The impression you form of a celebrity, someone you see regularly on television or in the newspapers, is often very different to the ‘real person’ when you meet them in the flesh.
Sometimes it can be an exhilarating experience, other times a disappointment. Often they’re just an ass!
Over the years, I’ve bumped into a number of people with varying degrees of fame, some just for a brief minute and others I’ve had the pleasure of engaging in conversation.
These are the ones that spring most readily in mind:
1. Gary Player
I met golfer Gary Player at a charity event at his estate just outside of Johannesburg in the late 1990s. Winner of nine majors and over a 100 tournaments in his career, it was a pleasure talking to this legendary sportsman surrounded by his glass cabinets filled to bursting with his golfing trophies. We talked about the future of South Africa and what the young people needed to do to make the country work. I recall him being very optimistic about the future, very easy to talk to and a real gentlemen. This is of course the guy who said: “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.”
2. Spike Lee
I very briefly met film director Spike Lee, outside the Union Buildings, Pretoria, about 1999. He had just been part of a press conference with then South African president Thabo Mbeki to promote a television commercial he was shooting for one or other charity. He was getting into a car and I said to him: “Spike I am a great fan of your movies.” He turned around and said: “Oh yeah, which ones?” I told him “Do the right thing,” was my favourite.
3. Gary Bailey
I met Gary Bailey, who was goal-keeper for Manchester United in nearly 300 hundred games, at a sports press conference in Johannesburg and remember he was very much like his on-camera persona (he hosts the Premier League show on Supersport in South Africa) – warm, friendly and sincere.
Michael Madsen played ‘Mr White’, the psychopathic criminal in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Reservoir Dogs’, a film I idolised. He came to London while I was writing for an accountancy magazine (AccountancyAge.com) to attend a press conference to launch a film he was producing and to star in called “Red Light Runners’ (which I don’t think was ever made). It was being funded by some new tax ruling, which was why I was there. Entirely, inappropriately, after the press conference, I asked Madsen to sign my press pack, which he did. He looked a lot older and dishevelled compared to the cool character he played on-screen – dancing around his victim to “Stuck in the middle with you” with a switch-blade. Still it was a bit of a thrill to meet him briefly. Needless to say, I lost the press pack with Madsen’s autograph.
I met Johnny Vegas (you may have seen him in Black Books, episodes of QI or doing his stand-up routine) also while working on the Accountancy magazine. We attended an awards night in Newcastle on a bitterly cold night, though it didn’t stop the local girls from wearing virtually nothing I recall. Johnny was the entertainment at St James Park (home of Newcastle United football team). He arrived on stage with a tray of Guinness pints, proceeded to get pissed, and then after the show we all joined him for drinks at a nearby pub. He has a really magnetic character, very charming and you should have seen the number of beautiful women hanging off every word of this rotund, jovial man. I got chatting to him about rugby – he is a rugby league fan (coming from the north of England) but we got to chatting about rugby union and I remember him telling me how much he enjoyed the game and was a big fan of the Springboks.
6. Bruce Grobbelaar
Anyone who is a Liverpool fan will know who Bruce Grobbelaar is . He played for the club in the 1980s and 1990s and was capable of being an unbelievable goalkeeper on his day, but also able to make the silliest mistakes. His career was tainted by match-fixing claims. I met him at an FA Cup event in a pub in Johannesburg. He was signing autographs on the back of beer coasters. He didn’t seem particularly pleased to be there and can’t say I left with a good impression of the man.
Dara O’ Briain is probably most recognisable as a frequent guest on Stephen Fry’s QI show on the ABC. I met him when he was less well-known, but hosting our annual Accountancy Age awards in London. Being Irish, he was very friendly, talked a lot, said “ehm” instead of “um” and was also charming and funny.
8. Baby Jake Matlala
Jacob ‘Baby Jake’ Matlala is a legend in South African boxing. He measures all of 4 foot 10 inches, but was an incredibly tough opponent in the ring as a flyweight fighter and ended up with 53 victories from 68 fights and won four world titles. I found him to be very lively, enthusiastic and sweet in person. Like his jabs and punches, he talked at a rapid rate.
9. Peter FitzSimons
I met Peter FitzSimons very briefly backstage at the Australian Mortgage Awards. FitzSimons was the host and I was presenting one of the awards. He asked me, as we waited for the winner to come on stage, how the magazine was coming along (I was the editor then of a mortgage broking mag called Australian Broker), though I doubt he’d ever read it. But it was a nice thing to say. FitzSimons is a successful Australian non-fiction writer (mainly in relation to wars and battles), a journalist and columnist and played seven test matches at lock for the Wallabies.
10. Iain Banks
Iain Banks (or Iain M. Banks if you like science fiction-writing) is a best-selling writer, most famous for his novel “The Wasp Factory” a very, very dark, nasty bit of fiction, considered one of the best novels of the 20th century. I met him at a book signing at Exclusive Books in Hyde Park, Johannesburg. I brought an older, paperback copy of The Wasp Factory. He remarked that he didn’t often see this version of his book. Needless to say, I think I lost that autographed book as well.
11. Andie MacDowell
I am kind of fibbing on this one. I never actually met her, perhaps “stalking” would be more accurate. I was kind of obsessed with Andie MacDowell, the model turned Hollywood actress, when I found myself in the Tate Modern Art gallery in London one afternoon, and there she was looking at paintings all on her own. I had a picture of her in my bedroom and loved her in Green Card, Groundhog Day and Short Cuts, perhaps it was her Southern accent that really appealed to me. Anyway, I ended up following her, from a discreet distance as she walked from room to room at the Tate Modern. Only for a few rooms mind you. If I wasn’t so star struck, I might actually have ventured a conversation. “What does this piece say to you Andie?” is perhaps the question I was pondering in my head.