts content, access all area,s wealth, power prestige etc.
    I suppose that celebrities are maybe not though of as just ordinary people who can make mistakes, hollywood and tv sell the image of the perfect Star, the perfect life, an enviable life that only a few can achieve. Most people wish to believe that fame will insulate from misfortune and misery, and that maybe when they have their 15 minutes of fame they will achieve the nirvana that comes with it
    Sucess appears to be linked with money, big houses, pictures in glossy magazines, happiness doesn’t appear to enter the equation, culture has hypnotised people into believing that they are not whole unless they achieve fame.
    The best gift that any person can receive is contentment and happiness in their life and work, but these simple ideals which are very elusive.
    You were and are a great actor, you are a great role model.
    It’s nice to have your insight into our modern culture, suppose your just a nice person lisa. Sorry for rambling on


  13. I love your writing. Always so interesting and insightful. I once thought celebrities experienced only happiness, wealth, and fame. How naive I was. You are correct. They are just people going to work every day and doing a job. The demands are high, and we have seen many young and old crack. It is aways so sad. Non celebrity folks like myself start to believe the character played is the real person. This cannot be further than the truth. I admire you for knowing your limits and getting out before it ruined you. I still admire a talent whether it be writing acting singing designing, however, no matter how great the talent the people are real. They have real problems like the rest of us. Keep writing. I enjoy it as do many others. Respectfully. Joie Ann Cavolo.

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