Real life

My Old Friend’s A Star
The Times
by Sean Thomas
November 01, 2002

When an old friend suddenly becomes famous and successful it can seem exciting. But then other emotions stir, such as jealousy and envy. Our correspondent explains his feelings about his celebrity chums

IF YOU HAVE WATCHED TV in the past few weeks you will be aware of the fresh and significant comic presence of Ricky Gervais. Clever, sharp, sardonic, talented, Gervais is the co-writer, co-director and star of the BBC’s award-winning sitcom The Office.

I am especially aware of the newly minted showbiz persona that is Ricky because years ago we were friends. In the early 1980s Ricky was reading English at University College London. I was doing philosophy. Ricky was a wannabe star (he was trying to become a pop star), and I was a wannabe writer. As we drank in the same student bars, it seemed perfect that I should write a profile of his band for the New Musical Express.

The band failed, through no fault of Ricky’s. Yes, he was a tad vain, yes, he wore diamant earrings, but he was a good singer, and the single was above average. In time we moved on and diverged. A couple of years later I bumped into him and it seemed that he had lost a bit of his bumptiousness. After that I didn’t see him for 15 years. Then a couple of years ago he appeared on TV as a comedian. I was stunned. Here was gifted-but-unlucky, funny-but-failed Ricky being famous. Admittedly he was chubbier than the cheek boned New Romantic I remembered’ but there was no denying it. He had made it.

I found myself unsure of how to deal with Ricky’s fame. Yes, I was pleased for him’ not least because, in his interviews, he seemed to have lost his angst and become more real, more at ease, more the Reading lad he originally was.But as I witnessed Ricky’s rise to fame I realized I had lots of other, more strange feelings about his fate. What were they? Envy? Shock? Resentment? Wistful empathy? Why was I so perturbed? Was I just fulfilling the maxim of the American writer Gore Vidal, who once said ‘Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies’? In a way I was lucky: my reactions would have been even more complicated if Ricky had made it while I had still known him. This is the fraught situation that causes real, painful dislocations’ to famous and non-famous alike.

Mark Griffiths is a professor at Nottingham Trent University who has researched these problems of celebrity, and he is convinced that friendships are commonly doomed when a friend becomes famous. ‘Merely looking at the practicalities, it’s difficult to stay mates when one of you has lots more money and success. If you both grew up in a council estate in Gateshead, and one of you suddenly moves to London, how are you going to stay close?’ Envy is half the problem. ‘I’ve known siblings who have fallen out terribly, and all because one of them has made it in some way,’ Griffiths says. It’s the jealousy thing. And when there isn’t even a blood tie to keep you together, the envy can be very corrosive.’

I can vouch for Griffith’s theories, because another old friend made it big’ in an even more spectacular and envy-inducing fashion than Ricky Gervais. This old mate was Gavin Rossdale. When I first knew him he was a glamorous failure, a charming public-school dude who had once had a record deal that went nowhere. For a few years in the mid-1980s Gavin and I went to the same parties, clubs and shebeens. Subsequently, He moved away, and was lost to my view. At one point I did hear that he was being vaguely unsuccessful in California.

Then, about a decade later, a mutual pal rang from Los Angeles and said: ‘Guess what, Gavin’s made it.’ Gavin was the lead singer of a grunge band called Bush, which was becoming the biggest UK band in America. Bush sold more than ten million albums, and the band members became unimaginably rich.

Soon after that, I saw a Bush gig advertised in London and decided to trot along. The band was fine, the songs were tight’ and I wasn’t allowed into the backstage party. This was because ‘no one knew who I was’. Tricky. Even worse, the next time I saw Gavin was in a vast arena near LA full of thousands of nubile Californian girls screaming ‘Gav-in! Gav-in!’ as my old chum expertly strutted the stage. I have to admit that at this point I found the vertiginous difference in our fates difficult to cope with.

Gavin didn’t. When I chatted to him at the after-gig bash, he was as charmingly Westminster-educated as ever, though he was more aloof, a bit distant. Perhaps this was because he was surrounded by admiring starlets.

As Griffiths explains, the social distance I felt with Gavin is not anyone’s fault: ‘When a friend becomes famous, everything is unbalanced. The social dynamic is altered. Imagine that you’re all having a drink as you used to, yet one of you is now a Hollywood star. He is bound to be the center of attention. He will be telling stories about Gwyneth and Brad. Then it’s your turn and, not surprisingly, you’re a bit embarrassed to mention your recent darts match. The friendship withers because ordinary people feel ashamed of their humbler lives. But it’s sad for the famous as well as the ordinary.’

One important fact in the case of both Gavin and Ricky, a fact that has served to prevent me being entirely consumed by envy, is that they are both talented and hard-working’ they’ve both striven over years for the success they now enjoy. How much more difficult might it have been if their fame had been undeserved and capricious, or bewilderingly sudden, like the fame of, say, the Big Brother people or Pop Idol? The evidence, surprisingly, is that this kind of fame is easier on the friends of the famous. ‘Because the Big Brother type of fame is accidental and transient, it’s easier to deal with,’ Griffiths says. ‘You need talent to sustain fame, and I fear that Craig and Bubble are not overburdened by talent. Their fame will quickly fade. But their friendships will probably endure.’

Neither is Pop Idol’s brand of sudden fame too destructive. I used to go out with a girl who was at Exeter Uni with Will Young’ the Pop Idol victor. She rebuts the idea that overnight fame has propelled him into some social stratosphere. ‘Will and me and my mates used to go drinking. I’ve seen him wobbling down a road in Exeter being sick. And he hasn’t changed that much since he won. He stays in touch. After he won Idol, but before he came out as gay, the tabloids were offering us £2,000 each to talk about his past. Nobody took it because he’s a mate.’

So what about Ricky Gervais and me? What happened when I finally bumped into the guy I have contrived to remember as an ‘old friend’? It was in the British Museum a few months ago when I saw Ricky strolling past the information counter. Hi, I said, remember me? Ricky stopped, smiled, and said ‘of course’ and was deftly charming. We talked about his band and the ancient NME interview. Then we shook hands, promised each other a drink, and went our separate ways. It was only as I emerged into the frost of a Bloomsbury evening that I realized he probably hadn’t recalled my name. Hah!

The Cheek Perforation Dance, by Sean Thomas, is published by Flamingo Books on November 4