As Labor Day approached, and many of us prepared to celebrate work by doing little, if any, of it, a strange thing happened. A photo of a regular person bagging groceries went viral.
There was nothing extraordinary about the scene — a man in his late 50s, graying beard, stained shirt, a nametag that read “Geoffrey” — and yet a shopper felt compelled to take his photo and post it to social media, where Fox News picked it up.
The outlet’s accompanying lede read: “‘Cosby Show’ alum Geoffrey Owens, who played Elvin Tibideaux, the young doctor who married into the Cosby family on the famous sitcom, was photographed working at a Trader Joe’s in New Jersey.”
What followed next was heartening. Most people called out the photo and the tweet for what it was — job shaming — and defended Owens for earning a decent living.
Owens himself said he’d worked there for 15 months out of necessity while he pursued other acting gigs. He was hurt at first by the idea that anyone would think he needed to be embarrassed by this, but that “the shame part didn’t last very long,” as so many reached out to pat him on the back.
The woman who posted the photo says she meant no ill will and has since taken down her social media accounts.
Many of his fellow actors, for their part, stood up for other “working actors.” Tyler Perry offered him a job on his OWN television show. SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ union, tweeted “Thank you #GeoffreyOwens and all of the #ActorsWithDayJobs & artists who shared the work you do allowing you to make your art & make a living.”
That’s all very nice, of course. But put aside the obvious hypocrisy of Fox News, which routinely harangues celebrities for being out of touch with “real America,” seemingly shaming a guy for working at a grocery store.
Gawking at onetime celebrities who, for whatever reason, end up performing jobs our culture deems a mark of failure is gross, but hardly a new thing.
In 2011, the HuffPostCeleb Twitter account posted, “Why is Nikki Blonsky working at a hair salon?” after the “Hairspray” actress was spotted sweeping floors at a Long Island salon.
Type “celebrities who now have normal jobs” into Google and watch dozens of listicles pop up highlighting people who used to be famous doing jobs that don’t make them famous anymore.
The Hollywood Reporter once featured “Hollywood’s Riches to Rags: 18 Stars Who Have Lost it All,” including Brett Butler, Ed McMahon and Sly Stone, who at the time was homeless.
Variety had a somewhat misleading photo spread of “12 Stars Who Left Hollywood for Regular Jobs.” It featured Amanda Bynes, whose departure from the limelight was precipitated by a very public and sad breakdown, Gene Hackman who essentially retired successfully at the age of 74, and Kevin Jonas, arguably still one of the most famous men on the planet.
Still, you’re meant to read with a sense of surprise and sadness for these poor souls who no longer live in the photo-shopped spotlight. Unsurprisingly, our culture clearly reveres celebrity over dignity.
Sure, you’ll say. Just look at the guy in the White House.
But pointing fingers at the people who once walked the red carpets and are now bagging groceries reveals a deeper American illness. Owens wasn’t shamed for working at Trader Joe’s, which, by all accounts, is a terrific place to work. He was shamed for not being famous anymore. And that should disturb us all — because in this country, we worship at the altar of fame to such a degree, it corrupts our culture.
Maybe Owens couldn’t get enough work acting to support himself; there would be no shame in that. Acting is just one life pursuit among many. But maybe he likes his work-life balance.
Or maybe he doesn’t love being recognized all the time. Walking away from fame, whether by choice or necessity, isn’t a bad thing. In fact for many, it’s likely saved their lives, careers, families and basic dignity. More celebrities should probably try it.
If we had our priorities straight as a country, we’d consider leaving fame behind a mark of wisdom and character.
The Owens episode was good in that it brought always-welcome attention to the dignity of work. But it should also remind us that there’s nothing wrong with not being famous.
S.E. Cupp is the host of “S.E. Cupp Unfiltered” on HLN. Readers may email her at email@example.com.