This month at Lethe sees the release of Starf*cker by Matthew Rettenmund. Described as a book that "steps outside pop culture and looks in and helps us laugh and appreciate fandom that much more" by award-winning humorist Michael Thomas Ford, Starf*cker sharply deconstructs both the author's, and our own, passion for celebrity.
Read the first chapter:
Casey Says Relax
You do lots of strange things when you get fired. On top of walking around hoping to be struck by a car and injured badly enough to make bank but not badly enough for it to hurt or have lingering effects, you may find yourself having long, mostly one-sided conversations with pets who are not used to seeing quite so much of you.
I really got to know my Shih Tzus that summer. They’re amazing people.
Or you may spend time discovering that if you watch every airing of $25,000 Pyramid reruns on the Game Show Network, you will eventually see the one where excellent player Tom Villard of We Got It Made fame—who was probably already a bit sick with the AIDS that would kill him a few years later—was all but called stupid by a non-celebrity contestant who just couldn’t fathom his inability to guess a word based on her opaque clues.
Or you might sit at your computer, literally waiting for Gmail to refresh because hey, you’re used to receiving hundreds of e-mails a day and they’ve tapered off rather precipitously since the day you were pink-slipped. “Sooo sorry to hear that. You’re awesome; you’ll find something soon. Let’s talk when you do.” When you’re fired, a large number of your contacts will treat you like you’re in cryogenic suspension on a long space trip to a planet that might not wind up existing.
Along with doing all of those things in 2012, I found myself thinking about my life, my accomplishments, the things on a bucket list that was drawn up at a time when the bucket was decades further away than it is now, and viewing my first forty-three years (forty-four if you’re pro-life, which is another compelling reason not to be) as some sort of first chapter in a wildly uneven book series.
I’ve loved book series (and parenthetical asides, and tangents) ever since I was ten and my older, blonder, straighter, cousin Wally and I chipped in using money earned turning in found soda cans for ten cents apiece (Seinfeld is right—Michigan has the best rate) to buy the pornographic purple prose of V.C. Andrews. As an author, she was hot, she was sexy and she was dead. We didn’t know the dead part, which literally made her a ghostwriter. What we did know was that she really understood what would happen if a litter of children was raised with no sunlight in their evil grandparents’ attic while their amoral mother lived a full life under their feet. Answer: Incest would happen. Achingly, minutely described…just what any developing child needs to read as a primer to human sexuality.
(To this day my sister and I will blurt out, “Incest is best!” for no real reason, and never during sex, since we have not had it so please don’t Lena Dunham me. It’s something we always planned to stop saying by the time her daughter became old enough to repeat it. Instead, we just say it when we’re pretty sure she’s not around.)
But anyway, thinking of that first part of my life, I realized some things.
First, I realized that I’d been in some interesting, potentially documentable situations. I had worked for a rich, eccentric literary agent in Chicago; had worked in book publishing in Manhattan back when paper was a major part of the equation; had been the editor of a gay porn magazine and seen firsthand how it was possible for nearly all of the support staff of a jerk-off publisher to be Evangelical Christians who never looked at the product that fed their families; had founded a popular teen-entertainment magazine known for featuring future superstars when they were still covered in placenta; and had published a whole bunch of books, including an encyclopedia devoted to Madonna, one of the first entries of which was “abortion,” and a gay novel that contained—what else?—incest.
But beyond the idea that I’ve had some encounters more readers than just my mom might find interesting, I saw my life as being driven by my relationship with celebrity. Whether it was how I viewed and deconstructed stars as a chubby, studious, gay child, my lifelong obsession with Madonna (yes, still—always), interacting with pornstars and conducting (or making up) interviews with them as an adult, or my more businesslike dealings with famous or about-to-be-famous kid stars for the youth magazine, I’ve always thought of myself as a fan, or as a fan of fandom. Sometimes both.
Above it, yet of it.
Even if celebrity bombards us all and we all engage with it on an almost nonstop basis, I saw that it would be hard to deny that my relationship with it has been more intense than the average person’s. Sitting around with no silly paychecks to clutter my mind, I wondered why.
On that tip, around the time I lost my job, my mother turned seventy, which is something that only happens once in a person’s life. Unless they’re Charo, who went to court and convinced a Spanish magistrate that her birth date had been off by ten years her whole life due to a paperwork error. She’d better never run for president because even Barack Obama would support calling her out on that birth certificate. On the other hand, considering the fact that she got away with it, I suspect that chica wasted her life as a virtuoso guitarist and moneymaker-shaker when she should have been a lawyer, a hypnotist, or perhaps a magician.
Back to my mother. Literally, because I think my lifelong love affair with celebrity goes back to my mother, a thought that crossed my mind when she hit the age past which Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, and “Granny” from The Beverly Hillbillies had all failed to live.
I may have tested as “gifted” in elementary school, but I wasn’t very good at dreaming up productive uses for my brain as a child. I would get so bored I’d resort to asking my mom what to draw. (What kind of a gift leaves you unchallenged and yet incapable of thinking of things to do about it?) She would invariably first tell me to draw flies, a joke I did not get for a long time. (Again…gifted?) But then she would bring up a famous person I should try sketching. Drawing Ann-Margret was a lot harder than drawing “Cubby” for the Art Instruction School, especially since my frame of reference for Ann-Margret was “Ann-Margrock” from The Flintstones.
This activity morphed into my favorite time-killer: creating random, longhand lists of stars. Just…lists. As their names entered my head, I’d write them down. And when I’d ask my mom to help, her first suggestion was always, “Faye Dunaway,” which she would say with the exact pretentious air the acting empress deserved. “Feh. Dunna. Weh.” I don’t think she knows it, but my mom has a totally unique way of speaking. It’s not weird, it’s distinctive. It’s a mix of her many years living in the Midwest (when I would do something naughty, she’d say, “May-utt!”) and her fondness for her parents’ Southern roots (our conversations are littered with phrases like, “She really favors her,” meaning two girls look alike; a nappy-time song she sang to my sister and me and to my niece was all about how Mama’s little baby loves shortenin’ bread). Her speech is also peppered with little impressions repeated so often she probably doesn’t even remember where she got them. My favorite is, “Why botha?” lifted from Bette Midler’s 1985 parody on David Letterman called Angst on a Shoestring, something we saw together more than twenty-five years ago and still quote almost every time we speak.
Asking my mom to give me stars’ names for my lists—and listening to her unconscious mimicry of them when she’d say their names—was like looking at a snapshot of what impressed her about public figures and what didn’t. “Feh. Dunna. Weh.” Talented, good cheekbones…but hoity-toity. “What’s her name…[whispery] Joey Heatherton.” Glitzy glamour, also a nod to a performer she and my dad had seen on their honeymoon, someone whose name she might’ve forgotten otherwise. “Elizabeth-uh-Taylor-uh.” Staying power, wealth, beauty. The queen of…something. Everything? I used to say my mom looked like Elizabeth Taylor, which she played along with but wouldn’t accept because Liz and Marilyn were the idols of her youth and were supposed to be on a different plane, even if Liz got fatter than my mom ever did and Marilyn probably would have resembled her autopsy photo (why did I look at it?) had she lived and kept hitting the booze and pills. They were fantasies, and fantasies, I understood from my mother’s modesty, were sacrosanct.
I always thought of my mother as a local celebrity herself, considering she had been on the Homecoming Queen’s Court in high school. I swear the actual winner, at least from her photo in a yellowing newspaper clipping, looked like Tyne Daly’s uncle, but my mom always graciously insisted it had been a bad snap. Big of her since I know for a fact she thought she was robbed.
My own additions to writing lists of stars started out with people whose work I knew, like “Lynda Carter” or “Lee Majors.” But over time, I absorbed more and more names until I had more names in my head than a reference book and I knew all the stars my mother could possibly be bothered to rattle off. “George Gobel?” she’d say, trying to stump me. “Got ‘im.” I’d confirm. “Oh. That reminds me,” she’d say, “Grandma threw out all the autographs I got in the mail when I was a teenager, but my sister has all hers and George Gobel is one of them. That’s okay. Who in the world would want his autograph in the first place?”
(I suddenly did. I don’t know why.)
I would also cheat to fill my lists by paging through the free TV Guide that came with The Flint Journal and copying down all the stars’ names from every movie playing that week on TV. The guide would usually only list the most important two or three stars, but that was enough to get me everyone from “John Wayne” to “Marjorie Main” to “Peter Lorre.” And it taught me a lot about first billing, a concept that I still hold sacred even if it has absolutely no practical application to one’s life unless one is considering a life on the stage and one’s co-star is Glenn Close.
My star lists continued to evolve. After names, I started listing names along with every movie I knew they’d starred in. I was equal opportunity, placing as much importance in someone as kill-me boring as Charles Bronson as I placed in someone as fuck-me exciting as Paul Newman.
So many of the names meant nothing to me…Thelma Ritter, a star whose work I would come to adore in college, was just made-up sounding to the pre-adolescent me. That impression led to the next phase of my starfucking, which was drawing fake movie posters featuring made-up stars. I would do literally anything to have them all today, but I destroyed most of them after drawing them because they were mortifyingly faggoty and if discovered would have put me on a list with Tab Hunter, Farley Granger, and Rock Hudson—a list that had nothing to do with movies.
In pencil, I would draw a dozen posters—in miniature—representing the entirety of a phony starlet’s career, from a 1919 silent debut for 16-year-old Topeka, Kansas, runaway Dory Desirée (the name given to Estella Gluck by movie-mag fans) called Shady Streets, to her Oscar-winning triumph in a mid-life potboiler called Anything But Murder, to an embarrassing 1970s creature feature called The Frog That Ate Grandma’s Brain, in which Dory had one of the titular, yet smallest, roles. In spite of a horrendous slide in popularity, my made-up star Dory was still the only face on the movie poster as late as her final silver-screen appearance, in an awful Disney movie about a rich woman too afraid to leave her rooms who employs a pair of psychic children to figure out where her late husband hid their priceless art collection.
Once, my aunt (the one with the pointless/coveted George Gobel autograph, which I hope she still has because it gives me alarming flu-like symptoms to imagine it in a Michigan landfill) saw me drawing these things and teased me because of the gigantic, unrealistic cleavage each woman had. This was before so many women actually went out and purchased their own gigantic, unrealistic cleavage on a regular basis. “What’s that?” she asked, pointing to the curvy “V” I planted on my leading ladies’ chests where they poured out of their low-cut period dresses, “A ‘V’ for victory?”
If so, it certainly wasn’t a victory for feminism. All my fantasy starlets had secretly been prostitutes on their way up and had sucked a lot of studio cock in the ‘30s to get where they were—“Ya gotta give a little head to get ahead,” Dory would drunkenly reveal to scandalized newcomers at small, industry-heavy gatherings held in the ‘60s at her soon-to-be-foreclosed-on Mulholland Drive mini-manse. People like Victor Mature would be there and would shake their heads in embarrassment for a good actress who was heading down a bad road. But whenever she headed down that road, she always managed a comeback, which always warranted another lavish movie poster, “Critics be damned—the great Dory has done it again!” was one of the pull-quotes, even if nobody noticed it had come from a fan club newsletter.
Dory and so many others had surprisingly rich lives and checkered pasts considering I made them all up around the time I was just learning long division.
I was a late bloomer when it came to pop music, I guess because I was so immersed in the world of real and imaginary cinema and bad TV reruns. (I can hum the incidental music from any Brady Bunch scene you show me on mute.) But bloom I did when “Somebody’s Baby” by Jackson Browne and Beauty and the Beat by The Go-Go’s (unnecessary apostrophe and all) led me to buy my first single and album, respectively. The single I bought for $1.44 at one of Michigan’s most iconic businesses, Meijer’s Thrifty Acres. It sat on the outskirts of my hometown of Flushing on a strip of fast-food joints that boasted another Michigan delight, Halo Burger, with its giant sign of its mascot, a benign bovine with a halo over her head. It was really cute but is ultra-morbid when you consider you’re eating dead cows and there’s signage of one of them prepping to enter heaven.
Meijer’s had a denim store called Sagebrush. On the wall was a pair of jeans with a 64-inch waist. If you could fit into them, they were yours free, which was as tangible an example as you’ll ever get that nothing is ever truly “free.”
Meijer’s had two or three fabulous aisles devoted to records, so it was written in the stars that I’d buy my first music there. Sadly, my copy of Beauty and the Beat, the debut Go-Go’s album, turned out to have unfixable skips so I had to return it twice before giving up and deciding to repurchase it at the tacky little Cherry Street Drug Store, which had ordered exactly one copy to sell. My “Somebody’s Baby” purchase had gone off without a hitch however, and as much as I loved albums, I adored 45-RPM singles more. In fact, in lieu of smoking, drinking, taking drugs, or (at first) having sex, I became addicted to singles. I absolutely loved buying three minutes’ worth of perfection and playing it over and over, and I loved analyzing the art of the sleeves: Did the band choose a standard group photo? A black-and-white shot with colorized touches? A still from the video? Or was it one of those super boring generic sleeves that simply announced things like “Elektra,” leaving all the fun to the music itself?
Here come the lists again: I was so transfixed by singles that I began listening to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 and compulsively recording every song’s title, artist, and position each week. I did this for I am talkin’ years, never suspecting that this latest list lust was seriously unnecessarily—as Casey would announce throughout the show, the rankings were all from Billboard Magazine. Granted, when I realized I could just be purchasing Billboard to find out if Romeo Void was seriously dropping off the charts after one, count ‘em, one big week with “A Girl in Trouble (Is a Temporary Thing),” I also realized Billboard was a trade magazine that cost an impossible amount of money to subscribe to anyway.
But still, so taken was I with these music stars and their terribly popular songs that I kept those lists, dutifully transcribed on college-ruled lined paper, well into high school. If I had something to do on a Saturday—a rarity, as my schedule mostly consisted of drawing, writing stories, watching the 10” black-and-white television I’d found at a rummage sale, or guzzling bottles of Coke while blowing up to a size that Benetton didn’t make—I would literally beg my mother to sit at the kitchen table and copy the songs down for me. Listen, if “Money Changes Everything,” one of her best tunes, was really going to become the lowest-charting release from Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual, I damn well needed to know it and to record this fact for posterity. If Flushing, Michigan, had been a center of volcanic activity and the big one had blown, archaeologists of the future would have found my poor mom perched at our kitchen table on one of our chairs made to look like they’d been formed out of beer barrels, dutifully copying down a Casey Kasem list for me, Pompeii-style.
Between songs, Casey used to repeat parts of the lyrics to some chart entries in his inimitable, radio-friendly, velvety voice, a voice you could not possibly imagine had anything meaningful to say to his ditzy, statuesque wife, Tortellis star Jean, who thanks to her radio-unfriendly voice seemed to be starring in Born Yesterday yesterday, today, and tomorrow. To this day I would swear the late, great Casey once said, “Relax…don’t do it…when you wanna come…Frankie Goes to Hollywood is at number sixteen this week.”
“The list is life” was my motto, and that was way before I saw the Spielberg movie. My lists were a way to commune with fame. Fame was not just something that happened, it was a muscle group that needed to be flexed.
Most people get over being fans. Or rather, they convince themselves they’re over it. I’d tried when I was really little by tearing up all my Charlie’s Angels pinups and posters. It didn’t take, and I found myself excitedly paying to meet lesser Angel Tanya Roberts at a Burbank autograph show 30 years later. Actually, my swearing off fandom didn’t last more than a grade or two. I wound up, by high school, having all four walls and even my ceiling plastered with photos, posters, and magazine covers of ‘80s heartthrobs, as well as random movie stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Most people don’t go as far as I did, and so don’t have as long a journey back when they decide they’re done with fandom. Most have a few posters on their walls (unless their parents were assholes who objected to thirty dozen tack holes in the plaster), then after high school or college (where the posters go from teen idols like Kirk Cameron to deeper, more grown-up and adult stuff like The Beatles) decide there is no fucking way they’re putting up celebrity posters in their first apartments and that’s that. Of course, they haven’t really grown out of anything, they’ve just swapped their stars of choice. As teens, they had teen sex objects upon their walls, but now that they’re getting laid in real life, they instead spend money on “impulse buys” (every single week, like clockwork) of tabloids that keep them posted every time Brad Pitt coughs and it somehow comments on Jennifer Aniston’s value as a woman.
I never got over being a fan and never (seriously) tried. So I never grew out of my teen idols. Instead, I’ve kept up with them, keeping them in league with all of the other stars who’ve come since. It’s easy to keep your childhood idols fresh and relevant. You just go to an a-ha concert in New York City twenty-seven years after their first hit (where a bitchy girl trying to push in front of you announces that you’re “not a fun gay” and then surreptitiously marks up your pale gray jeans with her eyeliner), then head to your Times Square office to work out the details of a Justin Bieber photo shoot (and wash eyeliner off your jeans in the public john), then go home and read on Dlisted.com why Mariah Carey is a human canker sore.
I refer to myself as being a starfucker in honor of my mentor, Jane Jordan Browne, who used the term quite disparagingly, as in, “My old bisexual boyfriend Page was such a starfucker.” I’m not a real starfucker, the kind that will do anything to be in the presence of boldface names at the expense of all other considerations. But I’m secure enough in my sanity that I would, say, pay $100 to meet Air Supply or to pose with decrepit L.A. billboard queen Angelyne, and I would definitely drop thousands on a trip to London to see Madonna take a stab at acting in a play…again.
So what I decided to do with these realizations was to write about being what I call a starfucker in the context of a memoir (a ridiculously flowery term that I, in the same way my mother might, can’t help mockingly say aloud as “mem-wahhhr”). These stories in this book are another form of my list obsession, with as many celebrities name-checked as possible. In the same way we relate to celebrities, maybe you’ll see a bit of yourself in here or will laugh at what might have been had your renouncing of whichever idols you had (Bobby Sherman? The DeFranco Family? NKOTB? Don’t you dare say One Direction unless you have parental approval to read this book…) not taken.
It might even inspire you to return to fandom. It’s good to be a starfucker, even if it’s bad to be a blind follower. A starfucker in the way I use it is someone who sees the ridiculousness of flying across the country strictly to meet Joe Manganiello at a cystic fibrosis event and who can coldly assess everything positive and negative about most stars from a space of undying, irrational affection.
A starfucker sees and is awed by how lucky it is for someone to become a star in the first place. That doesn’t mean stars’ lives are perfect or even better, but to ascend to the ranks of stardom among our own species is something only human beings can experience. My lists were an attempt to round up all that luck and make sense of it.
So is this book.
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