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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Farewell to Robin Williams: a thank you note

 

robin

me and him

 

Robin Williams died today.

It seems surreal to write that.

But since writing is the way I process the incomprehensible — I find myself writing.

Everyone is tweeting and facebooking and calling into radio shows about what a great talent Robin was.

Yeah. He was. But that wasn’t what I adored about him. It was the fact that he was an incredibly kind human being.

When I was 14 years old, I went on location to film Mrs. Doubtfire for five months, and my high school was not happy. My job meant an increased workload for teachers, and they were not equipped to handle a “non-traditional” student. So, during filming, they kicked me out.

It’s devastating, at 14, to have your formal education terminated. I felt like a freak and a reject. When I arrived at work the next day, Robin noticed that I was upset and asked me what was wrong. I explained what had happened, and shortly after that, he handed me a letter that he had written to my school. He explained that I was just trying to continue my education while pursuing my career. He wrote embarrassingly kind things about my character and my work, and requested that they reconsider and allow me to return to my classes.

When I told him I still didn’t think they would take me back, he said, “It’s kinda like Amnesty International. That school just needs to know that people know the truth.”

The school framed the letter. They hung it in the principal’s office. But they didn’t invite me to return to school.

But here’s what matters from that story. Robin stood up for me. He was in my corner. I was only 14, but I had already seen that I was in an industry that was full of back-stabbing. And it was entirely clear that Robin had my back.

I know I said thank you at the time and I’m sure I wrote one of those stiff thank you notes that 14-year-olds write with slanting lines and spelling mistakes. But that all seems so insufficient now.

Even though I had not spoken with Robin in a very long time, I always assumed there would be some future opportunity to tell him that his letter changed my life. It taught me that you stand up for the things that matter. And even if your attempts fail, you tried. You told the truth. You took care of your friends. You fought back.

None of us really know what fights Robin was battling* but I know his struggles were not uncommon. It’s estimated that 16 million people in the US have struggled with depression – and I include myself in that statistic. It’s real and it’s not shameful and there is help available.

You can bring it to the light, you can tell the truth, you can go to a meeting, you can reach out to a friend.

None of us are alone.

And if you have someone in your life who you are grateful for — someone to whom you want to write another heartfelt, slanted, misspelled thank you note – do it. Tell them they made you feel loved and supported. That they made you feel like you belonged somewhere and that you were not a freak.

Tell them all of that.

Tell them today.

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The number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

*ETA – Since I wrote this article, Robin’s wife publicly discussed his other health issues. Obviously, I don’t know the reasons for his decision but I do know that he had struggled with depression, regardless of whether it was a factor here. Depression was something that he and I talked about. I’m not intending to diagnose anyone – just sharing a story about someone I loved.


Here is the letter:

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Conversations in Common: March Madness Edition

When it really comes down to it – we’re all the same.

Even, unfathomably, me and this guy. This is my friend Jim Miller.

LJ7

Jim and I have many things in common. Like:

– we were both more famous in the 80s than we are now
– we both wore short shorts for our jobs*
– we both retired in our 20s and needed to figure out what the hell to do next

But unlike me, Jim wasn’t an actor – he played basketball. When we first met, I didn’t know anything about him. I was mostly just concerned that the 17-inch hight difference between us meant that I needed to talk louder. But, it turns out that he could hear me just fine up there and we became friends.

And then people said stuff to me, like “Do you know who that is? That’s Jimmy Miller.”

There were actually italics in their voices.

The italics were well earned. Jim was MVP of the 1984 NCAA Eastern Regional championships as the University of Virginia advanced to the Final Four. He was a Parade All American, Converse Academic All American, he won a Hertz Number One Award that OJ Simpson presented to him (and no, he’s not sure how to feel about that either). He played with Ralph Sampson. He was drafted by the Utah Jazz. He played in Austria and Spain. He was on little cards looking very sporty, like this:

BiJ4ZJ0IYAEKe7s

Photo courtesy of Rachel Miller

After years of having people whispering about me, now they were whispering to me, about Jim.

Let me make something clear: I think Jim was more famous than me. There was actually a POSTER of him that college students used to hang in their dorms. Sure, I was on the Mrs. Doubtfire poster but I was one of five people, and my face was mostly obscured by Robin Williams’ breast. So I’m pretty sure this means Jim was more famous than me.

But regardless of who was more famous, we have a lot in common and that’s incredibly comforting since I have spent so much of my life feeling like a weirdo. It’s good to know that other people have left high-profile careers and are doing just fine.

I sat down with Jim recently to talk about his past and his experience with retirement – things we had never talked about before. After several hours of comparing notes, I was even more reassured that the superficial differences between people are so misleading.

When he thinks back on his career, his favorite things sound just like mine. He found that relationships and travel were the most rewarding part of his job. It wasn’t all about the fancy things like sitting in the VIP section of a club on Sunset with Lawrence Fishburne. It wasn’t all about the awards that he keeps in his basement somewhere. It was about the people. The places. The experiences.

I was most interested in how he made his decision to retire, and wondered if it had been as difficult as my decision had been. After being drafted by an NBA team and released, Jim was playing in the Continental Basketball Association – the minor leagues – playing with guys who were 10 years older than him. They were well into their 30s and still clung to their hopes of playing in the NBA. That possibility became less likely by the year, but they were still chasing the dream. Seeing that made Jim realize that he didn’t “want to be one of those guys, lost in the CBA.”

That instantly reminded me of a very similar moment in my life. I was siting in a waiting room in a casting office. It had taken me two hours in L.A. traffic to get to the audition and it wasn’t even a script I was excited about. I saw a woman in her 40s come out of what must have been a bad audition. She looked exhausted and decided to take it out on the receptionist and yell at her about why they didn’t validate parking.

There are moments in any profession where we get a glimpse of our own future – and it might not jive with what we want for ourselves. I was 22 years old. I really didn’t want to be 40 and still going to crappy auditions where they decided to hire the buxom blond instead. I didn’t have a devotion to the work that could fuel me through the hard times.

Jim and I talked about the difficulty of deciding to retire, even when the job was not fulfilling anymore. With professions like ours, you feel obligated to stick it out, give it one last try. But, finally, he said you just have to “have your ‘Come to Jesus’ moment and look in the mirror” and make the hard decision.

In his mid-20s, Jim retired from basketball – the thing that had been the center of his life since he was 9 years old. He had to figure out who he was beneath the basketball player, but he felt that since all his energy had been so focused, he was not properly trained for the world outside of professional sports.  I totally related – it seemed that neither one of us had any direction after retirement. So, he took to a trial and error approach, just like I did.

We both felt the pressure to do something “important” to fill that void. We needed to do something that somehow justified our decision to leave. Something that seemed just as cool. But really, what were either of us going to do to fill the massive void left by Hollywood or professional sports? Those careers have been idolized to such a degree (just check out E! or ESPN for a reminder of the extent of the hero-worshiping) that it’s hard to imagine where you go from there that doesn’t seem like a disappointment to other people.

But as Jim said, it can be really dangerous when you tie up your self esteem with what other people think of you. Because then you are living for others, not yourself. Your sense of self-worth needs to come from somewhere else, somewhere deeper than your resume. But that can be difficult when you’ve tied up your identity with one thing for so long.

Jim now loves being a husband, a dad and running his own financial consulting firm. He talks about this phase of life being his halftime. He is assessing the things that looked important in the first half of his life, and seeing if they still deserve his focus and energy. He is making adjustments. He is choosing to do some things differently in the second half. He’s not afraid to change the line up of his priorities.

I find that so inspiring, because I think many of us operate from a place of momentum. We do what we’ve always done. We think we are too busy/tired/stubborn to do something different, even if it would make a huge difference to the quality of our lives.

But if we can just give ourselves a little break and really examine where we are, we can get back out there even stronger and play this life according to our own rules.

*proof of Jim and I in our short shorts.

shortsx2

Jim, playing for the University of Virginia. Me in Independence Day.

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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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The zit

I have a zit right now. It’s on the very tip of my nose. It’s big. It’s what my friend Heather would call “angry.” It has three dimensions and it laughs at any concealer that dares come its way.

Here’s one of the fantastic things about my non-famous life.

This zit doesn’t matter.

This was not the case in my old life.

When I was 16, I filmed a terrible TV movie in the South of France called Reckoning. I played a girl who got kidnapped by bad guys that wanted to sell her as a sex slave.

During shooting, puberty hit (shut up – I was a late bloomer) and I broke out terribly. My acne was so bad that even the heavy-duty film make up couldn’t cover up my horrible pimples.  And no one wants a zitty sex slave.

The production company decided to “shuffle around the shooting schedule” and film scenes that didn’t involve me and my terrible skin until it cleared up a little. There were production meetings and location changes. It was discussed widely throughout the cast and crew. Doctors were consulted.

But now, no one cares about this thing on my face. No one cares at my yoga studio or at the Whole Foods or when I picked up our tax paperwork from the accountant. The dog didn’t care when my zit and I took her for a walk.

To the best of my knowledge, there has not been a single meeting held to discuss the state of this current zit.

I guess some girls like having the loaner jewelry from Van Cleef and Arpels and all the other trappings that come with celebrity, but for me, nothing is more valuable than the freedom to get a really big zit.

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