What does a celebrity meet and greet actually mean? Just what are we really paying for? At Baewatch I’m constantly analyzing the weird and special connections fans and creators bridge. For many of us (and probably you reading this) meeting a celebrity is a thrilling experience. At times it’s even euphoric. The emotions are unexplainable and there is a complete rush with getting a coveted autograph or selfie. I’ve attended a few meet and greets (my favorite being Mandy Moore back when I was 11~~) and have only paid for one. For me, the success of the meet and greet relied on what I was expecting to receive. In my one paid case, I knew meeting this celebrity would only cost $40 and it would be fast. I also knew that I wanted an autograph and I would become a blur to the celebrity after meeting hundreds of people on this tour.
This was fine because I was never expecting to become a friend or even have a great conversation with the star. I justified spending money on it because I collect autographs, and this was a fun way to get one in person. But for many of us, we have an extremely idealized view of how a meet and greet experience should go. This usually involves a long conversation, perhaps an intimate connection and a feeling that we are important to the celebrity. Let me be real for a minute: this almost never happens.
Meet and greets are meant to do one thing and one thing only: make money from fans who want a quick taste of celebrity. Very few celebrities have an enormous amount of time to spend with their fans, and if they do, they probably aren’t that famous to begin with. Even more troubling is that many musicians and actors could really care less about the fans who are shelling out hundreds of dollars to spend thirty seconds with them.
Recent stories about Five Seconds of Summer, for example, have left a negative portrait of the Aussies interactions with fans. In one meet and greet it was reported that the band not only made fun of the fans after they had left but also threw away all of their gifts.
And we don’t even have to get into how incredibly awkward and dehumanizing Avril Lavigne’s meet and greets in Brazil were. Britney Spears, too, has come under fire for her awkward meet and greets that began at $1000 and now cost an outrageous $2500. No matter how much of a living legend Britney is, no human being should be worth that much money to meet.
In Michael Joseph Gordon’s largely overlooked (but still highly recommended) book Starstruck: When A Fan Gets Too Close To Fame, he writes, “To be a fan of almost any star is to believe an illusion that almost provides exquisite relief.” To meet a star is a pure event. It is what keeps us from going crazy at school or our job. It’s what gives us something to look forward to throughout the year. If anything it’s a pure break from reality because the image of a star is never real.
When Dolly Parton was asked about this in Gross’s book she gave a great answer, “It’s a relief, but don’t you think it almost becomes like an addiction too? They get addicted to that feeling. It’s almost like how people will fall in love over and over just so they can have that feeling again. With a real fan, they have those moments that make them feel that. Maybe a different moment at every concert. Some of these fans have seen my concerts over and over, even know every word I’m gonna say, every note I’m gonna play, every joke I’m going to tell, but they’ll still find something new I’ll do in every show…. It’s almost like they wait for those little magic moments. I feel it from the crowd, too, which then gives me a rush.”
For many people, meeting or following a star provides a distraction from real life or a surrogate for loneliness. And typically the celebrity oddly relates to what the fan is trying to run from. Our personal connection to a star derives from an experience that we would like to share with them. Fandom’s biggest illusion is that the personal connection we derive from the celebrity’s work is unique to that celebrity. But it never is. How many times has a celebrity heard the words, “You’ve changed my life”? At the end of a day, we become a tiny star in the constellation of “You’ve changed my life” around the celebrity. And what are we hoping to hear in return from such a huge statement? There is really nothing a star can say in response that will adequately do justice to the story we want to tell. That story is ours, and ours alone; not the star’s. We deserve credit for coming to terms with our own thoughts and feelings about ourselves; the celebrity’s work is only the launch pad for how we came to terms.
When Gross had the opportunity to ask Dolly how she deals with the intense feelings her fans have for her, she responded thoughtfully, “A lot of times my fans don’t come to see me be me. They come to see me be them. They come to hear me say what they want to hear, what they’d like to say themselves, or to say about them what they want to believe is true.”
When I first read this at 19, I was floored. How many times had I, in my years of interacting with celebrities, said something to them to illicit a reaction, already knowing what I wanted to hear? And how many times today, do fans look to celebrities for approval in their appearance or self-worth? Many fans, specifically young teenage girls, look to stars for the okay that they are beautiful and strong. With many fans, they are wanting to be affirmed that they are worth it because they can’t find the words to say it themselves.
The fan experience really has nothing to do with us meeting our idols. A meet and greet is a fast, formal exchange of pleasantries until we are sent on our way–but there is something fans expect in return. They want validation or to be told by the celebrity that he/ she loves them. Most importantly, they want to feel that they are special. This is not a fair exchange. Many fans who meet a celebrity are not looking to actually get to know the celebrity. There is no real conversation or banter they would like to have. It is all about receiving.
Meet and greet packages have been devised to give fans a full experience: a package of merchandise, a pre-show party, valet parking, and most importantly the quick moment withe the celebrity. Never once though is the fan being given a glimpse at the real person behind the make-up, wigs and costumes. Let me be clear: meeting a celebrity in a controlled, paid environment is 100% different from meeting them organically in their natural environment. When a celebrity is doing a meet and greet, it is their job to be kind and gracious. If they aren’t either of these two things, they’re doing a terrible job at portraying their brand. Much like their personas onstage or on film, celebrities rarely break character at meet and greets. A smile is plastered, a “thank you” is said and possibly a few words are changed depending on the fan. There are, of course, exceptions. Lady Gaga, for instance, has been known to spend hours speaking with fans. Some stars do make a great effort to get to know every fan. But there are very few entertainers like Gaga in the industry, and most are quite happy to shuffle fans through in an orderly fashion so they can take a picture and be done with it.
These celebrities, of course, shouldn’t be at fault for this. But fans also shouldn’t be surprised when they are finished with the entire experience in under thirty seconds. And this is where the package comes in: when the celebrity meeting lasts under a minute, you still have bundles of branded merchandise and activities to do that will distract you from the absurd amount you paid for a fleeting encounter.
The one aspect of meet and greets that is probably most troubling to me is the thick red tape of money that separates fan from creator. Unfortunately many of us will never be able to meet our favorite celebrity because we can’t justify paying hundreds of dollars for these encounters. In my opinion, paying to meet another human being is fairly dehumanizing. We shouldn’t have to pay to meet anyone, but many of us will.
Of course, I don’t want to generalize: not all fans look to meet celebrity’s because there is something missing in their life. Plenty of us have a joy for meeting people simply who inspire us. But there should be more discretion involved in paying so much money for something that has no real effect on the fan or celebrity. The real truth about celebrity meet and greets is we are meeting our own imaginary, mythic person who lets us be who we really want to be. Meeting a celebrity is not about them; it’s about us.
At the end of her interview with Gross, Dolly was asked whether she believes she heals her fans. She laughed and said simply, “It has nothing to do with me. I’m distracting them, while they heal themselves.”