Monday, April 23, 2018
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The odd business of stalking celebrities at the RNC

TAMPA — It all came crashing into perspective when someone mentioned a Gallagher sighting.

The frizzy comedian famous for smashing watermelons with a device called a Sledge-O-Matic was lurking somewhere around the Republican National Convention, and I had missed him. My celebrity tally went down a peg. My blood pressure rose and my face felt hot. How could I be so lax, so cavalier in my work?

Seventeen seconds later, I floated back into consciousness. Just how many opiates were in the free RNC coffee? This strange world was not the same world we lived in before.

The circus that brought 50,000 visitors to Tampa also brought a spate of celebrities, former celebrities, celebrity hangers-on, people who looked like celebrities, people who wanted to be celebrities. As a culture and entertainment reporter, my job was to locate famous folks outside the politics, get into their parties, take their photos and find out what they ate at the Taco Bus. It's not that it wasn't fun. It was really fun. But it was surreal.

Political conventions are electoral Epcots, happy cattle auctions polished for the shelf at Super Target. When the streets are blockaded, when the parking garage has become the "CNN Grill," when there's a Google lounge with free salted caramel lattes, when people are backlit in blue, everyone seems impressive. Your skills and accomplishments are like, whatever, and all that matters is tracking down that guy who was on American Idol six years ago.

It makes sense that paparazzi just bomb people and get the heck out. It's easier. To approach stars kindly, you must be both resourceful and childlike. At the Huffington Post Oasis lounge, I noticed a bald guy who looked familiar. I eventually thought he might be from Sex and the City, so I grabbed my phone and Googled "bald guy sex and city." It was Evan Handler, Charlotte's husband. Of course.

"Excuse me," I said, quivering at the plush couch set. One of Handler's friends looked up, saw my iPhone and sighed. He knew what I wanted and moved. I got the photo. It was intoxicating.

Most of the stars thereafter were polite. Jon Voight started to put his arm around me, and when I said I just wanted him in the picture, he was nonplussed.

"Let's get these other guys in it!" he said. Some dudes cheered and jumped in. "No, no," he reconsidered. He sat down in front of a radio host interviewing a Navy Seal. He waved.

Love Connection host Chuck Woolery asked a tall man to take the photo instead of me. I was too short, he explained. It would be a bad angle. When we finished, he inspected the shot and approved. I said I understood, that I hated bad angles. I couldn't object, too star-struck by the man who had always been right back in two-and-two.

Famous people to average people were like garlic to vampires.

"I felt like Jimmy Olsen, boy reporter," said my colleague Jay Cridlin, who also stalked celebrities at the RNC. "'Excuse me, picture for the local paper?' I don't think I've ever said that in my career."

When Tom Brokaw and Chuck Todd sat at the neighboring booth in Channelside's Thai Thani, my coworkers and I almost shrieked. I had to ask for a picture, but how? Waiting until Brokaw's curry arrived seemed really rude. I jumped up.

"I'm sorry," I said. "Can I just get this out of the way now?"

Chuck Todd laughed. Brokaw looked less impressed, but he obliged. I felt humiliated, like that person you swore you would never be if you encountered a star in public. Yet a few hours later I was at the CNN Grill doing the same thing to Piers Morgan.

The definition for fame got muddier as the days passed, as we spent more time steeped in the convention Kool-Aid. Pat Boone in a white leisure suit? Sure. TV's Ross the Intern? Charming. Meghan McCain? Definitely. What about public servants and journalists? Michelle Bachmann and Newt Gingrich were obvious, but the governor of Mississippi? The House Majority Whip? The reporter who isn't Andrea Mitchell but kind of looks like her? Was the guy in stars and stripes wrestling pants somebody, or did he just have weird pants?

Some stars started to feel omnipresent, overexposed. Saturday Night Live alum Victoria Jackson spent days in the convention center doing interviews and even handstands for reporters. Jon Voight was everywhere. Ann Coulter came at least twice and only let people take her picture on the second day.

By Wednesday, some stars were getting cranky. When I asked Bill O'Reilly if he was enjoying the convention, he said, "I'm tired, it's my job. I have to do it just like you have to do yours."

The Epcot was a fantasy. Stars were there to sell books and movies and ideas. And real Florida was still there past the Secret Service barricades, with prescription pill epidemics, foreclosures and destructive tropical weather. It didn't all end at an Instagram of Gallagher.

The biggest celebrity of the RNC bunch came on the last day. I watched Clint Eastwood speak through the television at a party, through the comforting filter of the peanuts on Twitter. He was miles away, untouchable, unreal, just like before. And it really felt right.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.

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