Justine Bateman Has Some Thoughts on the Fame Cycle… and Geoffrey Owens Working at Trader Joe’s
(Originally appeared in Vanity Fair, October 2, 2018)
Justine Bateman, perhaps most famous for her seven-season run as Mallory Keaton on the NBC sitcom Family Ties,has written a book. She puts any idea that the compact, searing volume will be yet another logy, loquacious Hollywood quickie, written by an actor too young to write a memoir about a not-so-exceptional life, saying a lot but revealing very little, decisively to rest on page two.
“I fucking hate memoirs,” Bateman writes.
As the title Fame: The Hijacking of Reality more than implies, this is a book about the complicated aspects of all things fame; so much so that the word throughout the book is uppercase. As in “Fame.” What it feels like to have Fame. What it feels like to lose Fame. What it feels like to live in a country gone mad, a country obsessed with Fame, filled with those seeking to achieve it, and those unlucky enough to no longer be sheathed within its seemingly warm embrace.
Since Family Ties ended in May 1989, Bateman has become a renowned writer-director of short films, such as this year’s “Push” and “Five Minutes released this month, as well as features, like the upcoming Violet, starring Olivia Munn and Justin Theroux. She also earned a computer-science degree from U.C.L.A. and a pilot’s license. Yet for many, Bateman remains forever stuck in amber as the 16-year-old giggly, slightly ditzy Mallory on a hugely popular sitcom broadcast on Thursday nights after The Cosby Show and before Cheers, “Must See TV” at its peak—nearly half of all TV sets in use were tuned into Family Ties.
Vanity Fair talked with Bateman by phone in Los Angeles about America’s ever-growing obsession with fame, the advantages and disadvantages to being publicly recognized, and our often hostile relationship to the formerly famous, a sad reality crystallized last month when Geoffrey Owens, Elvin Tibideaux on The Cosby Show, was Twitter-shamed for having the audacity to work a regular job as a cashier at a New Jersey Trader Joe’s. The horror!
Vanity Fair: So you fucking hate memoirs?
Justine Bateman: I do. I have some very good friends who’ve written memoirs, but it’s not for me. It’s just not a format that I’m interested in.
I’m imagining you must have been approached over the years, at least a few times, to write your own.
The only time I was ever approached to write a book was when I was most famous. A publishing group wanted to do something in the late 80s, and I said, “Oh great! I’ve got this poetry and I’ve got these art pieces that I’ve done that sort of accompany it.” And they’re like, “Yeah . . . wouldn’t you rather like to write another type of book, like an exercise book for other girls your age or something like that?” And I was like, “That’s not for me.”
When I was going around pitching this book—first to book agents and then to publishers—there was this, I don’t know . . . I’ve never worked in the publishing world but if your book doesn’t fall within some category that they’ve commonly used, then it doesn’t seem easy for the publishers.
When it does fit, they know how to market it, they know who the audience is, they know what distributors to go to. It’s not as easy when it’s something that’s not specific to what they were looking for.
It’s such a huge, huge topic: fame. Was it formidable to even attempt to tackle it in book form?
It was, but I kept it specific. It’s a big conversation to have. I do touch on, of course, social media and reality shows and all that, but there’s a much bigger conversation to be had about fame. I could’ve started with, Where did fame begin, you know? And I could have researched all of that because my hunch is that it began with tribes. If you’ve got a guy in your tribe who’s the best warrior in the land, then you, by association, are sort of a winner. But that’s a big subject. I just really wanted to focus on that strange thing that happens in a room when a famous person walks in. And what happens after that famous person is no longer that famous.
This fascinates me. Why are we, as humans, hardwired to be impressed by fame?
So tell me more about how you feel that it’s hardwired. Because I say it’s more taught.
Well, I’ll give you an example. I went to elementary school in Maryland. My sixth-grade class all took a test to get onto a local TV quiz show. Everyone but me and another kid passed the test. They were all on the show; we weren’t. And I remember seeing my classmates on TV that weekend and then being with them on Monday morning and they looked different to me somehow. Bigger. They seemed more important.
TV must have meant something to you. And it also depends on how other people were treating them, which might have informed your view, possibly. Did your teacher look at the kids differently? Did other adults talk about the event in a way that impressed you?
I think for each individual it’s quite complex, but I think generally nowadays people seek out fame, and respect it, because they’re assuming a sort of state of being that will solve a lot of the things that they dislike in their lives.
You write in the book about the downside to fame—whether it was fans coming up for an autograph at an inopportune or personal moment—but you also write about the upside of fame; that there were certain advantages to it.
You hear all the time it doesn’t solve anything. But the truth is, there is often money attached to fame. There is often health attached to it—you can have better access to health care. There is often better opportunity attached to fame, at least career-wise. But it’s a flash. You can’t control it. You can’t depend on it.
Most the time, you’re so overwhelmed with the fame that it’s hard to have your wits about you as it’s happening. And then it’s over quickly.
It must be especially difficult to have your wits about you if you experience fame very young. I mean, what do any of us know at 16?
The younger you are when you experience it, the more those things are going to be interwoven into the fabric of what you understand of life. Whether it’s abuse, or poverty, or a lot of money, or privilege, or whatever is, good or bad. It’s going to work its way into each person’s life differently. So when fame is introduced quite early, it’s almost impossible to unweave that aspect from how somebody understands how life works.
You can’t really fault people who are experiencing fame. They’re just making their way through and everybody around them is reflecting this fame right back at them. It’s strange. It’s as if everybody is suddenly calling you Roger and you fight it for a while and then you go, “Well, fuck. I guess I *am *Roger. I didn’t think I was, but I guess I am Roger.” And nobody’s offering you any alternative reality. It’s distorted.
__It must have been surreal for you, to say the least. You were on a hit show that was playing on every other TV in America.
It was but it was also a different time as far as the public’s general understanding of the entertainment business. Imagine no Internet and about a fifth of the magazines we’ve got now, and a tenth of the entertainment-based shows on TV. Before I was famous, I had done two commercials but it was hard to catch them on television. You had to catch them live. I mean, the odds of catching one of your commercials live was . . . I don’t know, pretty thin. I think I caught them once or twice and it’s just one of those, “Oh, that’s neat.”
It was not that big of a deal. And then when I did the pilot for Family Ties, I didn’t know what a “pilot” was. I just knew I was going to be acting this thing out and they were going to film it. And then when they said, “Oh, it’s picked up,” and everybody was happy about that, I was like, “O.K. Tell me what that means.” But that was the general understanding everybody had back then.
It would be like me understanding the process of how a patent’s approved or how a paper is published in a scientific journal. I didn’t get it. It took a few years for the real fame to happen; when it became that high, high level of people screaming every time they see you. Actually, when the Cosby show first came on and started leading us in [1984–1985] and we had that to-die-for Thursday night lineup . . . we just dominated the ratings from then on. And then Michael [J.] Fox becoming unstoppably popular as well, with his films. It really got up there.
Fame wasn’t something you were looking for, even secretly?
It wasn’t something I sought out. It wasn’t something I was hoping for from when I was a little girl. It actually never crossed my mind to ever be an actor, but I did fall into my vocation, for sure. When you’re 15 or 16, everything’s happening around you and you are just reacting. You can stop it. But you don’t know that then. You’re too young. You just keep moving forward.
And then as far as doing all of the publicity and everything, I really did feel an obligation. No one’s saying you have to do this. But you see how much money, how many people are working on this project, and to say no to anything takes a very strong will. People are dependent on you showing up. Adults are dependent on it. So don’t throw that wrench in that gear.
In the book, you describe fame as like being “encased in a sheath.” To me that almost sounds maudlin. In fact, you write, “When the Fame started to fade, I felt physically unsafe.”
Yeah, the “sheath” is like some casing you’re in. And when people look at you, all they see is that casing; they don’t see you inside it anymore. They see the fame, not you. That physically unsafe feeling was really interesting. I hadn’t realized how safe I felt in every semi-dangerous situation when I was famous. The thing is, someone in that dangerous crowd is always going to recognize you, so you’ll be vouched for, you know what I mean? Everyone will then just except you. They trust you. They let you in.
You write about the seismic shift concerning America’s obsession and relationship to fame arriving at or around the turn of the millennium. What do you think happened in 2000 that caused this very specific shift?
I think it was this kind of perfect storm of entertainment-focused media outlets and reality shows that were then starting to explode. There were more publications and shows needing material. They needed more material and there are only so many famous actors and musicians and writers to fill that. And then there’s suddenly this whole batch of people on TV who are essentially game-show contestants—you know, reality-show contestants.
And then the public responded: “Oh, look! It’s just some mom. Anyone can do this. Anyone can be famous. And you don’t need to do a thing!”
I think that’s when it really took off. That whole type of thinking really paved the way for people’s obsession with all of it. And I do feel it’s an obsession. I think it’s a compulsive kind of thing to want as many followers as possible on social media.
I don’t recall it being like that before that point. And I’m completely fine to be proved wrong but that’s just what it seems to me to be. I remember feeling that there’d been a big shift right there. It was no longer, “Oh, you’re one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever heard speak and I would love to sit down to dinner with you and just hear you tell me about your ideas.” But rather, “Oh, I like him because he is similar to me.”
I personally don’t want that. I want somebody who’s got particular attributes that make them a talent and good at what they do. And that may not be things that are similar to attributes I’ve got. I want my plumber to know everything about plumbing. I’m not going to pick a plumber based on who’s most similar to me. We’re living a reality show and not a good reality show. This is what’s happened.
I love the following quote in your book from Michael J. Fox: “The biggest prima donnas, the biggest pricks, are reality-show contestants.”
Reality programs are the cancer of this particular country. An entire group of people who think they should just show up somewhere and get paid. And how did they get this idea? Well, because it happens. Because these people just show up and get paid. And the nastier they are, the more they become popular. It’s when they show the least level of intelligence, or maturity, or composure, or class. The less they show of those qualities, the more money they make. So this is the message we’re giving everybody. And if you’re really trying your hardest to exhibit the lowest level of all those qualities, you’re going to reach the highest office in our government.
There was a documentary about people winning the lottery. It was called Lucky [on HBO in 2010]. There’s a quote by one of the winners: “Winning the lottery is like throwing Miracle-Gro on your character defects.” And I think that’s a lot how fame can be for most people.
That fame cycle—from nothing, to a peak, back to nothing—used to take longer, sometimes years. Now it’s cycling faster and faster, where it can happen in days, seemingly.
And because they have no specific skill set, they have no specific talent, there’s nothing to carry them forward. They’re not like a professional violinist who’s incredibly popular at some point and then might become a little less popular, but is at least still a great violinist. That didn’t go away. But if the only reason you’re being focused on is because you shoot your mouth off, then people get tired of hearing the things you have to say, or your catchphrase, or whatever the hell it is. Then you’re back to where you started, which is what?
It’s very American, this obsession with fame.
It isn’t enough to just work hard and be a good person or anything like that. The American dream shifted over the years. It’s now either to win the lottery, be famous, or make as much money as possible—and make sure everybody notices.
And, case in point, the Geoffrey Owens story. Where they’re like, “Ha ha. Look at him! He used to be famous as an actor on the Cosby show! But now he’s working as a cashier in Trader Joe’s! Ha ha!”
Working a job like that isn’t looked at as doing good. Whereas it’s O.K. to be famous for just being an asshole on a reality show—at least you’re famous. So is that the barometer? Is that success? To me that’s not success at all.
We have a long, long history of mocking people after they’ve become famous and lose fame. In this particular case [with Geoffrey Owens], it was different. For a number of reasons, I suppose; one being that it cut just a little too close to the bone. It was, “No, no, no, wait a minute. Hold on, that crosses the line.” We can mock a woman for looking older. That’s cool, right? We can mock somebody for having a string of failed films, right? We can shame somebody for not being able to get work because they’re having a little bit of a drinking problem. That’s cool, right? I mean, I’m being sarcastic because it’s all fucked up.
My next book will all be about women’s faces and how people react to them as they naturally age in the public eye. I think the negative reaction is such a really sad thing that happens. And it definitely happens.
If anything, that has increased.
Why do you think people are so quick to mock someone’s natural aging process?
That’s what I’m exploring now. I think it’s because of the way it makes the public angry.
I don’t know. I don’t have it figured out yet. But I’m trying to.
In your book, there’s a description of you self-Googling your name and finding Justine Bateman looks old. You were 43 at the time.
Yeah, that was a huge mistake. The bigger mistake was clicking on it. And the even bigger mistake was, after not being able to relate to what they were saying, just kicking myself to the curb and deciding they were right and I was wrong. I then absorbed their view of me for a time, and it fucked me right up. Took awhile to get rid of that.
There are benefits to being famous. Even if it’s as small as acquiring a seat at a concert or a table at a restaurant. But when that’s taken away, I imagine it can be very difficult.
Well, see this is where the public would go, “Oh, poor you. You couldn’t get a reservation anymore.” But it’s really more than that. It’s involved with everything.
It’s like when you soak the flowerbed with water. The water goes everywhere. But when you stop watering the garden, it changes everything. So it’s not just that you’re taking one rock out of your garden. It’s that you’re removing something that has flowed into everything. It’s flowed into your understanding of who you are, your understanding of who you are in society, your understanding of who you are to people who you know personally, who you know in your work. Everywhere!
And even beyond the personal aspect, fame is often necessary in order to get hired on shows and in movies. So when you start losing that, it’s not just, “Oh, this is an inconvenience. Now I’ve got to wait two weeks to get a table versus getting it tonight.” But rather, “Oh, wait. Now who am I?”
You have to start building certain muscles from scratch. And it doesn’t help when people are taking pictures of you and putting it out there and saying, “Oh my god. Look what he has to do now! Work in a grocery store! He’s fat! He’s old!” So yeah, your ego takes a beating and people do feel justified in posting that sort of thing because “you once had everything.” And I feel there’s a little bit of resentment that the public has for you at that point.
They almost feel as if you squandered something that they gave you. “How’d you fuck that up? Oh my god! You had everything! What happened to you?! I gave my heart and thoughts to this person and look at what they’ve done with their lives!”
You describe fame as a smoke, a cloud, as it being mercurial, ephemeral.
It really is because it sort of floats. When people come up to you, they’re not coming up to you, they’re coming up to that cloud. And they want to buy the things that you buy because they want to be close to that cloud because of how they imbued that cloud. They’ve imbued that cloud with magical things. Like, You can live a life free of worry. Free of financial worry. Free of worry that there’s going to be a lack of love or provision or support. And they’re like, “Oh, I want that!”
But really, the only way you can truly achieve that is if you trust that you’re taken care of by whatever you believe in—whether it’s the universe, or god, or the sun, or whatever your thing is. That’s really the only way you can get that feeling. It won’t be fame that gets you there.
You tell an anecdote in this book that I find incredible. You attended a party around 2007 at a Los Angeles club where roughly half of the people were famous. It quickly became clear that those with more fame were literally leaning away from you, avoiding you entirely.
I don’t think my story’s very unique. I mean, you notice that sort of leper effect; you see it happen all the time. It’s not an uncommon thing. It’s only startling, personally, where it occurs to you. Because you’re like, “Oh, wait a minute. This is happening to me now?” That’s true of a lot of things. That’s true of, I don’t know, the first time you’re treated like an older person. And you’re like, “Oh no, no. Now wait a moment, I’m not old, am I?!” Somebody’s like in their 70s and still living a full life or something and somebody maybe speaks at a higher volume because they assume they’re deaf.
Nothing gets a response faster from somebody who’s closer—or who used to be close—to the fame cloud than by insulting them. It’s like telling the pretty girl she’s fat. Now all the other guys that have said you’re pretty are not as important somehow as the one guy who tells you you’re fat. Because now you’ve got to convince him otherwise. And now he’s got you.
But with a book like this, now you’ve got him.
I do hope that this book will . . . first of all, I’m happy to let people know what it was like inside. And, in particular, to open up to what it’s like on the back side of fame. I don’t mean on the dark, fall-down-the-hill side of fame, but I mean post-fame. To know what that’s like because that’s not something that’s talked about very often. I think part of the reason is because people who have been well known are kind of spooked about even mentioning it. I think you have to have a really good sense of yourself to be able to talk about life post-fame. It’s like talking about a relationship that you know is kind of on the rocks. You don’t want to bust it open and examine it. Because then you know it will all just fucking fall apart. Or already has.
I say in the book that I don’t believe I’ll ever be that famous again and that’s 100 percent O.K. with me. I just want to do my projects. I want to direct. I want to create. I want there to be enough of an audience for me to do these projects. Enough of an audience that pays to see or to read these projects so that I can continue to do other projects. That’s all I want.