Facing Fame

The other night on the train home I sat down and heard a voice that sounded familiar. I looked across and immediately recognized the guy sitting by the window – Steve Coogan.

Trains are great places to spot and talk to people but Steve was completely preoccupied with his agent. He was also eating and drinking. So not approachable. But that did not deter me. After he had finished his roll and scrunched up the bag it was in, I got up from my seat, faced him and said a little impertinently:

“Excuse me, now that you have finished eating, do you mind if I take your photo? I do like your work, especially the Trip.”

He gave me one of those pained “I am busy, leave me alone” looks but replied courteously and curtly “only if it doesn’t take long”, thereby clearly signaling he did not want any further conversation. I snapped him quickly on the iPhone, nodded and returned to my seat, appropriately put back in my place.

Now Fabio Capello was a different ball game. About a year ago, while waiting in line at the EasyJet check-in at Palermo airport for a flight back to Gatwick, we spotted him standing by himself. Various people asked him for his autograph but we continued to wait in line, looking discreetly, pretending not to be excited. After we had checked in we turned round – and lo and behold he’d gone. We were disappointed by our earlier nonchalance – ruing the moment for not having snapped him to show off to the folks back home.

But as we passed through customs to our gate we sighted him again, this time sitting by himself on one of the benches reading a book. No hesitancy this time – we boldly sat next to him and asked if it was OK to have our photos taken next to him. He nodded and gave that craggy Capello smile. Then we got chatting and before we knew it were escorting him through the throng of people to board the plane, shouting “speedy boarding, speedy boarding’” at the jaw-dropped crowd, as if we were his minders. Once planeside, I turned back to ask if he would like to sit next to us. He hesitated and then said “sure” with another craggy grin.

C sat by the window, I sat in the middle and Fabio in the aisle.

The flight took an hour longer than scheduled because of a French air strike (we had to circumvent France) so we had several hours to strike up a conversation and compare notes. He was well read, and despite struggling occasionally with his command of English, we had several in-depth conversations and jokey chats about wine, olive oil, Sicily, modern art, books, family, having to fly with EasyJet (only flight on a Saturday to London) and, yes, lots about football. At one point, I took out my map of Sicily to show him where we had been and he used it to point and tell us all about the places he’d been to and where to go next if we ever came back to visit. He then took out his modest mobile phone and started showing us photos of his olive grove and some of his modern art collection in his garden. He’d just got hold of a Calder and wanted to see if I liked it. It was bright yellow and stood proud amongst the trees. Luckily, I was up on my outdoor Calders (there is a stunning one on the Bloomington IU campus I used to walk passed every day) and so was able to make an intelligent comment rather than simply a ‘that’s nice’ one. He was impressed.

It was his unguarded self that has stayed with me most from facing fame. Fabio seemed at ease sharing memories and moments with complete strangers in the way one does with family and friends. And throughout our encounter he touched my arm several times with a familiarity that was endearing.

Even though I could never get away from always knowing that I was in the presence of the Fabio Capello – whom we’d seen hundreds of times on TV, read so much about in the papers and online, while talking endlessly about him in the pub, especially during the world cup – I was able to relax in his company rather than be a nervous groupie.

So why do we mere mortals behave like infatuated children when we come face to face with a famous face? I’d been talking earlier in the summer with Rafi about his fascination with famous people and seeing them in the flesh. There is something magical about being in the presence of someone (having seen them so many times on TV or online) who has become famous for having achieved something special – like being a brilliant comedian who can spot-on satirize life or a world-class football manager who knows how to play the beautiful game at the highest level – that makes us so deferential and star-struck. A raw wow moment.

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