September 16, 2004
Do I Know You?
I was headed into a pizza joint for a slice when I noticed a guy whose face looked eerily familiar. I couldn't place him but he gave me a subtle nod, frat-boy style.
Just as I snapped my head back to make sure it actually was the dude from "Average Joe," he was craning his head back, too.
Perhaps he was thinking, "Is that the girl from the morning news?" Or maybe, "I've seen her on that TLC decorating show that runs more than cheap stockings at a job interview."
Maybe he was just working out a crick in his neck, but I doubt it.
I believe, and it's happened before, that we were two souls glimpsing each other in the invisible netherworld I call Fame Purgatory.
It's a place crowded with high-profile criminals, reality show stars and the odd cable decorating show host. Fame Purgatory is packed these days, bustling with weekend anchors from random news networks, losing bachelorettes, rising sitcom actors from sitcoms you've never watched, pubescent former child stars and the siblings of Madonna.
Some of us will be truly famous one day, but most of us will slip back into obscurity. For now, we're in a no-man's land that oscillates between flattering and fabulously strange. It's hard to explain but I can tell you this much, when you're simmering in Fame Purgatory, you are no longer an "Average Joe."
You may not be on the cover of In Touch, but as my friend Mitzi would say, you are "Googleable."
I'll describe it this way. If electricity is measured in watts and height is measured in inches, what is the measure of fame? I offer you, the Jon Cryer.
You might remember him as Duckie from "Pretty in Pink" with Molly Ringwald. Maybe you've seen him on "Two and a Half Men" (he's the not Charlie Sheen one). You'd know his face if you saw him getting a slice, but you might think you just know him from high school.
Jon Cryer is, of course, one Jon Cryer. Paris Hilton is 72 Cryers. I'm a fraction of a Cryer, maybe one-sixth at best.
In Purgatory, there are some nice moments: the teenage girl asking for an autograph; the cop waving hello from his patrol car.
There are also the surreal: "Hello insurance company, this is Teresa Strasser and I just wondered if you could help me with something."
Insurance phone lady: "Wait. Are you the one from that decorating show?"
"Yes. Um, how many therapy sessions do I have left this year?"
Because most people assume if you're on TV you're rich, bank transactions are oddly horrifying, producing a sensation I call Fame Shame, that is, the knowledge that the teller knows your savings account hasn't broken $700 since June.
I imagine at 10 Cryers, you get a financial manager and a few pseudonyms, but I wouldn't know.
After more than a year in purgatory, there's still shock, as in "Me? Least likely to succeed?" There's paranoia, recalling a description of a porno star I once stumbled upon on the Internet that read, "Think mainstream actress Teresa Strasser, only leaner." There's detachment, because that person they know isn't really you, and you're already down the street, your TV ghost lingering behind you. There's dread, because you feel exposed and maybe disappointing and you miss watching the world go by, yourself unnoticed. Worse yet, there's a strangling fear of enjoying this because you know it will most likely fade until one day you're a tiny fraction of a Cryer, wishing you had milked that decorating show for all it was worth and wondering where all those free haircuts and fan letters went.
I never thought I'd be quoting Monica Lewinsky, but she once made an excellent point. For her, she said, there's no such thing as a blind date, "Every date is a half-blind date."
That's not true at my current Cryerage, though the guy I'm dating did see me on TV before he met me in person. He was able to Google facts about me both true and not -- yes, I won a spelling bee, and no I don't have a wooden leg.
If you go old school, as in back to the Bible, what gave you notoriety was achievement, bringing down tablets, conquering a people, leadership. In our culture, exposure brings fame. And fame alone is no guarantee of happiness -- just check the roster of most fancy rehab clinics if you don't believe me.
I still need all 26 therapy sessions covered annually by insurance, thank you.
I still feel as insecure as ever, if not more so. I clutch the Cryers I have while wishing people wouldn't stare at me at airports. I'm confused on a grander scale. I can find myself on Google -- and I can lose myself just as easily.
Teresa Strasser writes from Manhattan where she is a feature reporter for Fox's "Good Day Live." She's on the Web at teresastrasser.com