In Brushes with Greatness, Naomi Fry writes about her relatively marginal encounters with celebrities.
In 2014, the magazine In Touch broke what is still, to my mind, one of our era’s most quintessential gossip stories. The weekly claimed that Lindsay Lohan was holding court at the Beverly Hills Hotel and, in an apparent attempt to impress her retinue, wrote out the names of three dozen of her sexual conquests—most of them A-list Hollywood celebrities such as Justin Timberlake, Colin Farrell, and Zac Efron—then tossed the list aside. A mistake, obviously, since that was likely when one of the entourage pounced, retrieving the sheet and eventually getting it into the hands of an In Touch staffer. The magazine reproduced the list in Lohan’s all-caps, American-middle-school-girl handwriting.
In the realm of gossip, not much can come close to a story like this. It’s all there: Lohan’s energetic, unashamed libertinism; her gambler-like, Gwendolen Harleth–style carelessness; the snake-in-the-grass betrayal from within; and, of course, the clandestine sex lives of famous people. But for me, what was most enticing of all was not—or not just—the fact that celebrities were sleeping with each other. Rather, it was the broader suggestion that there was, behind the scenes, a kind of universe in which famous people could engage with other famous people almost exclusively, if they so wished.
Looking at Lohan’s list reminded me in the best way of reading Balzac for the first time: of how excited I was every time a figure from one book appeared in another in an expanded or contracted narrative capacity. “There he is! I remember him!” I’d think, as happy as a clam. This notion that characters have independent lives, beyond our gaze, was at work for me in Lohan’s case, too. (Isn’t it so that celebrities form a kind of traveling cast we follow from one plot to another?) I loved imagining the confluence of circumstance via which someone like Adam Levine or Ashton Kutcher or James Franco or Orlando Bloom (“Orli,” per the list) would end up—at least allegedly—in Lohan’s boudoir. What a time to be alive! Just think, they were all connected, and right there, just beyond our grasp!
A not dissimilar sense emerges when we civilians suddenly run up, in the course of our workaday lives, against the specter of celebrity. As in the case of Lohan’s list, a certain rupture occurs, and a world is seemingly born anew. So this was going on all along, we think, spotting the celebrity in the wild: he becomes an actor in our own lives, while we become actors—however minor and glanced over—in his.
And with this, our own stories are potentially made over. The desire to turn the walk-on role into a recurring character arc is seductive, and lies at the root of many civilian/celebrity interactions. You hear it in the way tales of such interactions are told—endlessly stretched out, the syuzhet almost unrecognizably extended beyond the fabula. Even Lohan, herself a celebrity, was doing some curating just by virtue of organizing her bold-face list, creating an even denser, even more intense narrative about her life, making it mean more.
I live in New York, so I’ve had many celebrity sightings, which managed to feel consequential to me while clearly being something less than consequential to the celebrities in question. One that I recall in particular (and here I, too, go stretching out the yarn beyond all proportion) happened about six years ago in the restroom at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center. My husband and I had gone to see a matinee of a movie from 1970 by the straightforward name of A Swedish Love Story. The audience comprised about a dozen civilians, as well as the director Sofia Coppola and her partner, Phoenix’s Thomas Mars, with what looked like a couple of friends. (Fellow civilians, but lucky civilians.) We enjoyed the movie very much. It was the sort of post-hippie art-house Scandinavian film where the sexual activity of beautiful teens is figured not as a social or moral problem but as something sweetly unembarrassed—a territory Coppola had explored in some of her own movies. Over its course, though, we both kept turning around subtly to see what the director and her cohort were doing. (They seemed to be watching the movie.)
The more significant encounter happened in the restroom after the movie ended. I was psyched to take my place in line directly behind Coppola, who was, at the time, pregnant. Apart from her bump, as the tabloids like to call it, she was elegantly slim, wearing a smock-like, light-colored dress (A.P.C.?). I noticed she had what was then the new iPhone. Her bob was nicely undone, in that rich bohemian way. Coppola was fashion and she was taste and she was intellect, a perfect combination of “wealth” and “beauty” and “pedigree” and “indie film” and “pleasingly distinctive nose.” Coming across her was like finding an Eames chair at a garage sale for fifteen dollars and envisioning your adulthood suddenly taking the turn it was always meant to. I was agog.
When a stall freed up, she thought, for some reason, that I was ahead of her in line, and motioned for me to proceed. I responded by touching her upper arm lightly and saying, “No, you go ahead!”—perhaps this was understood as a nod to her condition?—while already replaying the encounter in my mind. When we both emerged from the stalls, we had another moment by the towel dispenser. “That movie was so great,” I fumbled dully. “Oh, the movie? Yeah … ” Coppola smiled politely, trailing off. Then she walked out, as I was still drying my hands.
The encounter, I felt, wasn’t a complete failure. I was writing out my list, after all, making it signify something for the life I was living. I was on the Upper West Side, watching a Swedish art movie like it was 1978, and Coppola was, too. I must have made some okay choices, I thought. I could practically feel my idea of my own world expanding and thickening into meaningfulness.
Naomi Fry is a writer and the copy chief at T: The New York Times Style Magazine.