Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Celebrity accessibility

When I was in junior high, my friend Karly had a crush on Wil Wheaton. It was a pretty severe crush, bordering on obsession. I'm not saying that she was a stalker or anything, but at one point she did send herself flowers and address the card: To Karly, love Wil.

(It was not her proudest moment and 18 years later I'm still cringing for her. So I've taken the liberty of changing Karly's name here.)

Despite the fact that it rendered her slightly pathetic at times, I was a cheerleader for Karly's die-hard love, if only because she never doubted, not for one moment, that she would meet Wil Wheaton someday. And with the conviction of a besotted teenage girl, she knew that upon meeting him he would fall hopelessly in love with her. I had my doubts about that second part, but I still supported her. I admired her sheer force of will.

Now, these were the days before Twitter and Facebook and even email, and making direct contact with a celebrity was a virtually impossible thing to do, especially for a teenager from Connecticut. We didn't know then how much the world would change in just a few short years.

But Karly was not to be deterred. Late in our high school career she finally tracked Wil down at a Star Trek convention. Thankfully, after 6 years her furious ardor had dimmed to the level of a minor crush. She got his autograph and had her photo taken with him and she was satisfied.

But my admiration for her was renewed. Damned if that girl didn't get what she wanted, even if she had to wait a couple of years.

I myself had only a passing interest in Wil at the time. My father was a big fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and we spent more dinner hours than I'd like to recall eating off our laps in front of that show. It drove my mother crazy that we used the kitchen table more for storage than for family meals, and it drove my brother and I crazy because we had no interest in Star Trek. But any time the show was on, my father insisted that we watch it. Sometimes he would fall asleep in front of the TV and my brother or I would sneak the remote control out of his hand and change the channel. No matter how deeply my dad was snoring he would snap awake and proclaim dangerously, "I was watching that."

So I got to know the crew of the Starship Enterprise quite well. Wil Wheaton's Wesley Crusher became one of my favorite characters, in part because he was the only teenager on the show, and partly because of my appreciation for Karly and her steadfast devotion. Later on I saw Stand By Me, and by then I had to concede that Wil Wheaton was pretty cool.

A decade and a half later, someone referred me to wilwheaton.net. It was the first blog I ever saw, and I was amazed. It's like an online journal, I mused. I was struck by what a funny, regular guy Wil was. And what really surprised me were the conversations that sprung up in the blog's comments section. Fans would respond to Wil's posts, and quite often he would write back. How the world changes! I marveled. 15 years ago Karly would have sold a kidney to get in touch with Wil Wheaton, and now she could just post a comment on his blog and he would see it. And he might even write back!

So Wil Wheaton goes down in my mind's history as the first celebrity to really make himself accessible to his fans. And I quite admire him for it.

My other favorite crew member on the Starship Enterprise was Commander Geordi La Forge, played by LeVar Burton.

I have adored LeVar Burton since I was a preschooler. Reading Rainbow was my all-time favorite television show, and do you know, I don't think I've enjoyed a program so much since then. Before I could even tell time, I had a sixth sense that allowed me to abandon my play and rush inside moments before it came on the air. LeVar Burton took me into aquariums, costume shops, bakeries, pet shows and a hundred other worlds, and instilled in me a love of books that will never fade.

I wrote only two fan letters in my entire childhood, and the first one was to him*. It was written in crayon.

Sadly, I never mailed it. I think I had the idea that because my dad worked in television he'd be able to get my letter to LeVar (after all, he'd had no trouble passing my messages to Santa Claus). But Dad didn't know where to mail it either. I'm not sure what happened to that letter.

Oddly enough, it was years before I learned that LeVar Burton's first claim to fame was his role as Kunta Kinte in the TV miniseries Roots.

Growing up, we had a hard cover copy of Roots on the bookshelf in our living room. But who didn't? I developed a theory that every couple who had a child in the late seventies received a free copy of Roots when they left the hospital. All my friends' parents had a copy, but none of us knew what the book was about. I thought it was a dusty old tome about tracing your genealogy, which was my father's pet project.

But our copy of Roots was special. Inside the front cover the author Alex Haley wrote this inscription to my father:

October 6, 1976

Matthew, my brother, Kunta Kinte's family wishes the very best to you and your family!

Alex Haley

That was two weeks shy of a year before I was born. My father was producing a show called People Are Talking and Alex Haley was a guest. Roots had just come out and nobody knew anything about it yet.

I don't remember what convinced me to actually read the book. I think my father gave it to me for my birthday or for Christmas one year. He passed it on with such reverence, but at the time I was a little miffed that my present was something that had been sitting on our family's bookshelf my entire life.

But then I read the book, and lost myself to it. It became one of my all-time favorites. In the years since I have re-read it (or parts of it) dozens of times, but I have never been able to re-read the section where Kunta comes over on the slave ship. It was all I could do to read it once; I fought back nausea and tears the entire time.

Today, of course, I know what a treasure that book is. It holds a place of honor on my living room bookshelf now.

In 1977 the Roots TV miniseries hit the air and the greater American public became familiar with Alex Haley's story. But that was still months before I was born. I myself did not become aware of the miniseries until after I'd read the novel and subsequently studied the differences between the book and the series in an African American Literature course in college.

I was amazed to learn that LeVar Burton had portrayed Kunta Kinte on the screen. It seemed like I'd been bumping into that man my entire life, and he was still telling me wonderful stories. Butterflies-in-the-sky, boldly-going-where-no-one-has-gone-before kinds of stories.

Fast forward to the (nearly) current day. "Have you heard about this thing called Twitter?" my friend Katie asked me excitedly last year. "You can follow your friends through text messages and find out what they're doing all day!"

I didn't want to tell Katie how dumb that sounded. I couldn't foresee ever being interested in such a silly waste of time.

Katie, I formally and publicly apologize.

Of course, I'm a constant tweeter these days. I love sending out tiny highlights from my day to whomever may be reading. The challenge to be witty and informative in 140 characters is one that I just can't resist.

All the same, I keep my list of Twitter friends well-pruned. I only follow a small group of people, and among that group are only two celebrities: LeVar Burton and Wil Wheaton.

That was kind of a coincidence, to tell you the truth. Their names popped up on the right-hand side of my screen and I realized that I wanted to know what they were up to.

"I'm surprised you don't follow more celebrities on Twitter," remarked Monte, "since you love that kind of thing." He was referring to my collection of US Weekly magazines.

I shrugged. "Just because they're famous doesn't mean they're clever. I don't want to know what all those people are doing all day long."

"Is Wil Wheaties clever?" asked Monte.

"Wil Wheaton. Well, half the time he writes from the perspective of his cat. And the other half the time I can't really understand what he's saying. It's some kind of geek speak, I think. His wife seems pretty funny though.

"But that's not the point. The point is, I admire the dude for his normalcy, for making his celebrity so accessible. Did I ever tell you about my friend Karly?"

He listened gamely as I regaled him with the tale. "And LeVar Burton," I continued, "well...he was just my childhood hero. And he was Kunta friggin' Kinte, for God's sake." Monte blinked at me uncomprehendingly. "Oh, read Roots," I beseeched him. "And then we can watch the miniseries together and discuss the differences. It's only 12 hours long! We could do that in a weekend!" I called to his retreating form.

I was thinking about celebrity accessibility the other day as I walked home from dance class. I remembered that crayoned letter that I'd written to LeVar Burton. I wished I still had it; I wondered what it said. It's such a shame that I was never able to send it to him.

And it came to me, in a flash, that I could write to him again, today! In fact, I could send him a tweet! I could still let him know how much the stories he's chosen to tell with his career have meant to me.

And - hang on a minute - yes! Yes! Thanks to YouTube I can even show him my all-time favorite episode of Reading Rainbow, the one about teamwork, with the song that I'm still singing some 25 years later:

Oh my goodness, I'm going to do it, I thought. I'm going to tweet LeVar Burton and send him my fan letter.

But before I got the chance, that very afternoon in fact, I checked Twitter and read LeVar's latest post:

At The Soup doing another spot with the cast of Mad Men.

Say what now?

If you read my last blog entry you'll know that my old friend Mike has a role on Mad Men. He plays Paul Kinsey. Was LeVar Burton going to appear in a spot with Mike?

I logged onto Facebook. And sure enough, Mike's entire family had posted the clip:

"Holy shit," I said aloud.

Monte came up behind me. "Whoa, that's Gladis!" he exclaimed.

"Yeah," I said, disbelieving. "And that's LeVar Burton."

Monte studied the screen. "Which one?" he asked.

"The black guy!" I exploded. "Jesus - I'm going to make you sit down and watch an entire season of Star Trek.

"Damn that Mike," I said, shaking my head. "First he refuses to come to the junior prom with me, and now he's on TV, palling around with my childhood hero."

"Like, 16 years later," Monte calculated.

"Whatever," I sulked. "He probably never even watched Reading Rainbow. I'll bet he doesn't know the 'Teamwork' song."

"Don't be a pill," Monte admonished me.

"Sorry. I'm just jealous."

"Wait a minute. So Mike does a movie with Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson and that doesn't bother you, but you're jealous of a 30-second spot with LeVar Burton?"

"Did you not watch the 'Teamwork' clip?" I asked him.

Onscreen LeVar declared, "I'm LeVar Burton! I can do anything!"

"Yes you can, LeVar Burton," I murmured. "Yes you can."

I stood up abruptly. "I'm going to write a blog post," I said decisively. "And then I'm going to tweet it to LeVar Burton and Wil Wheaton. I'm going to test this theory of celebrity accessibility."

"Maybe Mike would introduce you," offered Monte.

"He, um, won't return my emails," I said, looking at the ground.

"So what, are you just going to ask these guys if they want to be your friends?" Monte questioned.

"Pretty much, yeah."

He clapped me on the shoulder. "Go for it, babe."

And so I have spent the last two days crafting this blog post.

All this to say:

Dear Wil Wheaton & LeVar Burton,

Would you like to be friends with me?

Errin Marie

I hope they write back.

* The second fan letter was to Mariah Carey. I told her I wanted to be a singer like her when I grew up, and asked her if she was half black, like me.


allyson said...

Great post! And I'm envious of your Mad Men connection. LOVE that show :)

xoxo A

Anonymous said...

Okay, first of all, having gone to middle school with you - I'm pretty sure I know who the Wil Wheaton fan is,which makes me feel special. :)

Secondly, Mike didn't return my emails either. WTF. I mean, we were in MADS together. Once a Madrigal, always a Madrigal. That's what I always say. We saw him in TIGHTS. REGULARLY.

But, I still talk to his sister often. So there's my connection. :)


PS I remember your copy of Roots AND the year your dad gave it to you. and you did scoff...but minimally. :)

Anonymous said...

Your blog is great. I'm tempted to start blogging again, but as you note a blog worth reading takes time to write! You should've sent them a link to this entry!

Monte said...

love it! it's all makin sense now... :-)

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed getting a phone call today from my little sister asking me if I ever sent my self flower's in middle school and signed the card love Wil. I laughed as I remember a special friend that I had shared that sercret with. So thank you for changing the name to Karly to protect me silly girlhood crush. I loved the blog and I hope that you are doing very well. Don't worry about Mike, remember we have all the great pictures of him from middle school and high School that will be great some day. Love Always K.A.T.