I’ve always been fascinated by the stories about how, even at the height of her fame, Marilyn Monroe could drop “out of character” and walk down the street unrecognized. Her close friends said she didn’t have to dress differently or change her hair or makeup. “Marilyn” was just an act that Norma Jean could turn off and on at will. I don’t know if that’s true, but it certainly makes for an interesting story.
Whenever I think of Marilyn Monroe, I usually also think of Kim Novak. They were both “studio-created screen goddesses” at the end of the age where Hollywood manufactured such things. I think both of them had a complex and difficult relationship with celebrity. It seems like Marilyn responded by treating “Marilyn” as a role separate from her real identity, but over the years it became harder for her to define and inhabit that “real identity.” Novak seemed to respond by cultivating a more distant, remote persona similar to her character in Vertigo; eventually retreating from acting and Hollywood altogether.
Now, Marilyn is a dead legend, and Novak is living happily with her veterinarian husband of 36 years in relative anonymity. Who you think got the better deal probably says a lot about how you feel about fame and celebrity.
For some people, talent is a means to the end of fame and celebrity. For some people, fame and celebrity is the cost of success in a creative line of work.
Secret identities and movie queens also make me think of a magazine article I read when the first Star Wars prequel came out. One of the costume designers was talking about Queen Amidala’s outlandish outfits. The elaborate costumes and makeup were meant to be a royal defense strategy. They wanted to create the impression she could “walk out the back of those costumes and be unrecognizable.”
As a long-time comic book fan, I appreciate the value of a secret identity. A secret identity is that back door escape hatch. A secret identity means you get to have a personal life, even if you become famous (or notorious, as the case may be) in your work life.
My friend and boss Jason Falls was on national television last week. At lunch, we were talking about how in social media and fiction writing, you can be “famous” and still be largely anonymous in a sense that actors can’t. We listed off all the best-selling novelists who could walk right past without either of us recognizing them. It was a long list. Much longer than the very short list of writers we actually would recognize.
I’m not scared of public speaking. I love doing amateur theater, in both on-stage and backstage roles. I enjoyed my days as a radio broadcaster. I’m not at all uncomfortable being the center of attention.
But I also like my privacy. A lot. I like being able to slip out the back door and back into my personal life.
In other words, I’m probably one of those people who views fame or celebrity, even of a very minor sort, to be a “cost” not a “benefit” of success. I’d rather be Kim Novak than Marilyn Monroe.
I suspect that my ambivalence about success is mostly just inner conflict about notoriety and privacy. I like attention. I need privacy. If I have to pick one, I’ll go with the latter, every time.
So I’m thinking about the possibility of using a pen name for my fiction, moving forward. That means I’d have to start from scratch building up friends, fans, and followers under another name for my fiction writing. Which seems kind of exhausting. But I’ve done it for companies.
What do you think, reader friends? Would you rather be “anonymously famous” or would you rather have all your work and effort, for better or worse, attached to your real name? What do you think about fame? Would you consider it the cost of doing amazing work, or a benefit? Would you be a Marilyn or a Novak? (Or I guess for the guys, a James Dean or a Marlon Brando?)
And writer friends, here’s a writing prompt: Your character has to take on a secret identity in order to achieve his or her goal.