Why I Don’t Want To Be Famous Anymore: Dispatches From An LA Reject

When it comes to abusive relationships, people always ask, “why do they stay?” I understand why they stay better than most. I lived with a couple who threw things at each other; the girl eventually had to mace the guy one night when he was in a rage. By hearing every word of their fights through the wall, I gained an understanding of why she stayed—but that’s not reallyhow I know why people stay. I know why people stay, because I know why I stayed. I know why I stayed in that apartment, not to mention in other apartments, in certain friendships, and in contact with the majority of my family. Sometimes things suck, but you just can’t leave.

In the end, most of these situations left me rather than the other way around. Leases expired, school years ended, and it came time to move out of my parents’ house. In the meantime, I had to hang out in some pretty unpleasant situations, not fully knowing when I’d get out. Feeling trapped can cast a pall over everything with the knowledge that you have to go back to that apartment later, or to that job the next day. (Many of my generation probably feel this way about the whole world, to be honest.) This feeling adds the unpleasantness of whatever you’re going through to the horrible impotence of knowing that this situation can inflict itself on you as long as it wants, and you can’t do anything about it. I’ve written before [link] about the claustrophobic feeling of waking up and going to sleep every day in a situation you feel like you can never escape. But this time I’m here to write about something a little nicer: realizing you actually can.

I moved to LA a little over a year ago, and I decided to move to LA about a year and a half ago. I dragged out the process of leaving New York for almost six months, because the pain of saying goodbye to Prospect Park was too much. By contrast, when I decided to leave LA, I made the whole thing happen in three weeks. Funny how you can spend months and years thinking you have to spend the rest of your life in a situation, but then in just one moment, riding the subway during your first time back in New York in almost a year, you just realize you don’t have to. You never did.

And once you realize it, of course, you leave. There’s no question. No rationalizations of why you’re doing it that repeat in your head like annoying song lyrics, no self-directed pep talks about why what you’re doing is the best for your career in the long run—nothing but the adrenaline rush you get when you nearly get run over by a car and jump out of the way just in time. You’re okay, and it’s surreal how okay you are, vs. how not okay you were about to be. You cheated death, while still getting a good whiff of the grave. What you thought was unavoidable has suddenly been 100% avoided, and all the things you were dreading about your “ideal” future can be wiped from your mind, or put all together in a file labeled “bullets I’ve dodged.” You can get back to what you now realize was your “real life” all along, instead of the “dream job” you haven’t actually wanted for a long time.

I’m gushing. Forgive me; the past month has been intense. Let me back up: 

“Hollywood’s a real pretty town that’s built on all that black tar. By the time you realize you’re sinking, it’s too late.” — Charlotte, Bojack Horseman.

Winter has always been my favorite season. The more bracing the cold, the better. At home in Chicago I like to walk by Lake Michigan and let the wind nearly scrape my face off. People are always asking me aren’t you cold? because I never wear a hat or gloves, but I don’t want or need them. They get in the way. The thing is, when you’re faced with the stark indifference of nature, you become so viscerally aware that you’re alive—that you’re alive because your heart is pumping blood through your veins which your body has heated to 98.6 degrees out of sheer stubborn will to live; that your body heat leaks out of your skin, because your energy cannot be contained. It will take a lot more than a walk in the snow to kill this body of yours; it has been forged in the crucible of evolution to be an apex predator, a survivor, a settler of parts unknown. 

In LA, you almost forget that side of humanity. There’s nothing there you need to “survive,” not physically anyway. It’s almost as if while winter brings out your heat, LA’s eternal mildness gives you a similarly lukewarm mood. LA is the city version of musak. Every city block feels the same, and the primary construction styles are strip malls and skyscrapers, so it’s not a good same. The entire place is concrete, so you always feel like you’re on one of the highways that dominate the city. The sun is so bright you feel like there’s nowhere to hide. People keep their drapes closed at all times because of the sun, so when you visit people’s apartments it feels like a sick person is being quarantined there, or like there’s been a death recently. Everyone’s apartments are in motel-like complexes, so it feels like they’re vacationing in LA and for some reason you’re going over to their motel instead of hanging out with them somewhere else. Even the palm trees are alien-looking, a testament to an environment that’s not even hard to live in, just strange. (San Fernando Valley? More like uncanny valley, am I right?!) When I lived in LA, I used to pretend I was an astronaut on a mission to colonize another planet. This fantasy fit nicely with the terrain, and the feeling of isolation it breeds.

When they heard all this, people would generally ask me that eternal question, “so why do you stay?” My stock reply was “oh, I may not like it as much as New York, but it’s where The Work is, you know?” But that’s not quite why I stayed. People stay in abusive relationships because they convince themselves it’s not so bad. (“It’s not so bad, this is where The Work is!”) And when they do admit that it’s bad, they try to convince themselves it will get better somehow, when their partner gets a job or when they manage to become the perfect version of themselves to please their partner (“When I’m at the top of the Work ladder, I’ll be a lot happier here!”). When the situation is at its worst, it comes out that deep down, they believe they deserve it (“You gotta #hustle to get to the top, after all!” or maybe “You need a thick skin to make it in this business!”). LA, and the industry which is right up there with cars as a defining characteristic of that city, are the kind of situations that get you thinking along these lines.

What I’m saying is nothing new; plenty of people have hated LA before me and will long after I’m gone. Before I went to LA, I got my ideas about what it was like there from Bojack Horseman, a show all about hating LA but not leaving. In the first season of Bojack, a character describes LA as a tar pit. In literal terms, there is only one part of LA that is a tar pit, but metaphorically the whole place definitely is. Bojack is about how each of the principal characters has gotten sucked into the tar pit, and their attempts, usually unsuccessful, to get out. It’s kind of funny that many of the characters are animals, since the one time I actually saw the La Brea tar pits it prompted a mental image of Bojack and Princess Carolyn sinking alongside the plastic wooly mammoths. 

“The key to being happy isn’t a search for meaning. It’s to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually, you’ll be dead.” — Mr. Peanut Butter, Bojack Horseman

Despite the show’s main gimmick being talking animals, the Bojack character whose sinking I most identify with is human: Diane Nguyen, the stock bleeding-heart idealist of the show. I’ve always joked that I’m literally Diane. During the first season, that was generally a good thing—the Diane of the first season is a clever, emotionally intelligent young woman who knows who she is. But as Bojack progresses, her involvement with Hollywood makes her increasingly uncomfortable, and she doesn’t handle it well. Her ill-fated marriage with Mr. Peanut Butter is a synecdoche of her relationship to Hollywood—in short, she doesn’t like it, but she stays.

Diane’s essential conflict is between her moral principles and her material complacency. Her typical plotline for a season of Bojack looks like this: Diane gets a new job involving Hollywood or pop culture. She is forced to compromise her ideals for this job (in season four, Diane works for Girl Croosh, a feminist™ website where she has to write clickbait instead of the hard-hitting journalism she wants to do). She eventually reaches a point where she finally can’t take it anymore and asserts her ideals, bringing down criticism on the project she’s been involved with (in season one, Diane leaks a draft of her book about Bojack rather than make cuts to her masterpiece like he wants). After some damage control, she then turns the controversy into a success at the price of cheapening the idealism behind what she did. (In season three, when she causes a false pregnancy scandal for the celebrity she writes tweets for, she stages a fake abortion for that celebrity as a publicity stunt.)

Through this cycle of compromise she lands a job as a writer on a TV show where her sole function is to fend off accusations that the show is sexist, and eventually ends up helping Bojack cover up his assault of a costar. She becomes like Meryl Streep or so many other people who knew about Harvey Weinstein and so many others, but did nothing. She entered the industry trying to do good, but it proves impossible—every change she tries to make just gets absorbed back into the morass of Hollywood and twisted to fit into the system’s terms.

If I had stayed in LA, my best case scenario would have been ending up like Diane—trapped in an abusive relationship with LA/ the industry. (I guess the moral of Bojack is that your most abusive relationship is with yourself, but you know what I mean.) Every day I would have gone to work and accepted the unacceptable because that’s what you have to do to stay in that system. I would justify it by telling myself that at some point I would get close enough to the top to change the system so I wouldn’t have to compromise anymore—so that no one would ever have to compromise again!! I would conveniently forget that no frat guy pays his dues for his whole four years of college only to propose the whole fraternity no longer require dues. Likewise, I would forget that anyone rushing a frat with the stated goals of changing fundamental aspects of the frat’s culture probably would not get punched for the frat. 

The fact is, you don’t get into a frat or the film industry unless you’re willing to play ball, which both in frats and the film industry often means committing and condoning rape. The reason #MeToo was so sorely needed was because despite the people fighting against rape culture in the film industry, rape culture is endemic to the Hollywood studio system. That’s why the activists within the system are needed! When we capitulate to such systems, we reach a place where we’ve gotten older and still feel like the idealists we once were, but we have to think about covering up Bojack choking his costar or slashing the wages of our most economically vulnerable employees and know that we could have done better—but we didn’t. It’s not even fully Diane’s fault—the system both draws you in and forces you in a million tiny ways to change into the kind of person that upholds it. 

You may be thinking, “sure, this all sounds horrible, but what can people do about it?” My answer is that we can leave.

“Your job is to pump out garbage every year…until you retire to a three-point-five bedroom garbage in Beverly Garbage and spend the rest of your life watching your former assistant’s garbage.” — Bojack Horseman, to his TV-exec girlfriend.

When we were young, most of us dreamed of being famous when we grew up. That was because the media we consumed used the famous people acting in its shows and singing its top-40 hits to tell us that being famous is the best possible thing to be. This is the proverbial carrot to the stick. We suffer at studio jobs because we believe we can get to the heaven at the top of the career ladder where we will never suffer again. We think we’ll be the exception who makes it big, so we don’t have to worry about making sure everyone else has good working conditions—after all, we’ll be on the red carpet next year; who cares if the people we leave behind don’t have health care? 

We also grew up believing that fame is a zero-sum game: All About Eve shows us how Bette Davis becomes less famous as her young ingenue rival becomes more famous, and every female celebrity is shoehorned into paparazzi narratives about catfights with other female celebrities over who has more of the spotlight. In short, when we’re not fighting each other for survival, we’re fighting each other for success. In both situations, we do this because we believe that survival and success are both limited, and that we have to get both those things from people at the top rather than from each other. None of this is true.

The question is, how do we remake the film industry, and the art world in general, into a place that’s habitable for humans? How do we create dynamics that don’t make young people dependent on people like Harvey Weinstein, who assault them and then threaten to ruin their careers if they tell anyone? The answer is turning from corporations to communities: artists supporting other artists, and I don’t mean through Patreon. This also means artists going from just collaborating on art together, to collaborating on building a whole life together. What does that look like? Imagine this:

Do you, like many millennials, dream of eventually living communally with a bunch of your friends instead of in a nuclear family? You can do that! And you can lend your couch to people you know who don’t have shelter, cook a meal for someone who’s having trouble paying for groceries, or volunteer to pay more rent if your roommates have less stable income than you. (If you don’t know anyone like this, then make an effort to seek them out. There are more than you probably think.) From these small acts of helping you can get to group potlucks/ reading nights, pooling funds for theater space or film budgets, and connecting with other communities like yours on the way. Nurture a culture of interdependency and mutual giving that will provide us all with more stability in an age where most of us will never find stability in our jobs. To quote Bojack one more time: “in this terrifying world, all we have are the connections that we make.”

In LA, things feel atomized. You leave your house, get on the highway, and pop out at your destination. There could be outer space or desert wastelands in between for all you know. The whole city is like that; little points of existence instead of a connected whole. Like the characters in Bojack Horseman, each individual place and thing in LA feels terribly, crushingly alone. Now that I’ve left, I want to entwine with my new environment, put down roots that make me feel supported by my social networks and grow fruit that will nourish my loved ones. Rather than a palm tree that grows tough bark all the way up its trunk and keeps its greenery for the very top, I want to be part of a deciduous ecosystem of people.

You may be wondering, “that all sounds nice, but how do I win an Oscar like that?”Weeeeell… The price of this change is extracting our definitions of success from the narratives the film industry uses. Remember how fame and success are the carrots to the stick? This alternative strategy creates communities and artworks that operate on a smaller scale than top-10 movies, but that give people an opportunity to make authentic work outside of the framework that exploits us. We leave behind giant systems where we don’t get a say, to create smaller ones where we can live life more or less on our own terms. We won’t get rich, and we probably won’t get famous, but together we’ll survive—and if we learn to define success differently, we can also succeed.

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