AHAP#4: Spotting a celebrity

Location: the small courtyard of a black-painted Georgian house in Hastings that has been converted by a chef-cum-photographer into a restaurant-cum-shop, “Hendy’s Homestore”.

We step into the small courtyard – B, D and I. It is small. There are three longish tables, intended to be shared by shopper-cum-eaters. There are perhaps another ten people in this space, eating or serving the tables. As soon as we step in, we all get the same animal whiff of celebrity. Someone is known here. Someone known is here. The air – it is threatening to rain – is specifically, minutely, charged with known-ness. We don’t know who it is at first: which person among the ten (unlikely to be the waiters, though) and which celebrity they are.

I never really know. (In that I have never heard of Jeremy Lee when B finally, assisted by Google Image and holding up his phone discreetly, conclusively verifies that yes, indeed, gesturing, grandly, camply, lordly, a television chef is among us). All I know for now is that there is one here, among the clean barbour-wearing, perfectly unshaved, prosperous-looking Hastings day-trippers. They’re all doing fine, eating mackerel and crab and wondering about the rain. They can all buy a ninety quid broom off Alastair Hendy after their mint teas. That’s fine. But which one of them is it? I want to know, and I want to get a good look at them.

What constitutes the pleasure of spotting a celebrity? We know it exists: there is a discernible thrill in coming back from a wedding somewhere and saying, as a friend in the pub did last night, “Oh, and Kiera was on the plane.” My mother and sister sat next to Hans Blix on a flight to Stockholm when he was at the peak of his pop-culture, non-WMD-finding powers and still talk about it. There is the mild tingle while the “spot” is in progress. You don’t quite want to tear yourself away until Jon Snow has picked up his coat from the cloakroom at Tate Modern. But it is not immediately obvious where our pleasure lies. Almost invariably, a spotted celebrity is not doing anything interesting, or revealing the presumed talent that made them a celebrity in the first place. They are, as we know from the thin-papered magazines, normally buying a coffee from Caffe Nero or “heading out for brunch” or “piling on the pounds”. (Jeremy Lee was eating, then shopping). It reminds me a bit of seeing animals on safari. They are there. They are, in all the wonderful senses, them. But they are, 100 per cent of the time, eating, staring, sleeping or walking.

Also again, there are millions of celebrities these days. That is part of the reason why celebrity spotting has become an activity in itself. “Id like to see just any fmailiar faces,” says phil222 on this depressing TripAdvisor forum offering advice on seeing slebs in London. We see celebrities all the time. Even ones which we have never heard of, especially ones we have have never heard of. And yet, even then, even in the process of confirming that Jeremy Lee – a finalist in the second series of “Great British Menu” (2007) – is in our midst, we get a kick. Not a huge kick, admittedly, but something real, nonetheless. What is it?

I think, almost by definition, part of the pleasure of celebrity spotting is that it is a surprise. There is the simple joy of something unexpected, and not awful, happening. We went out for lunch. We didn’t go out to have lunch and see a basically unknown (but not completely unknown, the telling difference of our times) television chef. “Oh god, is that…?” “Don’t turn around but…” These are the phrases that accompany a celebrity spotting, and they are exciting just to say. In fact, it is much more fun to be the one saying them because then you are likely to be the one who has done the “spot” and to then reap the prestige for doing so. The importance of the element of surprise in celebrity spotting – the shocking us out of whatever we had expected from our Saturday* – is made clear when we compare the feelings of the average spot to occasions when we have seen celebrities we have prepared, normally paid money, to see. There is often pleasure, sure, but then it is almost always bound up in their performance, their talent, their professional personality. It is not at all the same. I saw Amy Winehouse twice in her life. Once at a gig, when it was memorable to hear her sing. Another time, a few years earlier, when she was younger, fleshier, barely known, beautiful and foul at the same time, magnetising a pub in Camden just by standing near the door. I know which encounter I remember more. Although nothing in my celebrity spotting miscellany so far has come close to the time when, sitting upstairs in another pub, this time on Charlotte Street on a quiet afternoon, I noticed the only other person in the room was Kate Moss, curled up on a velvet sofa like a fox waiting for the dark.

I think the true pleasure in celebrity spotting is that it is a validation of our own experience. Because what are they to us, really? They are these half-real phantoms, existing partly in our world and partly in another, imaginary world, where everything is much easier, and more felicitous, and which we see most of the time framed in a screen, or the pages of a magazine. When we see a celebrity in our world, it is a sign that our lives are straying close to theirs. Not that we will join their world, but the two worlds – theirs is of course fictional – are bending together and that we are doing something right in making the choices that we have. It is an affirmation. It lends us purpose. My mother and sister were right to go to Stockholm. My friend was right to kiss the girl at the wedding and miss his plane and catch the later one. We were right to go out to lunch in Hastings. I was right to be in the pub on Charlotte Street. In a funny way, the sudden interdiction of celebrity – and all its unreality – lights up the colour and the vividness of the reality that we are making for ourselves.

* Literally as I wrote the word Saturday, I wondered whether the vast majority of celebrity spotting, as in 95%, must happen on the weekend. They are out and about, we are out and about. It also reinforces the likelihood that the slebs are doing something just as boring as ourselves.

AHAP (An Honest Appraisal of Pleasure) is a series that examines activities in our lives that are billed as pleasurable, and attempts to give an honest and thorough assessment of whether they actually are.