Chances are very good that at some point in your life you’ll meet someone famous. It could be an actor, a musician, or a professional athlete. Or perhaps a VIP of another sort, like a well-known politician or the CEO of your company.
When the opportunity presents itself, you have a decision to make: do you want to be viewed as just another fan or would you like to take a shot at developing a professional or even personal relationship?
The answer to that question determines how you should handle the situation.
In many instances, the venue in which you meet the celebrity simply won’t allow any sort of meaningful conversation. If there is a crowd of people vying for the person’s attention then you probably just need to grab an autograph and get a picture for Facebook. But if you have the opportunity to actually engage in conversation, there are ways to make yourself memorable.
I’ve spent 25 years in media which has given me many opportunities to meet people who are well-known. To be honest, I feel a bit like Forrest Gump at times, having been thrust into situations with people far from my humble roots. I grew up in Pekin, IL (Pop. 34,084). The only famous people from my hometown are astronaut Scott Altman and child actor Danny Lloyd, who played the little kid in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining opposite Jack Nicholson. I think The Partridge Family’s Susan Dey might’ve been born in Pekin, but her family moved when she was still a baby. I never met any of these stars from my hometown…but if the truth were known, I had a pretty bad crush on Laurie Partridge.
Four Ways to Get to Know a Celebrity
I’ve stumbled and bumbled a few times when meeting celebrities, especially early on (more on that later). But my mistakes have taught me a few things. So, here a few tips I’ve picked up along the way about how to meet and befriend someone famous.
- Don’t dwell on the reason for the person’s fame…at least not initially. It’s tempting, especially if you’re a die-hard fan. But if you kick off the conversation saying, “I really love your music/books/movies” then she’ll immediately switch into red carpet mode and put you squarely into the category of “fan.” That’s a cage that’ll be difficult to escape. It’s better to ask about something other than her celebrity. Perhaps you’ve read that she’s a fan of one of your favorite authors. Ask which of the author’s books she liked best. Or maybe you heard that she recently returned from Maui, a place you visited last year. Ask about a favorite restaurant or snorkeling spot that both of you might’ve visited on the island. Common ground makes for a good conversation starter.
- Avoid questions that everyone else asks. “What was it like to work with (insert name of famous director or co-star)?” Or “What did it feel like to hit that walk-off home run to force a Game Seven?” These questions have been asked and answered hundreds of times. Not a good way to set yourself apart. Years ago, I read Harvey MacKay’s book Swim with the Sharks without Being Eaten Alive. He tells the story of meeting a young Fidel Castro at a function. Castro appeared to be physically fit, so MacKay asked how he stayed in shape. “Bowling,” he replied. So, Harvey mentioned that he had been a champion bowler during his college days. Castro’s eyes lit up and they enjoyed a lively conversation afterwards. A little bit of internet research can help you find unique topics to bring up.
- Don’t make the celebrity your sole focus. Remember the movie Hitch? Kevin James plays a guy who is going out on a date with Allegra, the woman of his dreams. Hitch — Albert’s relationship coach, played by Will Smith — tells him, “When all is said and done, tonight is not about Allegra. Tonight is about Maggie. A woman’s best friend has to sign off on all big relationship decisions.” In other words, a person takes an interest in someone who takes an interest in her best friend. So, if your celebrity’s spouse or friend or manager is nearby, strike up a conversation. Don’t be manipulative. Be authentic. Insincerity gives off an awful smell that is easily noticed.
- Ask them about a passionate hobby. Years ago when I managed a radio station in St. Louis, Dedee and I were invited to a party at Amy Grant and her then husband Gary Chapman’s home. On the wall of their dining room were shadow boxes filled with plaster casts of their kids’ hand prints. Dedee thought they were lovely and asked about them. Amy walked Dedee through how they were made which led to a wonderful conversation about her kids and our girls. Meanwhile, Gary and I talked golf. I mentioned that I was currently reading Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book on golf. “One of the best books on golf ever written,” he said. “I’ve given that book to dozens of people.” For the next 30 minutes, we swapped tales of long drives and longer putts. We had a great time telling lies and half-truths.
I encourage you to follow these tips the next time you meet one of your heroes. Be authentic and sincere. Remove the stars from your eyes and be yourself. Who knows what might happen next.
An Embarrassing Moment
I mentioned earlier how things haven’t always gone well for me when meeting someone famous. Here’s a good example.
Kids have a way of leveling you at the most inopportune moments. Back in 1993, I was invited to a private lunch with a musician named Brent Bourgeois. He fronted a group called Bourgeois-Tagg which had a couple of hits, most notably “I Don’t Mind at All.” Not Bono by any means, but he had at least one more Top 40 hit than I did. Dedee and our daughter Taylor joined us for lunch. Taylor was 3.
We were sitting at a table in a trendy Nashville restaurant. Brent was to my left, Taylor was at my right, and Dedee was sitting at the end of the table next to Taylor. A couple of record company executives were across from Brent and me.
I was young and nervous but decided to bluff my way through the meal. I started talking “studio” this and “record producer” that. Utter claptrap. Brent was kind. The executives were busy fiddling with their Tandy Zoomers, a brick-sized precursor to the Palm Pilot. I was playing the part pretty well, I thought, laughing it up with Brent. Then Taylor spoke up.
“Seriously, Brent, it’s a great hook. I’m sure it’s going to be a hit.”
“Hold on a sec, Brent.” I turned to Taylor. “Yes, honey. What is it?”
“Yes, babe, I’m listening.”
All at once, it was as if the restaurant itself inhaled and drew every sound from the room. Perfect silence.
“Daddy…you got a hair hanging out your nose.”
With that, Taylor turned back to her chicken nuggets. Dedee lost it. I mean, she was gone. She jammed her napkin to her mouth in a vain attempt to stifle her uncontrollable laughter.
The executives lifted their heads in unison. At last, something more interesting than their PDAs had captured their attention. Brent smiled and politely turned to his pasta.
“If you’ll excuse me.” I stood and walked to the men’s room.
It took but a glance in the mirror to prove that Taylor was right. A rather long hair stared back at me from my right nostril.
I tried several times to pluck it out, to no avail. It was long enough to be seen but too short to grab onto. If only I had Dedee’s manicure scissors, I thought. But I wasn’t about to walk back to the table and ask Dedee to dig through her purse to find them, with all the restaurant patrons looking on.
I stared at the mirror.
I jammed my hands into my pockets searching for something — anything — that could help. I smiled. I withdrew my hand. It clutched salvation.
First, I tried grabbing the hair so I could cut it off at the nostril. No dice. Still too short. So, I stuck the knife into my nostril, pinched the hair between my thumb and the blade, and yanked.
You ever wrap Christmas presents? You know how to make a straight ribbon curly, right? It’s simple. You pinch the long, straight ribbon between your thumb and the scissors, and you zip it along the length of ribbon. Voila! You have a beautiful curly mess of ribbon.
Hair does the same thing.
I looked back in the mirror. I now had a long, curly hair hanging from my nose. The good news was that the curl made it easier to tuck it back up inside the nostril. One last check in the mirror and I was good to go.
Dedee was still laughing when I came out. The execs were back to their Zoomers and Brent had called for the check. Taylor was sticking her fingers into the ketchup on her plate. The meeting adjourned and we went our separate ways.
Thankfully, things have gone better for me in similar situations since. At the very least, I’ve learned to keep little kids away from such affairs.
But now with the perspective of many years, I can honestly say that in spite of the embarrassment…the meeting really was memorable.
Questions: How have you learned to engage with a celebrity or VIP? What about any embarrassing stories or lessons learned the hard way? Tell your story in the comments below.