The Colgate Scene ON-LINE

The well known and those we know best

by Ken Baker ’92

Since it’s the first question people usually ask, I might as well start with The List: Jim Carrey, Jewel, Jon Lovitz and Jennifer Aniston. Admiral James Stockdale. Chuck Woolery, Monty Hall, Wink Martindale and Will Smith. Christopher Darden and Robert Shapiro. Ryan O’Neal and Shaquille O’Neal. Jeff Goldblum, Jenny McCarthy, Michael J. Fox and Mrs. Jerry Garcia. Leonard Nimoy, Fabio, Jay Leno, Roseanne, Carlos Santana, Dick Vitale, the Hanson brothers, Richard Lewis, Robert Downey Jr., Gregory Hines, Mathew Broderick, Nick Nolte, Kris Kristofferson, Drew Barrymore and Winona Ryder. Oh, how could I forget David Hasselhoff!

When you work as a correspondent for PEOPLE magazine, and your job is to interview celebrities such as those listed above, you can’t help but name-drop at cocktail parties the way chemistry teachers rattle off the gases at Olin Hall lectures. The difference is my audience usually reacts with greater — MUCH GREATER — enthusiasm. Drew Barrymore! Was she drunk? . . . Is Michael J. Fox really that short?

Lately, however, I’ve heard many folks — among them professors, fellow journalists, preachers and politicians — lamenting our nation’s obsession with all things celebrity. Academics grieve over co-eds who can name the cast of Friends but not the protagonists of Romeo and Juliet. Others worry the 250 million Americans — especially children — sucked into the toilet bowl of popular culture are bombarded with media images of green-haired hoopsters, TV talk show freaks, silicone-enhanced actresses, strung-out rockers and violent and/or smart-ass cartoon characters instead of more positive, real-life role models such as teachers, parents and everyday citizens making good. The media have constructed the global village, cynics say, but it’s no Mayberry. And even the Griffiths aren’t attending city council meetings — especially on Thursday nights, when millions of Americans en masse hold couch-potato-fests in honor of NBC’s Must See TV.

Of course, those preaching the anti-celebrity gospel are correct in their criticism — to an extent. We as a society do spend way too much time reading about Michael Jackson’s baby and not nearly enough admiring ordinary people doing extraordinary things, or getting to know our neighbors, learning about world history, volunteering at homeless shelters.

Or perhaps throwing out our television sets. Almost four years to the day after graduating from Colgate, and two years after being handed a masters degree from Columbia University, I quit my job as a newspaper reporter in Newport News, Virginia, where I had toiled as a humor columnist and a business writer covering the high-technology industry.

That particular part of slow-poke Virginia is not exactly Silicon Valley. So I freaked. A mid-20s career crisis reared its Gen X head, and the promise of sun, celebrities and the chance to write tear-jerking PEOPLE profiles beckoned. I packed three cardboard boxes, a suitcase, a pack of cigarettes (even though I don’t smoke), a CD player and a lead pipe (for personal protection) into my Ford Festiva and, in just four days, drove nearly 3,000 miles — alone — across the country. My journey ended in Los Angeles.

At first, I got to "know" far more celebrities there than actual friends. But the perky and high-paid didn’t do it for me.

I spent much of my first few months in Tinseltown wondering why an idealistic lad such as myself, fresh from the collegiate Ivy and in the prime of his employment years was chasing a heroin-addicted actor Robert Downey Jr. through a Malibu courthouse, doing the lambada with Jenny McCarthy on MTV’s "Singled Out," flirting with Drew Barrymore at a party because she liked the fact that I utter words like "sensual," covering a legal catfight between two of Jerry Garcia’s fortune-seeking ex-wives and asking Jim Carrey at a movie premiere for a beauty tip, to which the butt-obsessed funnyman replied, with the wit of Jim Carrey and the believability of O.J. Simpson, "Baby Wipes."

I’ve since sifted through all the noise — the publicists, the trashy movies, the greedy agents, the valet parking, the sinus-clogging smog — and now appreciate the social value of informing readers of celebs’ likes and dislikes, triumphs and tragedies, loves and loves lost. They pay $2.79 an issue to read these terse tales of the rich and famous, along with a smattering of personality profiles on uncelebrat-ed folks like you and me.

German sociologist Max Weber said that the humans we elevate to celebrity status all possess a unique quality: charisma. Weber called charisma a "gift from the grace of God" that inspires others to show appreciation, paying homage through laughing, crying, following them religiously, or, in 1997 lingo, buying a book, renting a video or reading a magazine story about them. Charismatic leaders, Weber posited, are societal sculptors. Charisma: Jesus had it. An inspiring professor has it. Elvis always did have it. And even character actors like Ben Stein exude it.

Recently, I interviewed Stein at his favorite Hollywood eatery. He possesses, like Weber said, charisma — what one must have in order to be a "celebrity" worthy enough to headline the tabloid TV shows and grace the pages of mass-market magazines.

As a chronicler of charismatics, I act as a biblical apostle and pay attention to Stein’s every single phrase, scribbling the most telling of them, using a spiral notebook for a tablet. His most insightful and provocative comments wind up in the final story that some 35 million or so readers will digest in the check-out line or at the dentist’s office, comments such as, "Heaven is being grateful for everything you have in life. Hell is being dissatisfied with everything."

Though Stein’s philosophy is a poignant one, my mother has offered such bits of wisdom to me since I was shorter than your average television set. But most readers don’t want to read about my (wonderful) mom. Still, it’s not vital whether it’s a 52-year-old Hollywood type or a 54-year-old mom from Buffalo, N. Y., who is dispensing the insight. When it comes to impersonal proclamations of a public kind, wisdom is wisdom — no matter the source of it. And since most Americans are more likely to pay attention to Kato Kaelin than Emmanuel Kant, I’ll settle for the insight of Ben Stein rather than the sound of one hand clapping.

When Princess Diana died, the world mourned. I grieved, too, but not for the death of a British multimillionaire. Rather, as magazines churned out covers picturing a bejeweled Di and folks paid their respects to her before the glow of CNN, I felt sad for members of the Dead Di Cult. Celebrities may capture our imagination, but life’s most significant beauty and inspiration lies in the nonfamous involved directly in our everyday lives, the ordinary people who do extraordinary things that make a difference.

I had many inspiring role models at Colgate, such as the administrator who in his spare time edited my grad school essays, the hockey coach who pushed me, the English professor who bent the rules my senior year so that I could do an internship at a newspaper in Syracuse. I also credit my parents, who, through their love and guidance, inspired me greatly. In fact, my dad was one of the most charismatic people I’ve ever known; he was, to me, a celebrity.

When my father died in 1995, he didn’t grace the cover of PEOPLE magazine; but, ironically enough, being a celebrity journalist has taught me that it doesn’t matter. For while I take pleasure in writing about pop-culture personalities as much as my readers enjoy reading about them, my star-probing experience has re-taught me a lesson I learned before Hamilton, before Hollywood: The most important people aren’t the ones everyone knows, but the ones you know best.