color garden


I taught for many years, mostly at the University level, but most recently I taught high school students in Paraguay. Since this was an English conversation class, I was attempting to get them to talk about anything, rather than to just listen to me talk at them. I asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up.


All of them said “famous.” Some wanted to be movie stars. I thought that odd, because in humble Paraguay we were far removed from Hollywood or any important cultural center.  When celebrity culture grew like a malignancy back in the eighties, I thought this would be temporary, but almost forty years later its spread to infect most of the organism. Maybe social media and smartphone use has something to do with it, but the desire to stand out from the crowd by becoming famous is now thought of as admirable. It’s a legitimate goal for anyone who can afford to take the plunge.


Wanting to be famous is the desire to be loved by strangers. Based on the values we ostensibly hold and attempt to teach our children, this seems an odd goal to set for oneself.


In Paraguay, almost no one I met had ever been anywhere else. The super-rich visited Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida, and then went shopping in fancy malls. Often fifteen-year old girls would go in a group, chaperoned by a rich aunt. I suppose it’s normal for teenagers to be impressed by celebrities, and to want to be more like them, but it seems from the perspective of this retired American as if the whole world has become a shallow teenager.


When I taught in Thailand, I was teaching classes in performance for broadcasting at the University level. The students there all hoped to become celebrities. Thailand doesn’t have much a movie industry, but they crank out lots of daytime dramas to air on television. Nobody pays them much mind. They don’t want to be Thai TV stars, they want to be International movie stars.


Even though their English language abilities were often minimal, many of my students were very cute. In Thailand, boys and girls both aspire to the same level of cuteness. Even though Hello Kitty was invented in Japan, it seems to have found a permanent home in Thailand, where cuteness at all costs is the national motto.


Cute and sexy aren’t the same thing. In fact, they’re almost opposites. If your path to being famous depends on being super-cute or super-sexy, you’re in trouble, because there are more people on that road than it can handle. Time is of the essence, and it’s always running out. Better get there at just the right time and don’t dawdle!


Maybe someday young people all over the world will snap out of it and decide that their goal is to be kind, to develop charity in whatever situation they find themselves, to learn diligence and patience, but most of all to see service towards others as a lofty goal all in itself. Screw being famous.


Maybe they will realize that the desire to be loved by strangers is an artifact of a sick culture based on voyeurism.


No matter where you are, everybody wants to be a movie star


I teach English at an academy deep inside the pampas of South America. My students are mostly upper-class kids who have smart phones. They range in age from sixteen to twenty-four. At our first class, I challenged them to tell me what they really want to do for a living, not what their parents or others want them to do, but what they want to do. They all confessed they want to become movie stars.

There is another teacher here, a bright local man in his early twenties who speaks such good English they made him a teacher (here, they have a hard time finding native English speakers, especially ones willing to work for five dollars per hour.) He’s quitting his job next week to move to Hollywood to become a movie star. Seriously.

I remember when I was fifteen my father asking me what I wanted to do with my life. I admitted I wanted to be famous. “At what?” he asked. I didn’t have much of an idea. I just knew I wanted to be a celebrity.

I remember my father was not pleased with my response. He thought it showed immaturity and latent narcissism. He was right.

Most people nowadays spend a frightening amount of time watching other people perform on Youtube, films or television. That’s in addition to the time they spend watching people perform in commercials. So it’s no wonder they want to be the one watched rather than the one watching, the one being paid rather than he who is paying. It’s a no-brainer. In the former case you’re hanging around in your trailer, hobnobbing with other celebrities and getting paid for your time like a third-world politician. In the latter case, you’re sitting in your basement or bedroom, watching other people simulate pleasure or excitement and compulsively eating.

So if we take the statement “I want to be a movie star” as a desire to the active rather than passive, a doer rather than a loafer, a burning desire to participate in the arts instead of as an admission of laziness and narcissism, then we can be less critical. Because let’s face it, we all secretly want to be movie stars, too.