My grandmother had her picture taken with Bill Clinton. A couple of years later, when she was admitted to the hospital, she brought the photo with her. Taped it to the wall and everything.
The result? Doctors and nurses spent a lot of time in her room. Some applauded her, some teased her, and some just wanted to know how she managed to get a photo with the then-sitting president. My mom says my grandmother wasn’t trying to make a political statement; she just wanted the hospital staff to see her as an individual, not another patient. And apparently her trick worked.
Over the years, I’ve met a few celebrities myself. And, like my grandmother, I’ve got the photos to prove it. I met Paul Shaffer in an Italian restaurant by the Ed Sullivan Theater. I shook his hand, discussed Yiddish hip-hop and had my friend snap a picture of us. I met Wendy “The Snapple Lady” Kaufman at a magic show. Got a picture with her, too. I met infomercial pitchman Ron Popeil on the way to the Encore parking garage. Another picture.
I posted these photos on Facebook and got a lot of positive comments and messages in response. My inbox swelled, my ego swelled, and then I moved on with my life.
My grandmother and I aren’t unique; a lot of people like to have their picture taken with celebrities. And often, the celebrities are happy to reciprocate. Take Penn & Teller: The Las Vegas magic duo has been taking photos with its fans for more than three decades now.
“We’ve done it after every show, for 35 years now,” Penn Jillette told me. “It gives our fans something to take back home and show to their friends and family. And now, with the invention of Facebook and Twitter, it’s become another way to market our show.”
So that explains why the entertainers do it … but what about us? Why do we like having our pictures taken with celebrities? In the book How Pleasure Works, psychologist Paul Bloom writes, “We seek out contact with special people. … Sometimes it can be affecting just to be looked at by a high-status individual.” Bloom cites anthropologist James Frazer’s notion of “contagious magic,” the belief that “things which have once been conjoined must remain ever afterwards, even when quite dissevered from each other.”
Of course, if you somehow score an arm-in-arm photo with Lady Gaga—you lucky bastard—her essence won’t actually rub off on you. Nor will her “being” or her “presence” or her “soul” or her “magic.” Maybe a couple of dead skin cells, but that’s it.
“We call that basking in the narcissistic glow of celebrity,” professor Mark Young, coauthor of The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America, said when I asked why people like having their picture taken with celebrities. “Some do this for fun, but others, who themselves have narcissistic tendencies, are boosted by any association with a celebrity. The boost is real in their minds.”
Young says a celebrity photo won’t actually boost your social status. And that makes sense. After all, celebrity photos are a bit of a sham. When you ask a celebrity if you can take a photo with him or her, what you’re essentially saying is this: “I know we’ve never met, but for the purpose of documentation, could we pretend like we’re best friends? Maybe we could rest our arms on each other’s shoulders and smile as if we’re having a grand ol’ time together?”
It’s an awkward request, and the results aren’t always pretty. In the photos of Paul Shaffer, Wendy Kaufman and Ron Popeil, the celebrities’ smiles, understandably, are disingenuous. (In a genuine smile, the muscles around the eyes tighten and pull the eyebrows down and the cheeks up, which produces tiny lines around the corners of the eyes. A fake smile produces no lines.) When your friend shows you a photo of herself and a celebrity, you can figure out the back story. You can figure out that she approached the person, humbly requested the photo and then thanked the celebrity for his time and disappeared. It’s obvious that your buddy didn’t actually befriend the celebrity pictured. That’s why celebrity-photo-induced status boosts are inauthentic.
However, that doesn’t have to be the case. If you can take a lot of good photos with celebrities, you can get people believing you’re famous yourself. One person pulled this trick off in recent times: journalist/blogger Julia Allison. She didn’t get her picture taken with Henry Kissinger, Arianna Huffington and David Blaine because she’s famous; she’s famous because she had her picture taken with them. (The fact that she’s really hot and frequently wears skimpy outfits probably didn’t hurt.)
Unsurprisingly, Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt advocate Julia Allison’s Famous by Association school of thought. In their book, How to Be Famous, Montag and Pratt write, “The easiest way to begin your journey to fame is to find an existing group of moderately famous people and join them.” And then, say Montag and Pratt, you’ve got to document the association with photos: “Guess what the best way to NOT get into the magazine is? That’s right, don’t have your picture taken!”
Of course, not all people who have their pictures taken with celebrities are seeking fame themselves. Not everybody wants to be in tabloid magazines. My grandmother, for instance, I think she just liked Bill Clinton.
Appearing in photos with celebrities won’t actually boost your status, but if it makes you feel good, go for it. It was good enough for my grandmother, and it’s good enough for the rest of us. So go ahead and ask Lady Gaga for a pose, Shaffer for a handshake and Kissinger for a smile.
You and your (fake) famous friends
You say Madame Tussauds Wax Museum is a tourist trap? I say it’s the perfect place to covertly boost your social status to Kardashian proportions.
Look, there’s a right way to do Madame Tussauds and there’s a wrong way. I’m here to teach you the right way. I’m here to teach you how to take photos that will have your friends believing you actually met the celebrities whose wax likenesses you goosed. Here’s how you do it:
Don’t post all your celebrity photos on Facebook at once. Nobody’s going to believe you met Halle Berry, Gwen Stefani and George W. Bush on the same day. So don’t post all your fake celebrity pictures in the same photo album. Be patient. Space them out over the course of a year.
Bring different outfits to the wax museum. If you’re wearing the same clothes in every celebrity picture, your friends are going to get suspicious. (Either that or they’ll think you’ve forgotten how to do laundry.) So bring a couple of outfits to Madame Tussauds and change your attire between shots. The addition or subtraction of an accessory can go a long way.
WHAT NOT TO DO
No dead people. Not even Tupac. One ghostly slipup will blow your cover.
One celebrity per photo. Okay, maybe you were lucky enough to have your photo taken with Justin Timberlake. But what are the odds that when it happened, Johnny Depp was standing four feet to the left? Not good.
Don’t be a stranger. Stand close to the figure—it won’t mind and it doesn’t bite. Also, avoid incongruent facial expressions and incongruent sight lines.
WHAT TO DO
Match outfits and posture. If you were really heading to a cocktail party with President Obama, you’d be wearing a coat and tie. So leave the denim shorts at home. The closer your attire matches that of the wax figure, the more natural the shot will look.
Hit up the B-listers. Don’t pick Angelina; pick Larry King. Don’t pose with Clooney; choose Liddell. You’re way more likely to get close to—and photograph—the B-listers.
Get Creative. Those are wax Jessica Simpson’s legs. That’s wax Beyonce Knowles’ microphone stand. Of course, you won’t know that from the photos. Judging by those two pictures, you’d figure that I was a male model or that I filmed a high-budget music video. You’d figure I was a somebody.