Tuesday, May 10, 2016

My Life As a "Z" List Celebrity

So everybody has heard about "A" list and "B" list celebrities.  Then Kathy Griffin made light of this by proclaiming herself as a "D" list celebrity.  But now the attention paid to "celebrities" has gotten so out of hand that people like myself have become borderline celebrities, which I'll refer as being on the celebrity "Z" list.

I'm not sure what makes a celebrity in today's world, but there are celebrity doctors, celebrity dentists, and celebrity real estate brokers.  A former co-worker has been described as a celebrity real estate developer.  I wouldn't be surprised if there were celebrity plumbers and celebrity gardeners. Having been referred to as a "celebrity diner" seems to put me in a similar category.

While I'm not sure exactly what makes a celebrity these days, my own experience does provide some clues.  When Clarissa Wei wrote her profile about me for L.A. Weekly  I considered the piece to be something of limited interest, just to Los Angeles area foodies.  I had been corresponding with Clarissa about Chinese restaurants when I casually mentioned that I had eaten at over 6,000 of them. Immediately she jumped on the topic and asked whether anybody had ever written me up.  My response was "Why would anybody do that?"  In a week's time we had scheduled the interview, she wrote her article, and it was posted on the L.A. Weekly website.   Even when the article was reprinted the next day by the Huffington Post, I figured interest was still foodie centered, just without a geographic limitation.  But things really got weird by the end of the week when the story was picked up on People.com as their lead current story.  That led to dozens of celebrity websites around the world reproducing the People article, even a Bollywood celebrity website in India.  I think that sequence was sufficient to push me onto the "Z" list, at least for 15 minutes.

Of course I would have quickly become a has been celebrity if not for intervening events. Those learning I had eaten at over 6,000 Chinese restaurants presumed (though mistakenly so) that made me an expert on Chinese food,  Days after the 6,000 restaurant article was posted, I received a request from the Asia Society to do a listing of the top Chinese restaurants in the United States.  When I looked at the listing I came up with, each and every one was located in California, seven in the Los Angeles area and three in the San Francisco Bay area.  Knowing that such lists  usually published were invariably diverse geographically, I penned an aside to the editor explaining why my list only contained California restaurant, and including some fairly disparaging (though accurate) comments about the sorry state of Chinese food in New York.  To my initial horror, the Asia Society editor published not only the top 10 listing, but also my explanation of why all the restaurants were in California.  Well, the internet immediately blew up, with New Yorkers incensed at having their Chinese food insulted.  My name was mud on restaurant message boards such as Mouthfuls and Chowhounds, though a few brave California partisans defended my point of view.  Indeed, the furor was so great that I didn't bother following any of the aftermath.  Consequently, it wasn't until two years later when I sat down to meet with the editor, Tahiat Mahboob, at the Asia Society offices on the Upper East Side of Manhattan that I learned how wide the readership of that article was, including 3,000 Facebook likes and 300 tweets, including one by New York Times editor Sam Sifton.

All the publicity led to invitations to regularly write about Chinese food, answering random requests for Chinese dining recommendations, and an appearance in the movie The Search for General Tso. A year later, another biographical profile, this time by Frank Shyong in the Los Angeles Times, who came across my name while searching restaurant message boards looking for Chinese restaurants to take his parents to eat, spread my story to even wider audiences.  Then ABC news came calling with its own interview, going so far as to say they were also dispatching a Good Morning America television crew to do an in-person interview.  Unfortunately, in this post-9/11 world I knew that I would need to get clearance from the building management in the Century City office building I was working in, and by the time the film crew and building management had worked out the details (including insurance coverage), the window for the interview had closed.

There are a number of indications that I'm still a "Z" list celebrity even four years after Clarissa Wei's article.  I have "acting" credit listings on "The Numbers" website and the New York Times film credit database for my appearance in the Search For General Tso food documentary. Attending screenings for the General Tso movie at the Tribeca  Film Festival and in Hollywood, I was introduced in the post-screening discussion as a special guest in the audience.  And on both occasions I was approached by numerous attendees after the discussion wrapped up.  Oh and I do have people I refer to as my “agent” (Judy Isozaki), my “business manager" (Gordon Chow) and my “publicist” (Linda K).  But since I’ve never earned anything from being a Z list celebrity, their percentage of zero is zero.

I occasionally receive random media interview requests, including two in New York earlier this year from people who figured out I was in their town based on my current tweets.  I was twice asked by the same reality cooking show to be a guest cook on the show, premised on food critics presumably making themselves look silly by preparing their favorite restaurant dishes.   Another time, after a live presentation on Chinese food at Jet Propulsion Laboratories, a member of the audience came up to me and asked if he could pay me to speak at a family reunion. And even at work, when we had a department meeting in Washington DC, and a new hire in the DC office was introduced, when some of the other attendees asked me about any new developments in my eating career, the new hire said "Oh, you're the guy I read about!"   I was even referred to as a "guest star" in a comment about one of the interviews I gave earlier this year.

But the primary indication of borderline celebrity is that on a handful of occasions I have been approached by strangers who have read about me or seen the General Tso movie.  Some people assume this happens all the time, but in fact these encounters have been particularly surprising to me. While I know a lot of people have heard about the crazy lawyer who's eaten at over 6,000 Chinese restaurants (now approaching 7,000 restaurants), I'm quite sure only a small percentage of them remember my name or know what I look like.  So to be at the same place and same time as one of these people, and have them both recognize and approach me spontaneously, is something that I wouldn't expect to happen. So to Sherwin Goo, Nate Gray, Jason Silletti, Vince Wong, Joe from Chubby Rice Restaurant in Hawthorne, CA, and Louise Yang, a tip of the hat for putting me on the "Z" list.

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