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Mira Sucharov


charov's Fonzie Belt

 
CELEBRITY WORSHIP: MY MEETING WITH “THE FONZ” (HENRY WINKLER)

Mira Sucharov

It's been two months, and The Fonz still hasn't called. I met him back in September, the night he spoke at the Jewish Federation's campaign kickoff event. Along with about a dozen of other die-hard Henry Winkler fans inspired by his personal tale of hard-scrabble motivation, I stuck around for a few minutes, hoping to glimpse the smile of the 1970s Close Up toothpaste commercials close up. But unlike the other hopefuls, I was different. Or so I thought.

See, not only was I was wearing my cherished red glittery Fonzie belt buckle that night. And not only had I been the founding president of my bedroom-door Fonzie fan club in 1979 Winnipeg.  Winkler had actually had a conversation about me last fall while working on a film with my stepmom, a Vancouver-based actor. (Fans of the X-Files may recall her as Mulder's mother on the 1990s series.) Filming together, they shot the bull while nibbling on sandwiches at the catering truck (or so I pictured), and there my stepmom told him about my long-lived admiration of everything Fonzie.

But when I actually did meet him a year later, the experience was a blur of elbows, camera flashes, and me babbling. He wasn't quite sure which movie I was referring to. Maybe it was because I said "last summer," when really it was last fall. Maybe it was because I described it as a Santa film, when really it was a different type of Christmas movie. By the end of our handshake, he flashed his Happy Days smile and said "nice to meet you again." As warm as he seemed, he clearly hadn't understood my story. I was deflated. Right before my eyes, my real-life relationship with the Fonz had ended before it even began, and with it, the 1970s.

What does celebrity worship do for us, and what's more, what do we really want from our celebrities?

Social psychologists tell us that my longstanding "parasocial" relationship with The Fonz may actually help me reach a sense of my "ideal self." (A study reported last year in The Atlantic focused on subjects with low self-esteem, but it's plausible that these benefits could be enjoyed more generally.)  Other research has demonstrated the "basking in reflected glory" effect that characterizes fans and their sports teams.

Certainly, the entertainment industry has created a long list of celebrities for us to hang our "parasocial" hats on. In Canada, Ottawans have long been excited about Paul Anka, Winnipeggers lay claim to Neil Young and (my distant cousin) Monty Hall, and now Vancouverites -- especially Jewish ones – are thrilled by Seth Rogen's rapid rise to stardom.
But even less glamorous domains produce celebrities with fevered followings. The 1994 death of the Lubavitcher Rebbe led many of his followers to proclaim him the Messiah. And thousands of male worshippers gather each Rosh Hashana in Ukraine to pray feverishly near the grave of Reb Nachman of Bratslav, the great-grandson of the Ba'al Shem Tov, Chassidism's founder.

Beyond bolstering self esteem, celebrity worship also helps bind us with others, with fame of course depending on collective recognition. Fonzie could only be Fonzie because, together, millions watched weekly Happy Days episodes during the 70s and 80s, and on reruns thereafter.

Back in Ottawa, as Winkler seamlessly incorporated a lightning-quick impersonation of his earlier Fonzie self into his speech on dreams and dyslexia, we in the audience cheered wildly, buoyed by our collective memories of a fading era.

Yet for all of our obvious pulls towards celebrity admiration – along with the tendency to engage in schadenfreude when those stars fall (witness our obsession with Martha Stewart's brief stint behind bars), what do we actually want from our celebrities?

There's an obvious paradox, of course. Many of us do crave real-life intimacy with the famous objects of our admiration – think of autograph hounding, rubbing shoulders at a charity event, and any other number of possible encounters our imagination furnishes. Yet getting to know celebrities as real people would ultimately resemble the captured eagle problem: we are enchanted by our winged friends precisely because they soar high above us. In real terms, at some point our celebrity intimates would inevitably come down off the pedestal we have put them on. And then they will no longer be celebrities; they will be real people, sometimes smart, funny and sexy, but just as often bored, tired and uncombed.

So maybe my failed attempt at creating a meaningful fifteen minutes (which was really fifteen seconds) with The Fonz served an important lesson. As Winkler wrote in the children's book he had inscribed for me and my kids courtesy of my stepmom, "you all have greatness inside you." Sometimes our own self may be the greatest celebrity of all – with or without a live studio audience.

Former Winnipegger Mira Sucharov is Associate Professor of Political Science at Carleton University and a free lance writer.

 
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