The Topic At Hand: Blank Slate

I have never been all that great in social situations. As a child, I felt more comfortable with inanimate objects — Rubik’s Cube, stuffed animals, food — than with people. I had friends, but they were kids who, like myself, preferred activities that didn’t really require talking, such as watching tv, or claymation. This shyness blossomed, by the time of my early teens, into full-on geekdom. My mother, a former member of the Pink Ladies Club at Queens College who liked to tell stories of how she’d met boys at the skating rink or the ice cream parlor when she was my age, would say, “You just need to make conversation.” “Make conversation.” What did this mean? Where did one start? It was like she was asking me to make my own clothes, or cheese, or nuclear fission. Clearly, there were tools and skills involved here that I did not possess.

Having somehow made it through the process of meeting new people at college — Where, where did they all come from?!?! — I hoped and prayed that that would be the end of it. But no. What I found when I went to graduate school in film production was the ninth circle of hell for the socially disinclined: the Circle of Networking. In fact, in my belief system, networking is all they do in hell, all day long. Finally, I was forced to face the ultimate truth about my lot in the real world: I would never be a highly-desired party guest.

Then I began working in the film business. Given the pre-determined outcome of my networking, no one was seeking to hire me to direct big-budget entertainment, and that’s how I started working to pay the bills doing location sound for movies and television. Now, one might think it requires a certain amount of cool to work with those who epitomize it to most of the media-savvy public. Au contraire. Famous people generally expect to be the center of attention, so unless you’re an important non-famous person, like their hairstylist, they tend not to notice you exist. And if they do notice, they’re not surprised if you make an idiot out of yourself in front of them because, well, most people do. So for someone like me, working with celebrities was ideal. I was around people who expected to be observed and I was a born observer.

But soon I started to find out that there was also this sort of strange side-effect of working around the famous. Fame is kind of like a contagious virus that everybody is trying desperately to catch. If you’ve had contact with it, people want contact with you. And unless they’ve already got it, no one is immune. Matrons at a bridal shower, bankers at a Hamptons barbecue, hipsters at a Williamsburg roof party, they all wanted to hear how I almost put a microphone on Brad Pitt, or how Johnny Depp pretended he was going to tickle me, or what Beyoncé is really like. I still considered myself the same social misfit I had always been, if one who was sometimes in the right place at the right time. But it didn’t matter what I thought of me. I would find that people who, in previous conversations, had spent most of their time looking over my head, scanning the room for someone better to talk to, would now lean in, engaged, rapt, even, hoping to inhale just a whiff of this second-hand fame, just enough to make them sneeze.

None of this prepared me, however, for the attention I got when I began working on The Sopranos. I was hired, of course, because they couldn’t get anyone else. The rates were bad, the hours were long, and my job as a PA was sucky. Also, while I’m used to being on sets that are 80% male, being on the Sopranos set was like taking a bath in testosterone. The Bada Bing might not be a real strip club, but when you spend your day there, surrounded by a bunch of neckless guys watching strippers pole dance, it sure feels like one. Still, there was an excitement in the air that people get when they know they’re working on something good — a rare experience in film production. It felt like a family, and the actors often hung out with the crew. They were just famous enough to start enjoying it without it having had it go to their heads.

I, on the other hand, was starting to believe my own press. By now, I had told so many people that fame meant nothing to me, that famous people just wanted to be treated like everyone else, blah blah blah, that I’d started acting like it was true. I’m guessing this was why, upon overhearing James Gandolfini, who played Tony Soprano, talking with the DP and describing his character as a fun guy to play, I suddenly chimed in with, “You mean depressed and homicidal?”


It was the same “Hey” that Tony uses when he’s about to smack Anthony Jr. in the head. It occurred to me, perhaps for the first time, that Gandolfini is a very large man, and that whoever had invented the phrase, “Shut up and mind your own business” had been pretty smart, or at least, smarter than me.

“Who’s this?” he said.

The DP introduced us.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m just here temporarily.”

Jim (yeah, that’s what the crew called him) grinned at me. “She’s got a smart mouth.”

I didn’t know how to react in this situation: I had apparently said something not stupid and somebody famous had been listening. So I went back to color-coding tape stock. But whenever I saw Gandolfini after that, he said “Hello,” and when the cast and crew got backstage passes to a Bruce Springsteen concert at the Meadowlands, he waved to me and said, “Hey, you clean up nice!”

This and other details became conversational fodder for me of room-stopping caliber. There would be a hush within several feet of where I was telling a Sopranos story as people, while pretending to carry on their own, silly little confabs, were really eavesdropping on and devising a strategy for getting into mine. And the amazing thing that had started to dawn on me was that I wasn’t all that bad at confabbing. The attention that working “in the biz” (mind you, I could never actually say that phrase without choking on my stuffed mushroom cap) had gotten me over the years had given me enough confidence that I could, in fact, carry my end of a conversation — so that I was now, if still far from as cool as people seemed to think I was, then at least more cool than I had been.

Soon, however, I realized it didn’t matter. Nobody was really interested in me. They were interested in the virus. No matter how cleverly I told a story about something I’d seen or done, in the end, they just wanted to know who’d breathed on me lately. This was driven home when I stopped working on The Sopranos on a regular basis –- which happened, inevitably, when the guy I’d been filling in for decided a low-paying, menial job was better than none. Thereafter, when people would ask me how the show was going, I’d get to watch the little gleam in their eye go dull, even as I tried to segueway with, “But I spent a couple of days on Ed!”

Sopranos Family Photo

"Is that a boom shadow on the back wall there?"

Hoping to regain some of my former glow, I stopped by to visit the Sopranos set one day when I was working on a commercial for stretch mark removal cream (oh, the glamour) on an adjacent soundstage. I was in the middle of talking with one of the crew when Gandolfini walked by.

“Hi,” he said.

“Hi,” I said, “how are you?”

“I’m fine,” he said, “how you doing?”

“I’m fine,” I said. “And how are you?”

“Uh, fine,” he said, giving me an odd look as he walked away.

And as if it needed any confirmation, there it was: my cool was gone.

Now The Sopranos is long over. When the final season was airing, I didn’t even have HBO, so while Sopranos mania once had me at the center of everything, instead, it pushed me back into a conversationless corner, where I had to talk loudly to myself so as not to hear anything about David Chase’s daring (or inane, depending on your point of view) ending.

And these days, I hardly get invited to parties any more. Partly, it’s because I’ve left the “work hard/play hard” world of episodic for the “work less/save money for my kids’ dental work” environment of commercials, and my crewmates just aren’t the partying kind. But partly, I have to admit, you don’t inspire the same level of interest in random strangers by telling them that the most famous person you’ve worked with lately is that woman who sniffs her upholstery after spraying it with Renuzit.

John Lovitz And Flava Flav

The two most famous people I've met working in commercials.

So now, when I meet new people, instead of being the girl with the Sopranos stories, I’m actually just me. A me who has time now to do more of my own writing and filmmaking and, in general, to have a life — one that isn’t wholly vicarious. Which makes me, at least in my own mind, more interesting, if not any less uncool. I think the truth about caché is something I wish I’d realized when I was a teenager: whether with hipsters, actors or mobsters, what people think about you has more to do with being one of the club, “a friend of ours,” whether you’re in or you’re out. Being cool is kind of like being famous: ultimately, it’s got very little to do with you.

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4 responses to “Second Hand Fame”

  1. harrietslonim says:

    Have you seen the current Meow Mix commercial? Whenever I hear that old jingle, I “see” 4-year-old Betsy and my (also 4-year-old) daughter, Donna, jumping on the couch and singing the tune over and over and over again. Well, maybe singing isn't quite right since there never were any words other than “Meow, meow, meow, meow…,” but at least you two had the tune right!

    I've seen you only once since then, but I've heard (from those who know best) that wonderful things have happened for you. And, I'm sure that even more great stuff is still to come!

  2. logan says:

    That last line … kiiiiiiiiiiind of amazing. I need it as, like, a tattoo or something.

  3. BTL says:

    Thanks, Logan. A friend did make me a “Speed, Motherfuckers!” t-shirt a few years ago, quoting the last line of one of my early blogs. Of course I could never wear it in public.

  4. Kim Hughes says:

    I am sort of a social leper. I don't think I have what it takes to network, even over the internet.
    My “cool” factor is in the negatives, I think. What I lack in “cool”, I have excess of in nerdery. Maybe that's not a trade off, but I guess it depends on who you're asking.

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The Author


BTL is a New York-based filmmaker and writer who listens to stuff for money – aka, works as a sound mixer and boom operator on movies, TV shows and commercials. She blogs anonymously not to build her own mystique (which she's been told she already oozes) but to make sure she gets her next job. BTL is currently working on a screenplay, a novel, and a documentary, none of which she can tell you anything about — but she can tell you that she likes travel, platform shoes, and bacon-infused bourbon.

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