It can be an incredible burden.
For people who choose to live their lives in the public eye, there comes a level of scrutiny and expectation that most people never face.
It’s true that in today’s world more and more people are opting to live their lives out loud with social networks, YouTube, Twitter and newcomers like Seesmic providing anyone with the emotional fortitude (or total lack of discretion as the case may be) the means to splay their lives open sharing every aspect of their existence with whomever wishes to read, listen or watch.
But I’m not talking about that kind of public eye.
What I’m talking about are the people whose life path puts them squarely into positions where their actions, words and deeds serve as guidance, motivation and inspiration for others on a macro scale. For the purpose of this discussion, I’m talking about people in the entertainment business – actors, musicians and the like – though the same could be said for authors, politicians and athletes.
It can’t be easy. You walk out of your house to get a quart of milk, and you’re confronted by people who’ve seen all of your films, read all of your books, watched all of your concerts and they feel that they know you. After all, you’ve shared a personal side of yourself through your work, and to them you have been an intimate part of their life.
And from that one way intimacy people often expect that should they ever meet someone for whom they are a fan, that this person will look into their eyes and recognize them. That at first glance you’ll be welcomed with open arms and a “Hello friend, how ARE you?”
Of course that’s ridiculous.
But how many times have you heard people tell stories of disappointment from meeting someone they idolize in some way? How many times have you heard someone say: “Oh I met so and so, and boy was he/she an asshole.”
Well, what if you met them on a bad day? What if you somehow created the problem by approaching them inappropriately? Whatever the case, when our anticipation is dashed, it can be very disheartening.
I remember meeting Bernadette Peters when I was about 16 years old. I was a huge fan, and I met her in between rehearsals for her show at a casino hotel in Atlantic City, N.J. I’d been doing musical theater since I was about 7 and she was one of my favorite performers. So when she blew me off with dismissive wave and turned her back – I was devastated.
Of course, I realize now that she was probably exhausted, worn out from travel and trying to nail her show down before that night’s opening and just didn’t have time to say hello. Now could she have done it a bit more politely, perhaps. But suffice to say, it’s not as though I think she’s a horrid person. Many years later my friend Lisa Vroman performed with Bernadette in a show. I was pleased to find out that not only was my initial impression wrong, but based on what Lisa told me of working with her, she was a truly generous performer with an intense focus on perfection. And I’m guessing that my boisterous greeting all those years ago was precisely the type of jarring disruption that she didn’t need.
But even having this clear view of reality, and in spite of the fact that I’m blessed to do the kind of work that puts me squarely in the path of some pretty amazing people on a regular basis, I’m still human. And there is a very special list of people in whose presence I’m pretty sure that I would revert to childhood and become a tongue-tied, pre-teen complete with shuffling feet, downcast eyes and deeply ferocious blushing.
Actually in the case of one person on my celebrity crush list I can tell you for fact that this was precisely the case.
If you’re not gay and specifically not a lesbian, then you may not have heard of the film Desert Hearts. It is 1986 film based on the Jane Rule novel “Desert of the Heart.” I hadn’t heard of it either, at least not until I came out at the age of 28. It was during those early days of figuring out my sexuality that I made many a foray to the video store (back in the pre-Netflix era when people still did that) seeking out films that went beyond the usual John Hughes fare upon which I’d been weaned and spoke more directly to some of the experiences I was having.
So it wasn’t until some time in the late 90s that I saw the film and first laid eyes on Patricia Charbonneau.
One of the two female leads in the film, she was captivating.
Okay, I’ll say it, she was ridiculously smoking hot.
Going beyond that, there was something so delicately balanced about her performance, something that on a number of levels spoke to some of the struggles I was facing with my own attempt to get comfortable in my own skin. I found myself comforted … and over the years I found myself returning to the film each time catching a fresh nuance of characters and perspective on the story – and of course stoking the fire of my schoolgirl crush.
Fast forward to the spring of 2007. The 20th anniversary Desert Hearts DVD release approached and I caught sight of a notice on the Internet that there was a DVD signing scheduled for the Virgin Megastore on Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles.
So I did the logical thing.
I begged my dear friend Lisa Dickey to go for me.
All I wanted, I told her, was a picture of Patricia and maybe an autograph.
Lisa hit the ball out of the park – and it went something like this.
On the day of the signing I headed for an event in San Francisco. One of those technology industry networking things where I had to smile a lot, hand out business cards and talk incessantly about the latest widgets and hottest start-ups.
I was contemplating departure, when my cell phone rang. It was Lisa.
“Hey Cathy. I’m here at the signing. I’ve been here a while and the line is almost done, so I’m going to get in line and when I get to the front I’m going to hand Patricia the phone.”
That’s when I almost passed out.
As Lisa gave me the running commentary, describing how Patricia was interacting with people, and counting down how many people were ahead of her in line, I dashed out of the networking event and headed for my car – babbling like a fool the entire time.
“Oh my god … what the hell am I going to say to her? I feel like an ass. I mean, I have so many questions and things I’d love to discuss with her but it’s more of a ‘wish I could sit down and chat over lunch’ sort of thing. Oh shit.”
My anxiety gave Lisa great amusement.
And then the time came.
It was slightly muffled, but I heard Lisa’s introduction:
“Hi Patricia, I’m pretty sure that I have one of your biggest fans on the other end of the phone. It’s my friend Cathy in San Francisco. Would you mind saying hello?”
And then I heard that velvety voice saying my name.
My first words?
Oh, I was at my utmost eloquent.
“Er … um … oh … it’s you … oh … um … hi … wow … um … say, might you hold on a second, while I pull over. I think I might hit a light pole.”
Talk about verbal alacrity.
She could not have been more gracious. Clearly sensing a wholly freaked out person on the other end of the line, Patricia gently asked me where I was.
“San Francisco?” she said. “I love San Francisco. It’s a lovely city.”
With a moment or two of chit-chat, I soon felt far more at ease.
We talked a bit about her role in Desert Hearts. I complimented her bravery at having tackled such a controversial role at such an early juncture in her career.
I told her that putting aside the fact that she’s remarkably beautiful, that I was truly impressed by her work and thought it was a true crime that she’d not been around much. And I put in a plea for her to get back on the screen soon.
With that, the conversation was over. And I was floating.
The next day Lisa sent me a picture that she’d taken of Patricia while we were talking on the phone.
A week or so later, a package arrived in the mail for me from Lisa. Inside was a copy of the 20th anniversary Desert Hearts CD. It was signed by director/producer, Donna Deitch, Patricia’s co-star Helen Shaver and, of course, by Patricia. She’d written, “It was great talking with you, Cathy. Take care, Patricia.”
Fast forward again. This time it’s October 2007 and I’m talking with another dear friend, Mariah Hanson, about the upcoming PowerUp benefit. She encourages me to come to LA for the soiree. I agree.
It’s not until about a week before the event that I actually take the time to read through the flyer in any detail and see that Donna Deitch was to be honored.
And Patricia Charbonneau was scheduled to be there.
Things were actually fine up until it was time to get dressed to head for the event. That’s when lightly flapping butterflies in my stomach evolved quickly into a flock of something with far wider wingspan … pterodactyls perhaps.
I’m already belaboring the story far too much so I’ll cut to the chase. Yes, I approached Patricia after she arrived at the event. And yes, I mentioned our phone chat from early in the summer. I’m pleased to say that she remembered it! And with a bashful grin, I asked if she would be so kind as to allow a picture, to which I’m also pleased to report she graciously agreed.
Gracious. That’s really the key word here. Here I was, confronted with meeting someone who – unbeknown to her – had played a critical role in my life. Her portrayal of Cay inspired and touched me in a deeply personal way at a time when, like her character, I was wrestling between the pull of fierce independence and the deep desire to belong. And when faced with my somewhat bumbling bashfulness, Patricia could not have been more compassionate and warm.
Since appearing in Desert Hearts, Patricia’s screen time hasn’t exactly been what one would call prolific. There have been a number of films and some TV appearances, but for the most part this striking and talented actress has spent the better part of the last 20 years well outside the Hollywood scene. There’s very little about her personal life published anywhere, but I can’t help but wonder if it has something to do with the fact that her film debut placed her as an out lesbian during a time when that sort of thing just wasn’t done. That may well be the case. But I’m guessing that it’s largely a function of her focusing on an even more important role – that of being mother to her two kids.
Whatever the reason, Patricia Charbonneau is an actress whose face should grace far more screens than it does today. Because being a role model and someone to whom people look takes far more than just good looks and talent – it requires grace and a sense of awareness and responsibility for what comes with the public role.