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Celebrity Obsession: I Walked the Line

(or When Celebrity Obsessions Attack II)
CherCon 2000: July 14-15,
The Congress Hotel and Convention Center, Chicago, IL

By Mary Elizabeth Ladd

I wrote this article three times. I had such a hard time writing it and I felt no relief when the first draft was done. It seemed there was so much left untold. Something was still festering unsaid. Every time I re-read it, I hated it; something about the saccharine review bothered me. Blow by happy blow, the original article catalogued all the events I had participated in, all my contributions and final evaluations. I ended up scrapping the whole thing. The convention was what you’d imagine it to be, more or less. The vendor turnout was disappointing but the impersonators were great. You can fill in the rest.

This is the Gold Room with a swanky balcony we weren't allowed to so
much as to look at. We blew up 100s of orange Sonny & Cher balloons
with helium and about six of them ended up floating up to the gold
ceiling; it was a beautiful clash of high and low brow.

For a long time, I couldn’t figure out what was bothering me. All I knew was that I wanted to do a major rewrite and try to delve into the negativity I was feeling. No, not because Cher was a no-show. Honestly, I was in a small minority of people who thought this was a good thing. After all, Cher’s presence would only hijack the convention, turn it into a Cher-sighting when it was supposed to be really about the fans. In fact, I believed anyone indulging in wishful-Cher-thoughts should have been set straight from the very beginning. But instead, the staff hung a big heavy "maybe" on the front door. She might come, she might not; it’s unconfirmed. They were harboring hopes of their own.

No, my own discomfort didn’t have anything overtly to do with Cher, but the fact that I’d been reading John Seabrook’s book Nobrow. Nobrow is partly about brand identity and losing your personal identity in the machinery of modern pop culture. And reading about this was having a fierce impact on my mood in respect to my own major and minor pop culture obsessions. I once loved the idea of fan conventions, but now I could see around this event a subtle halo of delusion. And I felt more deluded the more involved I became.

3 Cher Impersonators:
'70s, '80s, '90s

As an outsider at a fan convention, like I was at Beatlefest and KISS Expo, I could act like the bemused critic. I could stand on the fringe and tsk tsk. It’s a big relief. You can be so uncommitted, untainted, untouchable. It’s too easy.

I think back to the when I got involved in CherCon, when I started getting involved with people I didn’t have much in common with besides one single idea or fascination. But then that describes just about every convention in the universe. I’ve been to educational conventions, animal rights conventions, fan conventions. It’s all the same. Strangers come in and out of your life so intensely and quickly. It’s actually exciting to mingle with strangers, impassioned around a central theme. And then you disperse into the world again like white fuzz off a dandelion.

'90s Cher Jeffrey Thomas in the Believe-fit.
Read an interview with Jeffrey in The Zine.

All conventions, especially fan conventions, have a dark side. Conventions are built upon obsessions. I hate to say this. Like I’ll be alienating myself from a small group of people who were, on the surface, very nice to me. I met some great people. I met some people I respected, creative Cher commentators. I met nice, interesting people. I met people I became friends with, specifically Jo Kozlowski and Julie Robinson, my fan zine co-editors. But then we bonded over the zine. They helped me out of a bind that weekend and immediately I could relate to their sense of hesitation, as if they were standing on the fringes of this event as bemused critics, themselves. Because I was an auxiliary staff member, I didn’t have that luxury.

The pivotal sentiment that compels you to a) host a convention or b) be willing to fly in for one is, let’s face it, a little nutty. Celebrity Obsession, as fun as it is, is problematic. And sometimes, you cross the line.

And I love pop culture. What I hate is when my whole identity gets sucked up into it. It’s like wearing a brand on a t-shirt, what you wear or who you like always has to say something about who you are. Who you are a fan of – this is not a statement of disinterested judgment, as Seabrook comments in Nobrow. No way. It’s an encapsulated statement symbolizing the essence of you, and also essentially limiting you, which is why people string outrageously diverse pop tastes together, as if to say, "I’m diverse."

Wayne Smith as '80s Cher
in the infamous After-All-Fit.

I have been an outsider in that room full of fans. I have ridiculed. I went to Beatlefest with an obsessed Beatle fan and because I like the Beatles, I tried to be sympathetic. I went to KISS Expo with Julie. She was kind of a self-deprecating fan, herself, and I didn’t feel the need to mock. But there’s plenty to mock about the Kiss army, a bunch so obsessively pro-metal and anti-new-wave – so out-of-date, their enemies are already gone and they haven’t even noticed. Yeah, it’s easy to mock superior. Which I’m sure many did when reading about CherCon in USA Today, or Entertainment Weekly (coverage that impressed my friends), or the AP stories that reached all the way around the world to Australia. And I’m sure my own friends raised an eyebrow or two, as did the people I work with. You see their heads shaking as they scoff, "get a life." And as they’re saying it, bang, bang: the judgment is passed . They actually strip you of your life. You are categorized and assigned the characteristic personality the celebrity brand demands. What does being a Cher fan say about me? Low-brow? Ball-buster? Does it mean I like wearing thong-bikinis, fishnet stockings and towering wigs? For one instant, I become two-dimensional, like a cardboard cut-out of a person, like those rock-star cut-outs in record stores. The crime comes full circle. The fan and the star have both become dimensionalized, dehumanized. A perfect pop culture transaction. It’s enough to make you run from a fan convention, screaming "give me back my 3D life!" But honestly, I’m afraid for my life. Like its being deflated. Like when I’m dead, my obituary will read, "Cher fan." It’s cultural quicksand.

And I hate to say that because I invested something like months in a brilliant fanzine, if I do say so myself. And I’m not trying to distance myself from it. On the contrary, I’m trying to sell it! But I’ve also made an investment in a whole slew of other pop culture crap, a real intellectual/physical/monetary investment in being a poet, in my essays, in my family history and all the people and animals I love.

There were good things about the convention: the people there. I did talk to some smart fans, fans who had distance from the celebrity brand, the whole product. As I see it, there are two types of obsessed fans. Type A fans who are prone to say things like "This is my favorite person. I have to meet this person!" Well, this doesn't make much sense to me. How can your favorite person be someone you’ve never met? It’s almost a physical impossibility. But then these fans would vehemently disagree with that. This defines them as Type A fans. I’m not that kind of fan. Type B fans would much rather talk with other fans about the Stars album than make awkward conversation with some celebrity. But still, this differentiation doesn’t mean I’m in the clear, identity-wise. It just means I’m more reasonably situated on the obsession pendulum. Just like a Trekkie, I still know all the corridors of the Enterprise and that says something about me.

Me in my $119/night room at the Congress, Room 813. I had a great bathtub.
I loved it. It was an old porcelain cavernous tub. I took a bath every night.


Cher Convention Saga Part Two


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