Hey all! I’m experimenting with multi-part series this week, and today’s the first of a three-part post on the art of the meet and greet. After kicking off with a little cultural theory of the fan/celeb “relationship”, I’ll follow up with a little exploration of what it might feel like to be at the receiving end of the star gaze, and provide some practical tips for navigating a planned or spontaneous Meet and Greet without losing your dignity or earning a restraining order–the sort of guide I wish I’d had as I stood in line to meet my first celebrity, many, many years ago. I hope you enjoy!
Part 1: Breakfast
No celebrity (heck, noBODY) deserves to be blogged about in an unstructured situation, especially before they’ve had coffee. Therefore, beyond my own thoughts and emotions, I will ignore “show don’t tell” rules and describe absolutely nothing about the actual moment I glanced up from my omelet and inadvertently locked eyes with Peter Tork as he walked through the door at the breakfast buffet at my, er, our hotel in Bay City, Michigan. That was the first, and I actually pray the last unexpected celebrity encounter of my life. As I stared fixedly at either my tablemates or my suddenly captivating breakfast for the 15 seconds or so until he passed our table and Cin glanced at me with a subtle but unmistakeable “Is that…?!” look, I was overwhelmed with a powerful impulse to act as if nothing had happened. Somehow following up or even acknowledging the instant of chance in any way, even with a glance or a nod, felt powerfully like stalking. I don’t just mean stalking in the TMZ paparazzi way, but in the word’s older meaning. Think the earls on Downton Abbey crouching in the heather attempting to kill woodland creatures to hang over the mantlepiece kind of stalking, or if I want to be really crass and on the nose…
Yeah. Kind of like that. And yet, later that evening at the meet and greet after the Shoe Suede Blues show, I could tell that the social tables were flipped. Everything was controlled and regimented, and most everyone followed “the script”. I was petrified of making an ass of myself in the presence of a person who had given me and my friends two of the greatest gifts of my life, in the form of a status update and a song. Asking for anything from Peter after that, even just to listen to feelings of gratitude I could barely verbalize, seemed horribly inappropriate. That feeling was reinforced as I saw the line that snaked a block down from the crowded retro music store, Peter’s guarded body language, and what appeared to be exhaustion in his eyes. I said about a half-dozen words, slipped him my card, and got an autograph, forgetting even to tell him my name. I would have fled then and there if my more extraverted and courageous friends hadn’t finagled a very quick group picture. My actions may or may not have been the right tactic (advanced social cues have never been my strong suit), but the environment and stakes at play cowed me into a very rare silence. The card seemed safer.
In any case, after flying back home and reuniting with my long-suffering higher cognitive functions, I tried to pretty much put the whole day out of my brain for the next few months as a bizarre outlier in my nicely mundane life. However, being a Ph.D student as well as a fangirl, I’ve been reading up on a theoretical framework called symbolic interactionism the last couple weeks for my upcoming presentation of some Ph.D research at a conference in Manchester (yes, THAT Manchester). I’ll spare you the intricacies of said theory for the purposes of this blog post unless you’ve a mind to visit Wikipedia (it’s actually a decent article). However, I started wondering—how exactly does this weird little interaction called a “meet and greet” work, anyway? Being a librarian, I hopped onto our ebook collection, and up popped Stargazing: Celebrity, Fame, and Social Interaction by Kerry Ferris and Scott Harris. Even if you are sane and are NOT doing a PhD, I heartily recommend this very readable book if you have any interests in the social issues at play when celebrities and fans connect with each other.
First off, a thought process that in my case went something like “Oh dear gods don’t make an ass of yourself look down for the love of God don’t crack a smile or even nod or the others might turn around and stare and then he’ll know we saw him and it’ll ruin his breakfast and oh my, isn’t that a lovely piece of flatware?” is more technically known as “civil inattention”. Of course, Ferris and Harris concede that one of the most bizarre moments of my life is a little different than nodding to a random stranger at the toaster. Celebrities are often tied to some of the most seminal moments of a fan’s life, whereas they usually can’t tell their fans from Adam (though as an intelligent man, I suspect he quickly spotted a half-dozen people avoiding eye contact and simultaneously deciding that they were done with breakfast). Ferris and Harris go on to argue that the rules of civil inattention are loosened in these situations, and one can come up and say something, as long as one follows the rules of “Deference rituals”. You know, the standard “I hate to bother you, but…?” However, I’m not sure I agree. One can defer all you like, but one still needs to first consider what one’s celebrity would likely prefer—to have a nice ego-boosting chat with a fan over breakfast, or to be left alone at 8:30 in the morning to eat their bloody cereal. My gut read the situation on that saturday morning and instantly told me the latter, but in any case, I don’t have what it takes to not make an idiot of myself. Or at least not on that Saturday morning. But I’ve probably blogged way too much about the emotional side of my 2012, and I think you’re as tired of hearing about it as I am of writing about it. Back to the book.
Further on in the discussion of these fan/celebrity meetings, Ferris and Harris talks about power inequalities and how they differ between unstructured encounters (the breakfast buffet), and structured ones (the meet and greet). In a nutshell, while the fan is on an equal, if not possibly higher level of power in the first interaction (especially if the celebrity is trying to stay anonymous), the celebrity holds the upper hand in the meet and greet. At a meet and greet there are rules, security, time constraints, and sometimes even physical barriers that separate fan from famous person, not to mention the social pressure of the people in line behind you who also want to get a (hopefully metaphorical) piece of the action. It’s an utterly contrived and unbalanced interaction that echoes the unbalanced relationship between celebrity and fan, and I felt every ounce of that social pressure as I thought and rethought and re-re-thought myself into near-mutism by the time I got to the front of the line.
After that weekend, once I recovered from the more personal and emotional repercussions and my brain came back online, I started wondering, what’s it like to sit on the other side of that autograph table? Doing meet-and-greets for decades perhaps makes the interaction more comfortable, but it doesn’t probably make it much less unbalanced and weird. What might it do to a person to be an object of that kind of attention—in Peter’s case for essentially his entire adult life? Also, is there a way for a celebrity to bridge that gap while maintaining safety and sanity, or at least to make a wide box canyon look a bit more like a puddle? For a possible answer to that question we’ll have to consider British royals and the definition of “connection”. See you Wednesday.