What Do You Say to a Celebrity?

What Do You Say to a Celebrity?

Toastmasters share their close encounters of the starry-eyed kind.

By Beth Black

Imagine stepping into a small elevator in a quiet hotel, late at night. You turn to push the “Up” button and discover someone else has stepped inside too. It’s...the original ABBA band member you’d just applauded – an hour earlier – with 18,000 other fans at the Hollywood Bowl. What do you say? Should you say anything?

In some parts of the world (like Hollywood), celebrity sightings are more common, but no matter how often you see them, there’s always that one famous person who will take your breath away. Even the smoothest Toastmaster can suffer a tongue-tied moment when caught off-guard by a close encounter with a star. Here several members share their stories: 

Scoring Points with a Sports Celebrity
Lisa Jenks, of the Marsh Winds Toastmasters club in Plymouth, Minnesota, was surprised when it happened to her. She says, “I was working at a local lumber yard as a cashier. Kirby Puckett of the Minnesota Twins baseball team came through my line. It was early in his career, but he was already a very popular player. He wrote a check, and I began to say, ‘Can I see your driver’s license?’ Embarrassed, I caught myself partway through the sentence – ‘Never mind, I know who you are!’” But as she regained her composure, Lisa figured out exactly what to do. She notes, “Being a huge baseball fan, I could not believe I almost asked Kirby Puckett for identification! I grabbed a scrap of paper and asked for an autograph, which he cheerfully signed.”

Clark Luby of the Bay Street Breakfast Toastmasters in Toronto, Canada, hit a home run as well. “A couple of years ago, A.J. Burnett of the New York Yankees baseball team was playing for the Toronto Blue Jays,” he says. “While standing in the will-call line, I struck up a conversation with his mother, who was there to see him pitch that day. Whenever A.J. pitched he got a luxury box, so his mother invited us up to watch the game with her and a family friend.”

Luby found the experience amazing, yet came to the conclusion that celebrities are human like the rest of us. “The Jays were playing the Boston Red Sox that day and any time Red Sox players Manny [Ramirez] or Big Papi [David Ortiz] came up to bat, she couldn’t even watch, she was so nervous,” he says. “We just acted like ourselves and didn’t try to impress, and I think that was the best way to be. I will always thank her for her hospitality.”

Making a favorable impression is always a good idea. You never know what the future will bring. You might even meet that person again. It happened to Jenks with Kirby Puckett. She says, “I did meet him again a few years later at a charity event and had a brief, but as I recall, funny and engaging conversation with him while we had a picture taken together.” Good thing she’d left a favorable first impression!

Jenks has some advice for those who find themselves in a close-up with a celebrity. “I would suggest being respectful of them as people,” she says. “Don’t approach at an inappropriate moment, during dinner, for example. Be gracious and polite. And don’t be afraid to speak to a celebrity if the situation is appropriate. You don’t want to regret a missed opportunity, and you may end up with a great story to tell!”

Seeing Stars from TV and Film
• Gina Salamone, of GMACR Toastmasters in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, met Emo Phillips, a comedian whom Jay Leno refers to as “the best joke writer in America.”

“I had seen his stand-up routine recently, and after the show I waited in a line for an autograph,” says Salamone. She overheard the people in front of her bantering with him. He turned to the next in line, Salamone, and that’s when she froze. “I suddenly realized I had no clue what to say! I didn’t have an interesting story or clever remark,” she says.

But she pulled herself together and thanked him for telling one of her favorite jokes that night. To her dismay, she was so surprised at being able to get some words out, she didn’t catch his reply. Finally, she calmed down enough to get a picture with him. Salamone advises others to keep calm in such situations. “There’s no need to get all worked up and have to stutter and struggle through a simple comment.”

• At times you should avoid the infamous autograph request – it all depends on the context of the crossed paths. Joy Montgomery of the Amador Valley Toastmasters in Dublin, California, explained that she was in Santa Barbara, waiting for her aunt and a friend to come out of a gift shop when she spied Dennis Franz, of the American TV show NYPD Blue, coming out of the shop. She had no trouble recognizing the star. He saw the recognition on her face, then glanced back at the store and across at the restaurant as if determining which escape route would prove faster. She merely smiled and said hi – and nothing else. “He looked grateful and continued across to the restaurant where his wife was waiting for him to join her for lunch,” notes Montgomery. “It seemed like the wrong time to try to engage him in conversation.”

• Sometimes you can make a star laugh. Pam Alexandra of Placer’s Gold Club in Auburn, California, enjoyed a sweet moment making a famous comic actor laugh. “Early in Steve Martin’s career I had a chance to see him at a club in San Francisco called the Boarding House. Near the end of his act, he put on a rather large fake nose (a professionally crafted nose – it looked real). He was standing outside after the show, briefly shaking hands with some of the guests as they were leaving. I walked up to him and touched his nose (he was still wearing the fake) and said, ‘You have a cute schnoz.’ He laughed and said ‘Thanks.’”

• And sometimes you can enjoy meeting a star with a quick wit. Judith Olsen, who plans to join a Toastmasters club in Atlanta, Georgia, was surprised to discover the actor Tom Selleck in an airport in Toronto, Canada. She realized this was more than an opportunity to meet a movie star – it was a chance to have the last laugh with her sister over an old family tale. She hurried over to him and blurted, “Twenty years ago my sister had breakfast in the same restaurant in Honolulu as you did, and she’s been telling everyone for 20 years that she had breakfast with Tom Selleck!” Without hesitating, Selleck smiled and replied, “Tell your sister I said hello.” 

Hitting a High Note with a Famous Musician
Paul Gleditsch of Lunch Out Loud Toastmasters in Parker, Colorado, took the initiative to meet Ginger Baker (former drummer for the rock band Cream) after a polo match in Colorado. “As he was taking his horse back to his trailer, I told my friend that we needed to go introduce ourselves,” says Gleditsch. “Off we went to his trailer, introduced ourselves as fans, and shook hands. The conversation ended quickly as he was off to entertain everyone in his [current] jazz trio.” It was a memorable day for Gleditsch, who enjoyed meeting one of his rock heroes. This was prior to Gleditsch’s Toastmasters training, he notes. “Today, we could keep a lively conversation going forever!”

Florence Ferreira of Boca Raton Toastmasters in Boca Raton, Florida, found herself in an unusual predicament in a public restroom. She was reaching for the last paper towel to dry her hands, and her rival for that towel turned out to be singing star Gloria Estefan. What could she do? Each took half and both left with smiles. 

Movers and Shakers in Business and Politics
Curt Johnson of the Portland Club in Portland, Oregon, met Bill Gates at a Microsoft company party 19 years ago. Gates was talking about one of his passions – fast cars. Johnson wanted to chime in, but he was speechless and regrets it to this day. “I just listened. Alas,” he sighs.

Frank Felsburg of Picket Post Toastmasters in Berwyn, Pennsylvania, offered a little more loquacity when he saw former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at an ice cream shop in St. Michael’s, Maryland. “I told him the rum raisin ice cream there was very good,” notes Felsburg. He declines to say whether Rumsfeld took him up on his suggestion.

Phyrne Parker of the Inspiring Voices Toastmasters club in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, recalled her adventures with a local politician. She once met the Lieutenant Governor of the Province of Saskatchewan. “A few weeks later, I was grocery shopping and she came toward me in the aisle.” In the next aisle, they met again, and again in the next. At which point Parker quipped, “You know, this would never happen in Toronto.” The Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan stopped and asked what she meant. Parker answered, “Well, for one thing the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario doesn’t go grocery shopping, let alone meet the general public in the aisle like this.”

But the politician had the last laugh with a funny story she shared. She said a bureaucrat from Ottawa had called her assistant because he was conducting a survey of the Lieutenant Governors’ offices in all 10 provinces. One of the questions they asked concerned the number of servants the Lieutenant Governor had. The staffer laughed and said, “Perhaps that can best be answered by my telling you she does her own grocery shopping.” At that point the bureaucrat decided they hadn’t really wanted to include Saskatchewan in the survey anyway! 

Should Stardust Blur Your Vision?
John Haran of the Simi Valley Toastmasters club was born and raised in Los Angeles and has seen celebrities many times. What’s more, he’s worked with them. “I was a bodyguard for a couple of them at movie premieres or provided security at their homes,” he says. “Put simply, they are just people like everyone else.”

Judging from the variety of close-ups that Toastmasters have shared with celebrities, one important message seems clear: Follow the Celebrity Golden Rule. Treat a celebrity as a person – who might just have something personal going on at the moment. Be aware of that, and be respectful. Beyond this simple courtesy, try to be friendly! You never know who might smile back. 

Beth Black is an associate editor of the Toastmaster magazine and a member of Unimasters Toastmasters in Lake Forest, California.