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Excerpt: The Guinea Pig Diaries by A.J. Jacobs

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

By A.J. Jacobs

The following is an excerpt from The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment by A.J. Jacobs. Be sure to check out Chris Teja’s interview with him here.

240 Minutes of Fame

In my real life, I’ve had just the tiniest taste of what it’s like to be famous. Three instances come to mind:

1. The book festival in Texas where I met my one and only rabid fan—a man who took off his sweater to reveal passages of my book scrawled on his T-shirt in Magic Marker. (Later, Israeli writer Etgar Keret would tell me that one of his fans got a chest tattoo of his book’s cover, which made me feel small and inadequate.)

2. The time my mother-in-law called in a tizzy and said, “You’re a clue in the New York Times crossword puzzle!” This was a dream come true. A bona fide mark of fame.

“It’s forty- eight down,” she said.

I grabbed the Times and opened to the puzzle. The clue was “Reads the encyclopedia from A to Z.”

The answer was N-E-R-D.

Huh. Nerd. I would have preferred my actual name, but it was something. Just to be certain, I e-mailed the crossword editor, Will Shortz—whom I had once met at a crossword puzzle tournament—and asked if maybe I was the nerd in question; he said I wasn’t consciously the inspiration, but that I might have been an unconscious factor. Might have been an unconscious factor. That’s something, right? Good enough for me!

3. And finally, there was the awkward, Borscht Belt-like exchange with a passenger in the New York subway. “What do you know about Q?” he asked me.

Hmm. The Q train. “I think you can catch it on Fifty-seventh and Seventh.”

He paused. “No, the letter Q. What do you know about the letter Q.”

He had seen me on Book TV talking about how I read the encyclopedia, and thought it’d be fun to quiz me about one of the volumes. I was so disoriented, I couldn’t process it. I just don’t get recognized in public.

As for actual fame, that’s about it. I’ve published two books that sold moderately well, but they haven’t made me famous. Not in the real hounded-by-paparazzi sense of the word. On a good day, I’m “somewhat noted in certain quarters.”

But if actual fame has eluded me, I have gotten to experience an odd simulacrum of fame thanks to an immersion experiment. The result was, as they say during Entertainment Tonight interviews—surreal. And it also convinced me that lack of fame can be a good thing. Or so I’ve told myself, anyway.

This experiment was actually one of my first, back in 1997. Early in my career, I worked as a writer for Entertainment Weekly magazine. My job usually consisted of interviewing B-list TV celebrities, writing down the type of salad they were eating, assembling a few quotes, and passing it off as an article.

But not always. There were exceptions. My most memorable assignment came in January 1997. The indie movie Shine had recently been released to an orgy of critical praise. Maybe you remember it? It was based on the true story of Australian pianist David Helfgott, who suffered from schizophrenia.

The adult Helfgott was played brilliantly by a stammering, tic-afflicted Geoffrey Rush. But the younger Helfgott—the post-adolescent Helfgott—was played by an up-and-coming Australian actor named Noah Taylor.

As it turned out, I looked exactly like Noah Taylor. Or at least like his slightly older brother. We had the same thin face, the same gangly body, and the same- sized nose, which in polite circles is called “prominent.”

Even more striking, though, is that Noah Taylor and I shared the same haircut and eyeglasses. For reasons I’m still puzzling out, in my mid-twenties I decided to let my hair grow down to my shoulders. This wasn’t cool long hair, mind you. It was shapeless and stringy, like Ben Franklin or a meth addict. And the glasses? They were thick, black, and clunky. I suppose I was going for a retro intellectual vibe, something in the Allen Ginsberg area. What I got was Orville Redenbacher.

Julie has told me several times that if I’d asked her out during my meth-addicted-popcorn-king era, we would not be married today. She would have told me that she was getting over a relationship and/or life-threatening, still-contagious illness.

The only upside, if you can call it that: my status as Noah Taylor’s doppelganger, whose character sported the same unconventional look. From the first weekend Shine opened, I’d hear it at least once a day: “Hey, you look like the guy from Shine.”

I’d humbly nod my thanks. If I was feeling generous, I’d mime playing some piano keys.

My editors at Entertainment Weekly noticed the resemblance as well, and were determined to exploit it. Turned out the real Noah Taylor was skipping the Academy Awards—the film was nominated, he wasn’t, and he’d decided to stay in Australia. So my bosses came up with a plan: send me to the Oscars undercover. As a star. “I want to know what it’s like to be a celebrity,” my editor told me. “Do they have a secret handshake? How does it feel to be recognized everywhere you go? Will you feel the urge to open a theme restaurant?” (This was the height of the theme restaurant frenzy, when everyone with a SAG card had his or her own eatery.)

A couple of days before the Oscars, I fly to L.A. I rent a tuxedo, get a limo on the magazine’s dime, and adopt my version of a Melbourne accent—which, unfortunately, sounds exactly like the Lucky Charms leprechaun. It’s the best I can do.

On the big night, the limousine picks me up, inches along the traffic-choked streets, and pulls up to the red carpet at the Shrine Auditorium. I start to open my car door, but the driver stops me. “Wait a minute,” he says. He comes around and opens it for me. Oh yes. Of course.

My forehead is already damp with sweat. I’m worried the ruse won’t work—I don’t carry myself like a star. I’m too slump-shouldered, too self-conscious. But as soon as I step onto the red carpet and wave, hundreds of fans in the nearby bleachers roar.

It’s been thirty seconds of my life as a celebrity impostor and already I’ve experienced more power than I’ve ever had in my life. It’s positively Pavlovian. I move my hand, several hundred people shout. Move it again, they shout some more.

Shine guy!” they scream. “Hey, Shine guy!” A few actually shout my/his name: “Noah! We love you!”

The red carpet is surprisingly long. It goes straight for a few yards, then makes a right turn and flows a block or two down to the Shrine doors, which are flanked by four enormous Oscar statuettes. The statues look, as essayist Stanley Elkin once wrote, like “sullen art deco Nazis.”

The rope line is jammed with hundreds of journalists and photographers. The drill is the same year after year: The journalists are like dog trainers and the celebrities are a bunch of unruly, uncooperative fox terriers. “Noah! Noah! Over here! Come! C’mon! Sit! Do interview!”

I wave off most of the pleading press with mock humility.

“I don’t want to take away from Geoffrey’s big night,” I shout to MTV’s Chris Connelly. (Geoffrey Rush is nominated for an Oscar—and will go on to win later tonight.)

“But Geoffrey said your performance inspired him!” Chris shouts back from behind the barrier.

“Sorry, mate,” I say.

I finally stop for an interview with a Norwegian TV show. I figure it was an appropriately obscure place to make my media debut.

“What will you do next?” the square-jawed Norseman asks.

“I want to do some big event movie with earthquakes and hurricanes,” I say.

“Thank you. You were wonderful. I wish you luck.”

As I break away from the Norwegian team and continue down the carpet, I hear a roar behind me. Claire Danes has emerged from her limo. All the cameras and microphones swivel toward Claire like a crowd watching Wimbledon. I am last minute’s news. Fame is fleeting.

Luckily, more positive reinforcement awaits me inside. The lobby of the Shrine looks as though it hasn’t been refurbished since it was built in 1926. It’s got a faux Middle Eastern theme going on—lots of domed doorways and arabesque designs in the ceiling.

But you’re not supposed to be looking at the design. Because there’s Ed Norton! And Tim Robbins! And Joan Allen! I know it’s obvious, but the density of celebrities is stunning and disorienting. This many famous people shouldn’t be clustered in one place like that. It’s not natural. It’s like going to a wedding where you’re the only guest and everyone else is a bride or groom.

I was told by a friend who works in Hollywood that you’re not supposed to sit in your seat. That’s for suckers. The real power players just mill around the lobby, congratulating each other and ordering vodka tonics at the bar.

So I mill around. And am swarmed. The attention is overwhelming. Dozens of people—producers, execs, agents, and seat fillers—jostle to get close to me. “Phenomenal.” “I love you.” “Big fan.” And most common, “Love your work.”

“Love your work” is the standard celebrity greeting. When you meet a widow, you say, “I’m sorry for your loss.” When you meet a celebrity, you tell him how much you love his work, even if you think he’s got the charisma of drywall. As an entertainment reporter, I’d said it many times. Brad Blanton would be appalled.

One man asks if I know that fellow Aussie Paul Hogan is a fan.

“Isn’t that nice?” I reply.

My admirers are outraged I didn’t get nominated. “You were robbed!” says one. I agree, noting that I’ve been so bitter, I’ve trashed eight hotel rooms. “Good for you!” he said.

Usually, though, when I’m praised, I just respond, “Thanks. But I’m no hero. Just doing my job.”

It’s not a joke, really. Just some words to fill the space. But it always elicits an appreciative whoop from the listener. Because when you’re a celebrity, anything that emerges from your mouth that vaguely resembles a joke is cause for gut-busting laughter from everyone within earshot.

I’ve seen this phenomenon from the other side many times. I saw it with alarming clarity when I spent an hour with the most famous person I’ve ever met: Julia Roberts. I met her because, for a few months in the 1990s, I dated one of her many assistants. Rachel worked in Julia’s vanity production company, which didn’t actually produce movies or anything, but which occupied a beautiful loftlike office in Soho. Rachel’s main job, as she’d tell you herself, was to be responsible for the office aquarium. It was home to some lovely tropical fish. And it was probably the most tangible thing the production company had successfully developed. Every few weeks, Julia would announce that she planned to visit the New York office, and Rachel would be sent into a frenzy of Windex-ing and filter cleaning.

Anyway, Rachel was sweet enough to wangle me an invitation to the premier for My Best Friend’s Wedding. I’d be her plus one. Julia Roberts was actually friendly and charming—she gave me her famous smile, shook my hand, told me she loved working with my girlfriend. But the night left me drained and sad. Being around Julia’s posse, especially during the ten-minute limo ride from the office to the premiere, was an exercise in exhausting forced merriment. It was the same vibe as New Year’s Eve—You will have fun! (said in Colonel Klink accent).

A typical exchange:

Acolyte: “Have you had dinner yet, Julia?”

Julia: “No, I am starving! I could eat a horse!”

We all erupt in laughter. We laugh like the crowd at a Chris Rock concert. Like we all just sucked down a tank of nitrous oxide. Like my two-year-old son laughs when he’s getting tickled on his belly till he’s gasping for air. We look at each other in amazement. Did you hear what she said? Marvelous! Imagine a person eating a horse! The very idea! A horse is so big!

A couple of years later, I interviewed Conan O’Brien for Entertainment Weekly. He was talking about what it’s like to be famous, and he brought up the braying phenomenon. Conan said he actually liked to test the limits of this. Sometimes, he said, he’d be walking through an airport, and someone would shout, “Hey Conan!”

And he’d reply with a string of nonsense syllables—“Squidleedoo!”

And they’d crack up, shaking their heads in wonder at his wit.

So it is with me at the Oscars.

“How are you?”

“Great, mate!” I answer.

I’m bathed in a cascade of laughter.

It’s not just laughter, though. I amplify every emotion. One fortyish producer, with no provocation, takes me aside and tells me about how his father was disappointed he didn’t go into the family business of making linings for sport coats. It is clear he’s tormented by his long-ago decision. But I—Noah—would understand. Because in the movie, Noah’s dad was overbearing. So thanks to a mirage of intimacy, Noah has become this man’s
tuxedo-clad confidant. I listen and nod attentively. I tell him his dad must be proud of him. He seems relieved.

I continue squeezing my way through the crowd.

“Noah! Over here! Sign this! Sign this!”

I scribble the crowd-pleasing motto “Shine on!”

By the way, I never actually signed “Noah Taylor.” I didn’t even say “Hello, I’m Noah Taylor.” People just assumed I was him, and I never corrected them. At the time, this somehow seemed more ethical than calling myself “Noah Taylor.” Now I’m not so sure.

“Noah, just a word if you would!” “Noah, can I have my photo with you?” A lot of celebrity life consists of saying no. Or more precisely, having someone say no for you.

I know it’s hard to feel sorry for celebrities, but I can see how these constant little requests can get irritating. I can see how you can get hardened.

A quick detour on the topic of celebrity requests. During my tenure at Entertainment Weekly, my night at the Oscars was the most bizarre experience—but it was followed closely by the time I stepped over a line and asked a celebrity for a favor.

This one happened when I was assigned an article on Sex and the City.

At this point, I had been dating Julie for a few months, and we both knew we were on the marriage track. I just needed to make it official by popping the question. I strongly suspected Julie would want a creative proposal. One hint came when she told me, “I want a creative proposal.”

Julie has been a fan of Sex and the City from the time Carrie Bradshaw made her very first racy pun. (I believe it was something about “rising to the occasion.” But I could be wrong.)

I called the Sex and the City publicist and popped the question: Would the actresses be willing to help me propose to my girlfriend? It wouldn’t take more than two minutes of their time. I’d written a script and wanted to videotape each of the four actresses saying a line related to Julie. As in “I hear A. J. Jacobs wants to marry Julie Schoenberg. Which is strange. I thought A.J. was gay.”

So the dialogue wasn’t going to win any Peabodys. But it got the point across, and Julie would just be happy to hear her name pronounced by the Sex stars. The publicist called back the next day. The girls had signed off. They thought it was sweet. Yes! I was in.

I figured Julie would appreciate it. She loves her celebrities—but not in an unhealthy way. Julie has absolutely no interest in being famous. It just doesn’t appeal to her. Nor does she want to be friends with celebrities. Her relationship to celebrity is like that of a visitor to the aquarium. She can enjoy watching the sea lions from afar, but she has no desire to climb onto a rock and start barking and diving for salmon herself. Interactions with famous people should be an occasional treat, like fudge or a pricey vacation. But she does love her treats, and I hoped to be able to provide her one.

I arrived at the set with my borrowed video camera. The show was spending the day filming at a beach in Brooklyn—which would be magically transformed into a posh Hamptons beach by the time it aired.

“They aren’t quite ready for you,” said the publicist.

The actresses were between scenes. I could interview them when filming was finished. About thirty yards down the beach, I spotted Sarah Jessica Parker (who played Carrie) talking to Kim Cattrall (the randy Samantha). A dozen greased-down extras in bikinis lounged on towels nearby.

“Do you want a pair of headphones?” the publicist asked me.

“Sure, thanks.”

She handed me one from her stash. The headphones are tuned to the actresses’ mikes—it’s so the director and crew can listen to the dialogue. But here’s the thing: the mikes are rarely turned off. So you can often eavesdrop on whatever the actresses are saying between takes.

I put the headphones on and heard the following from Kim Cattrall:

“Why should I help this reporter with his goddamn proposal? It’s not my job.”

I pulled off the headphones. Oh man. This was not good. In fact, it could not be worse unless Kim Cattrall kicked me in the throat with her spiky Manolos.

“Um, I think I won’t do the proposal stuff.”

The publicist told me not to worry.

“Did you hear what she said?” I asked.

The publicist said that everyone but Kim Cattrall had signed off on the idea. It’d be fine.

I had a stress stomachache for the next four hours. But the publicist was right: the other three actresses recited their lines without complaint. Kristin Davis seemed to actually enjoy it, suggesting I do a few takes. Perhaps because she was the only single one at the time and so still had an untarnished view of marriage.

Kim Cattrall later apologized in her typically candid way: she explained she was “on the rag.”

The next week, I spliced my footage into a tape of an upcoming episode. I slid it into my twentieth-century VCR and played it for Julie. Unfortunately, I chose the least romantic episode in the history of Sex and the City, one that features Miranda in stirrups at her OB/GYN for much of the show. It finally cut from Miranda’s raised legs to Sarah Jessica Parker, who said, “My relationship with Mr. Big was going nowhere, and I had no possibility with A. J. Jacobs because he wants to marry Julie Schoenberg.” To which Julie responded “What? . . . What’s going on? . . . Oh my God . . . Is this my proposal? . . . But I’m wearing my ex-boyfriend’s T-shirt!”

For some reason, that was the first thing that popped into Julie’s brain. Then she hugged me. Then she demanded that I get down on my knees and propose like a proper gentleman. I couldn’t delegate it all to the videocassette.

It worked out okay, but it was a humbling experience. I got schooled in my place in the caste system of fame. It’s not the place of the Vaishyas to ask the Brahmins for favors.

The night of the Oscars, however, I’m on the other side. I’m the one getting requests. I’m the aristocracy. “Noah, come meet my friend!” “Noah, an autograph for my sister? She’s a huge fan.”

My friend Jessica Shaw—a fellow Entertainment Weekly reporter covering the event—has joined me at this point and is acting as my publicist: “We’ve got to keep moving, people,” says Jessica, who’s wearing a bright red dress. “Got to keep moving.”

Things are going smoothly. Nothing can stop me. Across the lobby, I spot Geoffrey Rush, my co-star. Should I say hello? Yes, why not! I wait for him to finish his conversation, then approach.

“’Ello, Geoffrey!”

No response.

“It’s me! ’Ow’s tricks, mate?”

He looks at me. Alarm spreads over his face—the exact same expression my son had when he first saw the child-catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I’ve gotten so cocky, I forgot that I don’t exactly resemble Noah Taylor. I forgot Geoffrey Rush actually knows the real Noah Taylor.

Geoffrey glances around, hoping to lock eyes with a security guard. And then backs away without a word.

Shaken, I head back into the crowd for the deep-tissue ego massage of my adoring fans. “Congratulations, man.” “Wow.”

The (late) comedian Chris Farley grabs my shoulder as I walk by. “You were wonderful,” he gushes, adding that he loved the piano playing. “Well,” I confess, “that was done by a double.”

I get a few more “I’m a fan of your work” remarks but it’s almost over. Billy Crystal is about to crack his last joke. It’s the usual four-hour triathlon for those watching at home, but I could have kept going for a day and a half.

The theater doors open and those of us in the lobby are engulfed by a throng of exiting actors and hangers-on. I’m pushed down a hallway. I accidentally step on the long train of the green dress worn by Jada Pinkett Smith, wife of Will Smith. The dress catches and she jerks back.

“Watch the dress! Watch the dress! Don’t step on the dress!” Will Smith says. He isn’t angry, just authoritative, the same way he handled the panicky crowds in Independence Day. He’s even charismatic when he scolding you, that guy.

My friend Jessica and I are limoed to an after party. I give respectful nods to the Gold’s Gym rats at the velvet ropes. I bask in the giddy welcome from publicists with headsets and clipboards.

Inside, more fans. I meet a screenwriter who tells me I have to go to Burning Man. I make sure to take time out and thank the cater waiters for bringing me my chicken satay. Noblesse oblige. Jessica and I linger for a while. But we both sense the night is over.

I go to my hotel room, undo my bow tie, and collapse on my bed, knowing that people like me, really like me. Or at least someone who closely resembles me.

For two days after the Oscars, I am on a high. I feel different, special. I get annoyed at the indignities of everyday life. Why am I waiting on line at the pharmacy? With all these . . . people. It’s so . . . ordinary . . . Don’t they know who I am?

I mean, I know, deep down, that all the gushing at the Oscars wasn’t actually for me. But the intensity of the praise was such that it penetrated on some level. As with my stint as a hot woman, the lines between me and my subject have blurred.

Then the crash. The inevitable and depressing acceptance of my anonymity. You know what? I deserve to wait on line. I’m not special. Paul Hogan is not a fan of mine. In the span of three days, I go through a microwave version of the famous person’s life arc: from a nobody to a god on earth to a has-been.

Coda

My night of fame put me in an altered state. I was drunk with fame, and not just buzzed, but seven-vodka-tonics drunk. The question is, Would I want to be drunk all the time?

I don’t think so. I hope not.

Why? Because fame messes with your mind—even the fleeting version I had. In fact, if you believe a Cornell professor named Robert Millman, I might have been suffering from an honest-to-God mental disorder. Acquired Situational Narcissism. This is a multisyllabic way of saying that celebrities often become wankers. When you’re famous, when everybody stares at you, flatters you, insulates you, you start to think you’re the center of the world (a thought that has a grain of truth to it).

You gain the classic narcissism symptoms: lack of empathy, grandiose fantasies, rage, and excessive need for approval. It’s why, as Stephen Sherrill writes in the New York Times, celebrities are so prone to throwing tantrums, getting married in the morning and divorced by the afternoon, demanding a private chef for their pet ocelot, and so on.

(Incidentally, not everyone buys the notion that people become more narcissistic as they gain fame. An opposing study argues that narcissists flock to show business in the first place. They arrive in Hollywood pre-deranged. Especially reality show stars. See note in back.)

You can see the quandary here. Fame makes people role models, whether they like it or not. It also probably makes them immature schmucks, if they weren’t already. Therefore, our role models are immature schmucks. Which then creates a new generation of immature schmucks. Which is how we’ve arrived at the Kardashian sisters.

I don’t know what the solution is. Term limits on celebrity? Five years as a movie star, and then you’re shipped off to work at a T.G.I. Friday’s? Should we boycott anyone famous who throws iPhones at their assistants? Should we do what the Romans did with their generals during the triumphal march? They put a slave behind the general to whisper in his ear that he was mortal, so his ego wouldn’t expand.

Or maybe we should only support humble celebrities. Not all famous people are twisted monsters. Consider this: After the Oscars, I got a call from Noah Taylor’s agent. Apparently Noah was shy and not into all the pageantry, so he was grateful I was there at the Oscars to represent him. He figured better me than him.

From THE GUINEA PIG DIARIES by A. J. Jacobs. Copyright © 2009 by A. J. Jacobs.  Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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One response

  1. Interview: A.J. Jacobs, author of The Guinea Pig Diaries | Memoirville says:

    [...] Excerpts and interviews from published memoirists, artists, and other storytellers. « Excerpt: The Guinea Pig Diaries by A.J. Jacobs [...]

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