In this media-driven age, it seems most people’s role models come primarily from the entertainment industry. It’s a lot more common to hear someone say, “I wanna be like Lady Gaga!” than it is to hear someone say, “I wanna be like Stephen Hawking!” Granted, there are probably tons of people out there who wanna be like Stephen Hawking. But many average folk, especially if they’re young, idolize singers and actors, Youtube personalities and comedians–in other words, celebrities. Hell, that’s why we call them “idols,” a word that used to just mean objects of worship, often representing gods. Look at the chilling implications of that etymology. Celebrities have become gods.
When asked why a person admires a certain entertainer, they will give you reasons. “I really like her style,” or, “His music inspires me,” seem common enough. And those are fine reasons. But some people take it a step farther and start modeling their behavior after these people. The singer you like may have a sharp fashion sense, but on the other hand, she might also have spent $24 million dollars on her wedding, and does not spend a penny on charities that she can certainly afford to donate to. On the flip side, you might love an actor who constantly volunteers with humanitarian organizations, and promotes them when he is too busy to help out personally.
The point I’m trying to make here is I don’t know if everyone looks up to celebrities for the right reasons.
Let me tell you a story about one of my role models: Audrey Hepburn. I did not become enamored with her until last summer. What triggered my interest were two very superficial factors: 1) The face of my favorite Disney princess as a child, Princess Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) was supposedly modeled after Audrey’s, and 2) Audrey is my favorite feminine name. I knew people revered her and that she’s persisted as a popular Hollywood icon for the past sixty years, but I had never seen any of her films. So I sat down with my mom and watched Roman Holiday. Then Sabrina. Then My Fair Lady. Then Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but only after reading Truman Capote’s novella of the same name (which is better than the film, by the way).
Of course, her performances charmed me the way they’ve charmed thousands, perhaps millions of other people over the decades. She was young, especially in Roman Holiday and Sabrina, but carried herself with wisdom and understanding that seemed older than her. She did not play her characters for laughs, as so many romantic comedy actresses seem to do nowadays, nor did she ever come across as melodramatic to me. Everything about her acting seemed earnest. She understood her characters, their pains and their desires, how seriously or lightly they took themselves to be. Princess Ann, Sabrina, Holly Golightly and Eliza Doolittle all look essentially the same, but she did what a good actor does–transformed them each into their own person, even lending authenticity to Eliza, who is written as an exaggerated character. She impressed me the way a chameleon like Meryl Streep does today.
But had I not looked any more into Audrey’s life, that’s all she would have been to me: a good actress.
I wanted to learn more, so I researched her biographies, hoping to find one that would give me the best insight into her life. I ended up buying Audrey Hepburn, An Elegant Spirit: A Son Remembers (links to the book’s Amazon page). Some anonymous commenter on Yahoo answers mentioned that, since it was written by her son, Sean Ferrer, it came across as more heartfelt and invested than any of the others. After reading it, I agreed. It made me fall in love with Audrey for a better, separate reason, because I got a glimpse of the kind of person she was.
According to her son, Audrey was, despite being the glamor icon she is now, humble and not very flashy. She was not slim because she obsessed over her body weight for industry reasons, but because she preferred small meals, and because her body experienced extreme hunger during World War II (she lived in the Netherlands during Germany’s occupation there in the 1940s). She did not view herself in an elevated light because she was an actress. In fact, she did not think much of herself at all. She did not think herself pretty (dear god), and she refused to write an autobiography because she did not think her life interesting enough; she doubted anyone would like it.
But above all, she was compassionate. She loved her father to the end, although he abandoned her and left her emotionally wounded. She became heavily involved in UNICEF, physically and emotionally providing for African children who were both figuratively and literally starving (in the biography, Sean Ferrer recounts a touching anecdote in which a young African girl standing in line for food feels torn between getting her food and running to Audrey for a hug. In the end, she flings herself into Audrey’s arms, craving motherly love more than nourishment). She believed in “never throw[ing] out anyone,” and she always put her children before her career. Honestly, read the biography, because Ferrer paints a beautiful picture of his mother, and I believe everything he says is sincere. His words overflow with so much love and loss (he wrote it after her death) that it couldn’t be anything but sincere.
I believe this compassion is what made her such a wonderful actress. When I see a sub-par acting performance, I always wonder if they’re forgetting to let themselves be compassionate toward their character. Nailing a character’s speech patterns, quirks, and “motivation” are important, yes. But if you do not truly understand your character, empathize with your character, even if (especially if) that character’s values/morals/beliefs do not fall into line with yours, then I don’t think you can portray them properly. I apply this same principle to writing. Compassion is the most valuable thing you can teach through your characters, no matter what medium you present them in. And though I never knew her and never will, I believe Audrey understood this. I thought it the moment Ferrer wrote about having to act in a school play as a character plagued with various diseases, and his mother told him to make sure he knew what all of those diseases were, and their symptoms. She taught him not just to intellectually understand his character, but to really feel the character. Heart and head both intertwine to make a person. Squeezing out a few tears to make your portrayal seem more authentic doesn’t cut it on its own.
It’s impossible to tell what a person’s really like. A celebrity who you love and seems perfect could be (and probably is) hiding their flaws from their fans and critics. The actress who seems like a bitch in the tabloids could actually be a sweetheart in person. But what I’m saying here is, examine why you admire your role models. Whenever I meet another Audrey fan who likes her movies, but doesn’t care about her UNICEF period, I wrinkle my nose a little. It seems like an insult to her memory. It would be so easy to love Audrey for her beauty and her elvish charm alone, but my heart feels so much warmer when I remember how she tended to those lost children, and how she treated her characters just as affectionately. Think of the person behind the idol, or what you know about that person, since you can’t really know them. Think about their humanity, not the dress they wore to such-and-such premiere, or how they do their make-up. These things are fine to think about and admire, yes, but don’t make them the basis of your admiration.
So, why do you like Lady Gaga? Is it because she champions equal rights? Or is it the meat dress?
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