The Danger of Befriending Celebrities

Once upon a time, nightlife journalist Michael Musto didn’t set the strongest boundaries with the boldfaced names he covered.

Michael Musto | Longreads | February 2020 | 8 minutes (2,000 words)

Meryl Streep doesn’t call me every week to go bowling. In fact, she doesn’t call me at all. And that’s a good thing. I honestly can’t recommend becoming friends with celebrities, especially if you’re a long running journalist like I am. It simply will not lead to a Hollywood ending.

As appealing as they are, celebrities are used to being the center of attention, so you’d have to subvert your ego and go into full-blown ass-kiss mode in order to even be vaguely tolerable to them. Stars live for the spotlight, and in many cases, it’s all about them, even when they pretend it’s about you. (And I like things to be about me, thank you.) What’s more, as a journalist, I’d be blurring all sorts of lines and throwing away objectivity in order to snuggle up to my famous “friends.” And they’d only be nice in return because I’m press — and/or an ass kisser — so they’d have to feign some kind of kinship while pretending that all of my hideously annoying quirks are absolutely adorable. Yes, they’d be good at acting the part, but it’s so much better for both parties to just avoid this potential landmine and don’t go there. Don’t call me, Meryl! Don’t even text!

***

My first celebrity friend was the late Sylvia Miles, a twice-Oscar nominated actress (Midnight Cowboy; Farewell, My Lovely) whom I interviewed in the 1970s, admiring the fact that she’d made it big while preserving her originality and chutzpah. I ended up becoming Sylvia’s escort to various nightclubs and events when I was in my early 20s and felt like I’d landed in a pot of glitter.

My first celebrity friend was the late Sylvia Miles, a twice-Oscar nominated actress, whom I interviewed in the 1970s, admiring the fact that she’d made it big while preserving her originality and chutzpah.

To my impressionable eyes, Sylvia was glamorous and exciting, though I also started to find her a tad narcissistic, as the scales fell from my eyes and I became indoctrinated into the celebrity world by association. A night out with Sylvia involved her primping in mirrors, begging photographers to take her photo, and chasing down directors, demanding that they hire her. I started to feel like I was accompanying Norma Desmond and was always torn between the thrill of hanging with an Oscar nominee and the dread I usually felt, knowing that the experience wouldn’t be all that fun.

One night, at the legendary disco Studio 54, I was dying to run free of Sylvia’s clutches and hang out with some friends my own age, since I was young, hormonal, and ready to explore. I actually summoned the nerve to stray from her side, but then when I crawled back her way, she chastised me, as if I’d been a very bad boy. I hadn’t fulfilled my end of the unspoken bargain we’d struck; I was to be her walker and stand in support as she hunted for career ops, while in exchange she was willing to grant me entrée to things and lend me whatever starshine she could spare. After her death in June of 2019, I was told by a mutual friend that Sylvia felt she’d introduced me to everyone who’d helped my career. That was a wild exaggeration, but as a fulcrum for New York party society at that time, she did hook me up with all sorts of movers and shakers. So, she wasn’t just about herself; she had been generous. There were other joys in knowing Sylvia — a smart and talented person — but I still maintain that a friendship between us was a bad idea. The press/talent divide should never be crossed, even if there’s an open bar and a gift bag on the other side.

***

Since meeting Sylvia those many years ago, I’ve had hints of celebrity friendships, but I usually find that stars give me very warm hellos and swear that they adore me — until they feel I’ve betrayed them in some way. I’ve brilliantly come to realize that it was my column these luminaries actually adored, not me as a person! I’ve actually heard whinnies of “I worship you” and “I’m obsessed with you” from famous folk, until I make a wrong turn and end up at the top of their hit list. Various award winning actors have acted like I’m their bestie when I run into them, but after one review that’s less than a rave, they will give me the side-eye as a chill freezes my spine. “I thought we were friends,” I’m always dying to say to them, but they’re probably anxious to run up to me and say the very same thing.


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Carrie Fisher wasn’t exactly a friend — we didn’t go to the movies together — but we had a fun rapport and she always seemed to understand that I wanted lively copy, so she delivered. During my 1991 interview with her in a hotel room, a toweled man surprisingly lurched out of the shower, upon which Carrie joked, “It’s my homosexual lover.” But it wasn’t really a joke; it turned out to be Bryan Lourd, the bisexual man with whom she later had a daughter (actress Billie Lourd).

During the same outrageous interview, Carrie impulsively decided that she and I should exchange underwear for her book party that night, so she ran into the other room and came back with a pair of her panties for me to wear. I must admit I felt very close with her at that moment; I thought she was an absolute riot, and just my kind of celebrity. And I always joke that I wore her panties and stayed home that night, perfectly at peace. (In reality, I did stay home — I knew I couldn’t top our interview experience that day — but I put her undies in a treasured drawer, where they still reside.)

After Carrie’s death in December of 2016, I got booked to talk about her on various TV shows, some of which announced me as having been way closer with Carrie than I actually was. One show practically had us as BFFs and made it seem like I was there to reveal her previously untold inner workings. “I’m basically just a journalist who was friendly with her,” I’d have to explain, knowing that a real friendship would have been impossible — and inadvisable. Carrie was simply playing the part of a celebrity giving a journalist what he wants, while also selling her books with her on-the-record antics. Feeding me the illusion of friendship was very savvy, and kind of delightful too, since we were both in on the game.

The same went for caustic comic Joan Rivers, who co-hosted an event for me, invited me to her house for dinner, and generally was lovely and amenable, though I felt that we were simply “show biz accomplices,” hardly best friends. In other words, I wrote Joan up constantly and she stroked me with nice behavior, like giving me great interviews and hosting that event (which suited her own purposes since she loved keeping busy and despised downtime). But if I ever fell off my bike, I knew Joan wasn’t the one I’d call for help — I would never have bothered her, and we weren’t that kind of buds anyway!

But I never learned.

***

Last November, I was seated with Rose McGowan at a dinner and got to reconnect with the charismatic actress (and #MeToo whistleblower). I had a great time talking with her and wondered if this might lead to future schmoozing. (I always forget the rules when under the spell of celebrity.) At one point, I mentioned a certain Broadway show and highly recommended that Rose see it. She was interested, so I told her I’d hook her up with the publicist, who could set her up with house seats. Rose liked that idea, so I told her I’d DM her with the information. The second I got home, I dutifully emailed the publicist with a heads up on the situation and also DM’d Rose with the info. She didn’t answer. Most likely, she’s bombarded with messages, doesn’t always check all of them, and had moved on to other concerns. Our friendship was not to be — and that’s a good thing. It’s best that I admire these people as a press person, not a ticket agent or facilitator!

Clockwise from center: Michael Musto, Randy Allen (dressed as Bette Davis), Sylvia Miles, Quentin Crisp, and Gary Coleman at Musto’s birthday party at Club USA in February 1993 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Catherine McGann/Getty Images)

I was still reeling from my behavior involving a young Broadway actor whose work I like. Over three years ago, he had introduced himself to me on the street, coming off quite affable and chummy. Some time later, in a fit of silliness, I messaged him, saying I like to make up food nicknames for people and wondering if I could call him “Broccoli Rabe,” adding, “How would you like it pronounced?” There was no method to this madness, just pure, wacky line blurring while trying to engage a Broadway name in my personal giggle. He responded with a funny answer and even posted photos of that very food item. I thought it was classy of him to play along, but I started to feel guilty that I had put him in an awkward position, not to mention my having gotten way too informal for a reviewer. I guess I’ve always been more of a “columnist/personality” than a journo — I didn’t go to Journalism school, I swear — so I had to keep learning to step off the red carpet and simply cover it. I have to admit I did message the guy again, but only after I ran into him at a party and we got to talking about a certain classic movie he’d never seen. I was reminding him that he had to catch up with it. Again, I should have just shut my piehole.

There was also a singer who I actually did think of as a friend — we had someone in common — but at an event not long ago, he chatted with me for 10 seconds, then gave me a very obvious brushoff, pretty much urging me to keep walking. Eyes opened again.

***

Which brings me back to the “Have you seen movies together?” challenge. That’s the kind of thing real friends do, and no way could I count any celebrity as a pal unless we’d shared that kind of friendly outing.

Carrie Fisher was simply playing the part of a celebrity giving a journalist what he wants…Feeding me the illusion of friendship was very savvy, and kind of delightful too, since we were both in on the game.

Well, I did see movies with Sylvia Miles. In 1980, we caught the Olivia Newton-John sci-fi musical Xanadu in a large, empty Times Square theater. We had our pick of seats and were able to sprawl out in comfort and leave all the red carpets behind for a night. The glitzy film, which improbably involved disco, big bands, and the Nine Muses of Olympus, was reportedly awful, though the soundtrack was among the most popular of the year. But as Sylvia and I sat there, we weren’t all that horrified. In fact, we looked at each other several times throughout, as if to say, “This is pretty rotten, but it’s kind of kitsch-ily enjoyable.” And so, Sylvia turned out to be a real celebrity friend, one whom I could occasionally have an actual human experience with. Besides, she and I were cut from the same cloth — ambitious, New York-y, insecure, interested in straddling both the mainstream and the underground, and always striving for attention.

Would I have tolerated some of Sylvia’s behavior if she weren’t famous? Nope. And would she have put up with my relative blandness if I hadn’t been so available and (usually) devoted? No — which is the main reason friendships between celebrities and mortals should not happen. The balance of power is skewed. It’s not an even match. Don’t do it under any circumstances. But I’m pretty certain that if Meryl decides that she wants me to go with her to see Little Women, I’m there — and if it’s bowling, even better. I’ll even let her win.

* * *

Michael Musto is a weekly columnist for NewNowNext.com and a freelance writer for outlets from the New York Times Styles section to the Daily Beast. He was the longtime author of the “La Dolce Musto” entertainment and nightlife column for the Village Voice and has authored four books, including the non-fiction guide “Downtown” and the roman a clef novel “Manhattan on the Rocks.” Musto is an awards-related commentator for Goldderby.com and as such appears on CNN to discuss the Oscars and other entertainment topics.

Editor: Sari Botton