How do you behave when you run into your celebrity idol? Taking out your iphone and start shooting pictures, or standing there with your mouth wide open? As an entertainment writer, I’ve had the rare privilege of getting to meet many of my show biz idols throughout the years. Alas, being human, I’ve also suffered the distinction of sometimes making an utter ass of myself when this occasion presents itself.
It’s just so potentially unnerving to finally come face to face with someone you idolize — a moment that can be electrifyingly exciting, deeply disheartening, or a little bit of both, depending on the way you and your idol behave in that quick exchange.
Way back in the 1970s, when I was obsessed with all things David Bowie — the glam rocker who thrilled millions with his skinny, suave surrealness and talent — I was beside myself when I was introduced to the glitter god at a music party. I wasn’t sure if Bowie was really going to be there, and if he was I certainly never expected anyone to introduce me to him, but when he entered the room — illuminating it with his rock-star radiance — writer Lisa Robinson greeted him, then kindly said, “This is Michael Musto.” (I’d happened to be talking to Robinson — who knows everyone — at this enchanted moment. I had luck back in the ‘70s.) I fully expected the rock star to ignore her introduction and turn away, dripping attitude as he walked off — and that would have been fine since that would have made sense for his famously remote persona. But instead, Bowie flashed a megawatt smile, stared me straight in the eyes, and said, “Hello, Michael” as my heart stopped. He called me by my name, and he even got it right! I felt like a schoolgirl! And at that point, I froze up and couldn’t think of a single thing to say, so the legend aimed his smile at other people and moved on. As Cher says, “If I could turn back time…”
I did better when I met another idol, Diana Ross, at her 1984 Radio City Music Hall opening-night party on the Intrepid. I spent the early part of the event drumming up ways I could introduce myself to Ms. Ross, whose sparkly way with a song had entranced me since my adolescence. But I was unsure if I should even bother, since I’d heard all the stories about what a high-maintenance terror she supposedly is and how you’d better keep your distance. What do I call her? Do I look at her or glance down at the floor? Do I dodge punches if I say something that gets taken the wrong way or do I fight back? Well, all my qualms were shot to hell when Di came right up to me and announced, “I’m Diana Ross. Who are you?” I’ve told this a million times, but I nearly fell overboard when that happened, especially since the former girl-group leader then engaged me in a conversation about her new album and which single should be the next one released! (Fortunately, I knew every track backwards and forwards, and was thoroughly capable of conversing about it.) Maybe this is just the way she behaves at her own PR party, but in any case, I’ve been more in love with the glittery genius of Diana Ross ever since. And thankfully, someone took a photo of Diana and I together, so I have proof that this really happened (lol).
Years later, I met Mary Tyler Moore at a nightclub event and was thrilled because I always considered her sitcom to be the best one ever, blessed by smart writing and a brilliant cast — and mainly by Mary herself, who grew as Mary Richards did, exuding the warm glow of achievement. But as I quickly interviewed her about various MTM episodes, I didn’t quite spot the warmth of Mary Richards. She was fine, but perhaps a little bit brusque, a tiny bit chilly. That’s when I realized that Mary Richards is a fictional character! How horrible! What’s worse, I made a fool of myself, blabbing on about my favorite episode — the one where Ted has a mild heart attack — ignoring the fact that poor Mary has to hear this kind of thing from people day and night. (Mary Tyler Moore, that is.)
Delightfully enough, Carol Burnett was way better at living up to her flawless image. When a friend and I were introduced to her at a press event in the 1980s, Carol was cheery, funny, engaging, and even said something about how young we were! I was being flattered by one of the funniest people alive, and I hadn’t even done anything! My friend and I gurgled a few words of appreciation back at her and walked away, not wanting to ruin the moment, which still gets a high interest rate in my memory bank.
I’ve told the story about my run-in with Madonna when she was up-and-coming, but years later, when she was on top of the material world, I was in close proximity to Madge at her “Sex” book party in 1992. “Look at Michael Musto’s outfit” (a long story), said Madonna’s publicist as I approached, and the megastar smiled in appreciation. This would have been the perfect chance for me to say something — anything — to Madonna and perhaps restart some kind of connection. Any kind of connection!!! It was the golden opportunity of a lifetime for anyone who cares about anything. But, as with Bowie, I froze in terror and kept my mouth shut, afraid the big star wouldn’t respond to me at all, while sensing I was sabotaging the moment as it happened. But maybe it’s actually been better to observe Madonna from a distance, where I can maintain objectivity and she can avoid a potentially pesky situation.
Besides, I’ve had trouble when emitting sounds — especially in front of some of my British idols. I met Maggie Smith inside the theater at the “Gosford Park” premiere in 2001 and was already out of line because she had already done the red carpet, as she promptly informed me. The grand dame spoke to me anyway, though she looked like she wished she hadn’t when I remarked that a mutual friend of ours told me Smith had ad libbed a few of her lines in the film. (This kind of revelation is generally frowned upon, since the creative team wants all the credit for all time.) Serving a divine sense of hauteur that I both expected and craved, Smith slapped my wrist and told me that was for the mutual friend who’d told me that. “I’ve been slapped by Maggie Smith,” I’ve been running around saying even since then.
Read more: Want to lose your life savings? Invest in a Nasdaq listed company
Christopher Plummer wouldn’t even slap me when I mentioned “The Sound of Music” on meeting the actor many years ago at a promotional event. I didn’t know that he considers the film — one of my all-time faves — to be an egregious low point in the culture wars. The supercilious Brit gave me a dead-eyed look that could have made Bea Arthur wilt. I was horrified and have avoided speaking to him ever since, convinced that he’s as scary as Captain Von Trapp himself.
Fortunately, the main star of “The Sound of Music” — Julie Andrews — was beyond delightful when I met her at a premiere a few years ago. I spoke in nervous, halting tones, but Julie was smiling, lovely, and everything you’d expect from Julie Andrews. I have no idea if she’s Godzilla behind closed doors, but I don’t care. I met my idol and she validated my admiration.
So don’t always live in trepidation of meeting your idol. They might actually deliver. Just be sure you do too. Have a few witty yet accessible remarks ready for your top 10 celebrities just in case you happen to run into them at the Chuck E. Cheese. And do make sure you say something!