(Late) Hero Worship
May 10, 2012 6:49 AM   Subscribe

How do I express admiration for a famous person in a non-creepy way? And do I really want to express my admiration to begin with?

Yesterday, I had a semi-deep conversation with a friend who told me that the biggest regret he had was not shaking the hand and getting the autograph of his favorite actor when he had the chance. This got me to think about my own childhood heroes and sparked the desire to express my admiration for them.
Now, my childhood heroes had a tendency to either die young or do something so horribly embarrassing/stupid that I no longer consider them heroes now. There are only two left, which makes my self-imposed task to express my admiration to them a whole lot easier. After following their careers for 20+ years, I'm confident they are indeed the awesome human beings I consider them to be. But in the back of my head is also the list of 'fallen heroes', or in my current mindset: people I can't tell that they had a positive influence on my life anymore. This is likely the reason I suddenly feel I would regret it to miss this "last chance". There are also reasons I might regret to not miss it, too.

We are in the world of professional sports. The two individuals in question are former athletes, now retired.
I have worked in sports promotion, but on a different continent. I have worked with people who have worked with them. It is pure coincidence we never met. What made me good in my job was my inability to become "star struck" - I always treated the athletes, no matter how famous, as 'normal people'. In my line of work, that was certainly a good thing, but it bears a tendency to act overly familiar. Between athlete and promoter, that's perfectly fine. After all, we are both standing in the backstage area of the same event. But it is not fine if both the promoter and athlete are no longer active and it's basically a "fan - celebrity" situation.

Question 1: How do I avoid the "nick nack, you know what I mean, wink wink" trap/break the old habit? Where is the line between "relating to similar experiences" and "been there, done that, you know how it goes"?

The good news: Due to my former job, it is no problem to contact either of them. (I actually found the address of one in my notebook the other day. I have no plans to use it for a private matter - I'd consider it somewhat creepy to use the private address, especially since I don't even remember why I have it, and only a vague idea who gave it to me.) However, I still know my way around this business and one of them is a promoter himself now, so the "where" to send something isn't an issue at all.
The "send", on the other hand, says that a letter or mail is my only option - I'm in Europe, they are both in Canada. They know each other for 20 years and still work together, which leads me to:

Question 2: Would it be inappropriate or even rude to send my letter/mail to just one with a "oh, and show this to your friend" note? They were team mates in their active time; one has been a mentor to the other and they are long time friends in private, if that means something for fan mail etiquette.

Last but not least, far from etiquette and do/don't checklists, my personal struggle: Do I really want to do this?

I'm not exactly a person who collects heroes on every corner. Most were remains from my childhood/early youth; and I met a majority of them in my old job. All but one turned out to be idiots. (That one is a good friend now. The 'heroic' part kinda washed off.) Complete idiots, not "oh well, he's got a few flaws, that's just human". Frankly, that made me a bit bitter and a bit wary about any desires to meet people I admire. And ultimately, this played a role in my decision to leave this business. Being a part of it all took away the magic and for a while, even made me hate it. The lesson learned was cleary: Ignorance can be a bliss. A lot of nostalgic childhood memories went down the drain during these years, and thinking about that always makes me a bit sad. I lost the passion for a sport I loved all my life, both active and passive. It probably sounds silly, but the two individuals I still consider "heroes" or at least "people I look up to" reminded me of the good things and gave me this passion back. This is the reason a part of me wants to write to them and thank them for this. And another part fears any contact, no matter how brief, could expose them as idiots, just like the rest. It's probably irrational; you'd think if there was any dirt to dig up about them, I would have heard something in the past 20 years, in the same line of work, surrounded by gossip-happy insiders. But I guess that's the beauty of irrational fears; they opted out for any logic.

I should also mention that I don't expect an elaborate reply to anything I might or might not send them. I more or less just want to give something back and let them know what they did (and still do) has made someone's life a bit better. I'd be fine without a reply, this isn't about vanity or "becoming friends with celebs". I had that chance many times before, and it never appealed to me.

Practical advice for questions 1 and 2 would be welcome, in case I decide to write them; anecdotes, encouragement, discouragement for question 3.
posted by MinusCelsius to Human Relations (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I once saw Scott Hamilton and another skater, one of the Russians, heading down the concourse at the airport as I was waiting to board a plain. A huge fan, I headed out after them and called Scott's name. He turned around, starting to get that "Oh god, a crazed fan, have to be nice but not engage" look in his eyes. I didn't approach him, but I said, "I want to thank you for bringing so much joy into my life." He was delighted and told me so. I think sane, rational people are happy to know they've made other people happy.
posted by Dolley at 7:08 AM on May 10, 2012 [6 favorites]

I would think that due to your line of work and extensive experience interacting with such ppl, that they would especially appreciate a letter from you (vs. ppl with less exposure) expressing how of all these ppl, they have provided you the inspiration for your career and otherwise. especially if there are now older and may not be receiving as much of this as they used to.

i would not include a note to one asking them to forward the other letter to their friend, that takes away from letting that person bask in how much you adore them. they have proof in their hands that there is someone else in the industry you adore just as much.
posted by saraindc at 7:10 AM on May 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's a basic human emotion to find heroes - archetypes we admire, who embody qualities, real or imagined, that we'd like to have ourselves. Writing fan-mail is a way of acknowledging your own values.

Those who receive fan-mail generally treat it like applause - some love it, some are embarrassed by it, some couldn't be bothered to acknowledge it, but they all deal with it, and usually with grace. Just don't expect or demand a response, and don't treat a polite response as an invitation into their life.

Write each of them a separate letter, but mention that you've also sent an email to their old colleague as well if you'd like. In the letter, simply say why you admire them, relate their experiences to yours, and express gratitude. Avoid deep emotional outpouring, and don't assume an overfamiliarity.

Again, you're doing this for you as much as them, and it's a harmless and normal impulse, and might bring a smile to someone you admire.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:10 AM on May 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

A sincere "thank you" along with respect for their privacy is a welcome thing. My father isn't really star-struck, but he still took the time, when he saw his longtime idol Bo Diddley in a club where he worked sometimes, to simply go up and introduce himself and thank him. Celebrities only tend to get annoyed if someone interrupts them while they're trying to eat, or pee, or take a shower at the gym, or something like that (those three examples were ALL taken from stories I've actually heard happen to certain celebrities).

When it comes to referencing the things they've done, I'd hold off unless you know you can pull it off without looking like an idiot. My father was able to get away with making Spike Lee crack up by asking him "So, was it the shoes?" when they met, but for my part, I held off from asking Jeff Goldblum "So what was that watermelon doing there" when I saw him, and I think that was wise.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:21 AM on May 10, 2012

I have dealt with a lot of writers in my day (and I am friends with a few), so I am not all that impressed by authors (I like them, but they are, you know, people). However, by chance, I discovered that someone I knew lived near (and knew) Jean Merrill and Ronni Solbert, the author and illustrator of The Pushcart War, a book I loved as a child (the library may have had to buy a new copy, I checked that book out so often).

So I sent them a letter via my friend saying that I loved their book, that it still meant a lot to me even though I didn't think about it that often, and that it had had a clear impact on my ideas and commitment to social justice. I kept it short, didn't gush, just said "thanks for the positive impact." I got back a nice thank you note, so I guess my letter was appreciated. So, I guess my advice is: keep it short, don't gush, be honest.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:37 AM on May 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Wow you are super overthinking this! People like to know that they've made a positive difference in the lives of other people. A letter is a great way to tell someone this, because it gives them a physical object they can choose to hold on to, they can read it on their own schedule, and it's non-confrontational for both parties. It's good to tell someone else that you appreciate them.

Write a letter to both parties, keeping it positive. Maybe share an anecdote about your job and how something each of them did (or maybe didn't do) helped you out or kept you going in a bad time, but mostly just tell them thank you. If you can be specific about a few things you especially appreciate, that's nice. If not, that's also okay. Don't deride people they have worked with in the past, and try not to be quite so negative about the industry as you have been in this AskMe. Focus on the good things.

Other than that, it's really just a matter of keeping it short and sweet. Make sure your letter isn't more than two pages. If it's longer than that, you can be sure you're getting too detailed and probably verging on either "I totally have been there man" or "Hey let's be best friends and braid each others' hair" territory. Think about how you would feel if you were either of them reading your letter, and aim for something that would make their day nicer.

Don't expect them to be in communication with each other about your letters. You can't know how they each handle fan mail. It might be very different! But you could mention that you're writing the other person in each letter, if it's relevant to what you want to tell them. Make sure the letters aren't copies of one another with the names changed, though, because then it'd be kinda weird if they compared them and noticed.

Don't worry about doing everything perfect! Even if they're no longer as famous as they were, they'll be used to it, and you can rely on them handling whatever you send them appropriately.
posted by Mizu at 7:42 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

the two individuals I still consider "heroes" or at least "people I look up to" reminded me of the good things and gave me this passion back. This is the reason a part of me wants to write to them and thank them for this. And another part fears any contact, no matter how brief, could expose them as idiots, just like the rest.

I think you need to decide what you want out of this. Do you want to engage with your "heroes" so that they'll potentially reinforce a good feeling you want to have about the sport? Do you want to make them feel good about having a positive effect on someone who is otherwise jaded? Do you want to get a closer look to see if they're actually idiots too? Do you want to have some kind of special relationship with them since you're not just a fan but in the business?

I think the only "good" reason to write to a stranger is to say "hey stranger, a thing you did had a positive effect and I thought you'd like to know." It's a payback of sorts, and should be given with no expectation of a response. In your case it would be pretty cool. "Hey sports guy, I got pretty jaded being in the business but your lack of idiocy helped me start enjoying the game again." As long as you're not reaching out trying to establish a connection or expecting a certain response or behavior from them as a result, then go for it.
posted by headnsouth at 7:59 AM on May 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Just be prepared to be underwhelmed ( don't expect them to write back or pass it along). These people unless they are complete narcissists think that they are just living their lives and doing their jobs. When I finally got to meet my favorite musician and group they were more concerned with charging Blackberries and making sure the wives got back to the hotel than they were about meeting and greeting. However when all that was done, and they had a beer in hand they did spend some time with the waiting fans. I thanked him/them for the years and the music. got a picture and we all moved on.
posted by Gungho at 8:18 AM on May 10, 2012

Thank them for being a positive influence in your life. That's how I always do it. They're human, just like you. Approach them, how you would want to be approached. If you're sane, that is.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 8:28 AM on May 10, 2012

> So, I guess my advice is: keep it short, don't gush, be honest.

I agree, and based on this question (no offense) you'll need to work extra hard on the first. These people will be glad to hear they meant something to you, but not if they have to pry it out of many paragraphs of explanation. Try to keep it to one paragraph, and I'd suggest having someone read it over before sending it; a second pair of eyes can be a godsend.
posted by languagehat at 10:03 AM on May 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Stephen Fry gave some advice about approaching famous people in an essay about fame. Most of it was about face-to-face interactions, but some of the tips on this page, for example, might be helpful for your letter.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 11:17 AM on May 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Right now I'm working on a film project which stars one of my favorite actors of all time. We haven't had a lot of contact, and we most likely won't. While it's possible we could wind up making small talk at the wrap party, even that is a fairly remote possibility.

My gut instinct is that, unless life throws the two of you together, you should leave it alone. Maybe write a short note thanking them for the magic they brought to your life, or whatever, but even that will produce no tangible result beyond brightening their day. Which is nice, I suppose, and I guess it's admirable if that's what you're going for.

Re your first question: I don't really know what your question is. You have basically nothing to say to these people beyond, "I, like many other people, think fondly of your contributions to your field." There is no way to cut through that and get to some other level with them, because there is no reason for you to get to said other level.

Re your second question: No? Maybe? Frankly I don't think it matters, but I also don't think you have any real way of knowing whether Hero #1 really did show your note to Hero #2. And what does it matter, anyway? Send individual short polite notes of appreciation. What, can you not afford two stamps?

Re your last question: Maybe? Again, I think you should be honest with yourself about what it actually is that you are doing, which is expressing your appreciation for their contributions to something you love, and in some tangential way, your own happy memories. I don't think this is wrong to do, but I don't think it's going to produce tangible results in your life. You are not going to become friends with either of these people. You are probably not going to have any contact at all beyond a polite response note. If you want to write a polite letter, do so. If you really hope this is something else, then maybe don't, because it won't.
posted by Sara C. at 2:52 PM on May 10, 2012

I thought this Radiolab segment might be helpful when considering your third question. It's Stephen Dubner's story of meeting his childhood hero Franco Harris. http://www.radiolab.org/2011/aug/23/skin-game/
posted by Perodicticus potto at 4:30 PM on May 10, 2012

Response by poster: "try not to be quite so negative about the industry as you have been in this AskMe"
Frankly, yes, this is an issue for me. About the current industry, I still have a rather negative attitude, otherwise I would have returned to my old job. If I'd mention past events of their careers, it would derail me to a long, rocky road of nostalgia, which is something I rather avoid. I'd keep it general, to avoid the risk of sounding like a bitter old veteran. (The older one of them is 20 years my senior, so I assume that role wouldn't suit me at all.)

Do you want to engage with your "heroes" so that they'll potentially reinforce a good feeling you want to have about the sport? Do you want to make them feel good about having a positive effect on someone who is otherwise jaded? Do you want to get a closer look to see if they're actually idiots too? Do you want to have some kind of special relationship with them since you're not just a fan but in the business?

"Engage" would be an overstatement, but naturally I'm doing this for myself, too. However, I'd be happy to know I told them what I have to say. I know how busy life can be and don't expect a response. Just knowing they probably got it, maybe read it and it maybe made them smile would be the "goal" here.
A closer look? I'd prefer not to. I'd say a worst case scenario would be a reply saying they appreciate my letter and then reveal how I got really everything wrong about them, the very things I admire were motivated by things I despise and so on. I'd rather have no reply and keep on pretending. Watching heroes fall isn't my favorite past time.
A special relationship, no. Neither party is still active. A "relationship" would be based on something everyone moved on from and I don't think anyone would need that. At least, I don't. The one "hero" I met in my (and his) active time became a friend - I already have that "special relationship", so to speak. Now we're both out of the industry for years and don't really talk much about the past. This friendship isn't based on the experiences in the same business, but things we have in common beyond sports. I don't think that is something you can plan to go for, especially not with strangers I never met and likely won't ever meet.

but I don't think it's going to produce tangible results in your life

I disagree. For me, it would count as a "result" to think I gave something positive back to the people who gave me a lot positive influences. Maybe it's a weird way of getting even. They already gave me something. I want to give something back; not because I was expected or asked to do so; just because I want to.
posted by MinusCelsius at 7:14 PM on May 10, 2012

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