LAX: On not seeing stars

With Jimmy Kimmel, unable to stop talking in order to smile

After ten years in LA you might say that I have learned to be a good Angeleno. I say “freeway” now instead of my midwestern “highway.” I don’t complain about the piles of ripe, juicy oranges falling off our trees in January. I hardly ever wear pants. But the truth is, I do not, in fact, deserve to live in Los Angeles. The reason being is that I fail at one very important LA trait. I never recognize celebrities.

Which is a real bummer, because that’s the first thing anyone ever asks you about when you say you’re from LA.

When I was a producer I ended up working with serving coffee to plenty of celebrities. As a writer, I get to interview some of them. For three years I lived a few steps from the part of Hollywood Boulevard that was closed at least three times a week for premieres, where I could easily have walked down to see, say, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes make their first post-Suri appearance if I wanted to (okay, I did walk down there for that). But for some reason, when I’m out wandering the city, I just don’t recognize their E!-friendly faces. It’s become kind of a joke. The first thing Keith usually says to me as we walk out of a restaurant is “Did you see who that was?” I didn’t.

My famous-blindness became apparent the second week I was in LA. We were sitting at Birds on a Saturday afternoon ingesting beers and other things when I spotted a blonde girl sitting at the table next to us. I definitely knew her. I tried to place her as she plucked pieces of steamed broccoli off her plate. It was obvious that she knew me, too—she kept looking over at me with a slightly annoyed face.

I have to go over and figure out how I know her, I told my tablemates. I started to get up when one of them tugged me back down, embarrassed. It turns out it was someone I had spent plenty of time with in high school—but not in that way. It was Melissa Joan Hart. Clarissa! That explained it all.

It was only when I went inside and looked in the mirror in the bathroom that I remembered I had swapped the changeable lenses in my sporty sunglasses with amber lenses—which meant the reason she kept looking at me was because I was staring her down with my transparent insect-like goggles. At that moment that I learned the most important rule of LA: Always wear dark sunglasses!

You would have thought over the next decade that I would have somehow improved my celebrity-spotting quotient. I shopped at what was then the Mayfair Market on Franklin (now it’s a Gelsons, and has an improved store layout) which has more sitcom stars per aisle than any other grocery store in the city. And I’ve had my fair share of OMG THAT’S HIM instant-recognition moments. Jeffrey Jones hunching over a shopping cart at Trader Joe’s. Alex Baldwin sporting a tracksuit and grin in Santa Monica. Julia Roberts screeching through a yoga class (no, it was not adorable). But most of the time, I’m at a bar, gazing at a vaguely familiar face, trying to figure out what in the world my childhood babysitter is doing in LA.

I think it’s part of a common affliction that most people have when they move here: When you see someone you think you recognize, you always assume you know them from college, not cable. So maybe it’s just my own self-centeredness when I think that all celebrities are just old, unplaceable friends. I’ve lived here long enough now that I can hardly keep track of the non- and semi-famous people that I know, how could I possibly be responsible for the contents of Us Weekly, too?

And here’s the awful truth. Most of the time, they look so—gasp!—ordinary. Yes, this is the craziest True Hollywood Story secret about celebrities, you guys. They look like regular people. Regular people who most likely attended my summer camp.

To all the famous people who are reading this now, I just want to apologize in advance. I’m sorry for not knowing who you are, first of all. (To the reality show people, I’m sorry for not caring who you are.) But I want to make something absolutely clear. Celebrities, I’m not staring at you because I’m impressed by your accumulation of Daytime Emmys. I’m staring at you because I’m trying to figure out if you were in my Honors English class at Parkway West Senior High.

What’s your best celebrity sighting? Or are you like me, and lack celebrity sight?

I’m celebrating ten years in LA with ten days of LA stories. Go here for more LAX.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/elaine.chernov Elaine Chernov

    Girl, it ain’t no thing. I grew up in LA and I’m the worst at recognizing celebrities. In college I was working at a fancy candle shop on Montana Ave where we had to ask the customers for their full names to put in the system. I was checking out some rich lady when I asked her for her last name. “Shields,” she said. “First name?” “Brooke.”

    Whoops.

  • Alissa

    Oh good, Elaine, you’re make me feel a little better! If even locals can’t recognize their own royalty how can we be expected to?

  • Brian Singer

    I was on a flight to Barcelona, for my first vacation in years. My tickets were booked online, and I wasn’t allowed to make seat selections, which always freaks me out (getting stuck in a middle seat on a long flight makes for a miserable vacation). After arriving to the airport very very early, I somehow scored the bulkhead emergency exit row window seat. 

    Once I boarded, I was settling in when at the edge of my vision, I saw an extended hand, reaching out to me to shake my hand. Instinctually, I reached out for it, and then looked up to see who it was. My eyes met his, our hands shaking, and my brain began processing… an older gentleman… looks familiar… where do I know him from… my face lit up… mother-fucking Jimmy Carter!

    He was on the flight (but in first class) and cruising through with his security folks, shaking hands, holding babies, taking photos. It was by far, my best flight ever. 

  • Alissa

    OMG! Politicians are a totally different thing for me. I would die if I met Jimmy, and I would know he was not my 6th grade math teacher!

  • Stuart K

    Sat next to Ryan Seacrest and girlfriend last night….dinner at Osteria Mozza. 

  • Jane

    I saw more celebrities in 2.5 hours on four blocks in the East Village in December on a visit home than I have in 16 months of life in Los Angeles.  But I now think I have no idea who most “celebrities” are nowadays because they are all young and on reality shows. I am totally in the wrong city…but your blog makes life here better.  XXOO!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=686943764 Michael Sylvester

    I could bore you with lots of these. Here’s a few…

    Blockbuster in Westwood maybe 6 years ago (before Netflix…).
    To my right was a blurry color blob of a person in my peripheral vision. I was
    working down the aisle scanning DVD covers. She was working up the aisle
    towards me and then suddenly we were face to face. Oh, hello Paris.

    Paris was also on a flight from Sydney to LAX with me once. They
    misplaced her baggage on arrival (she’s standing next to me at the carousel) so she was with Qantas ground staff compouting
    (= complaint + pout). I walked out of the terminal doors into the street and
    BAM! 5 million paparazzi with cameras pointing at me. They were expecting her
    any moment now.

    There is an actor named Carl Weathers who played Apollo
    Creed in the Rocky films. He was also in a film called Predator and more recently
    cameoed in (the sadly cancelled) Arrested Development. He lives across the road
    from me and we sometimes say a neighborly “Hi” as we put our trash cans out on
    Sunday evenings.

    Robert Downey Junior on Abbot Kinney a few times. He has a
    home there by the cool architect Yasi Vafai. Stalker link: http://losangeles.tvoa.net/gallery.php?pid=343#

    Dinner on Sunset Blvd about six weeks ago. Who should walk
    in the door and everyone turns to look? Mr Brainwash!

  • Kathie

    My husband always recognizes celebs, and I rarely do; we’ve seen lots of famous people over the 35 years that we’ve lived here.  My favorite was Mothers’ Day many years ago, when we were seated adjacent to Alan Alda and his parents in a restaurant in Santa Monica.  We didn’t say anything to them, though I had recently gotten his mother’s pasta cook book, and I was tempted to approach her about the book!  I was interested in an article by Oliver Sacks in the New Yorker last year that discussed varying levels of facial recognition (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/08/30/100830fa_fact_sacks), and I realized that I am on the lower end of that continuum.

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