On a Sunday in November, my boyfriend and I took our dog to the neighborhood dog park, which is essentially a large dirt mound surrounded by a chain-link fence. It’s not the fanciest place. Still, when I first saw the group of people carrying a folding table into the park, I wondered if they needed permits. Another dog owner griped that they shouldn’t be setting out bags of food. That’s when I took a closer look and asked my boyfriend, who was scrolling disinterestedly on his phone, “Is that Angelina Jolie?”
Upon speaking the words, I knew they were true.
My mind was blown. Ever since I was a kid I’d been obsessed with celebrities, so obsessed that I became an actress myself. But now, even with 20 years of experience working in Hollywood under my belt, I still found it hard to believe that one of the most famous women in the world was standing in my dog park.
Angelina Jolie (in her trademark black sunglasses), three of her kids, and another woman were just sitting there, on a dirt-encrusted, dog-pee soaked cement bench. No one had approached their folding table. There wasn’t even a dog drinking water out of the plastic container by their feet. So I walked over. I said hello and picked up one of their flyers, which explained that the money made from selling homemade organic dog treats would benefit the animal rescue organization Hope for Paws. I didn’t have any cash, but Angelina Jolie gave my dog a free sample, which he loved.
After Jolie’s kind gesture, I walked some distance away and asked my boyfriend to take a photo of me, with Jolie handily in the background. He was reluctant, not understanding the import of this moment, but I insisted. Then I texted the photo to my friends, who responded in all-caps, equally as excited and confused by Jolie’s presence as I was. Something about posting the photo on social media didn’t feel right, but I didn’t think too much about it. Instead I told my story at Thanksgiving, at drinks with co-workers, to anyone who would listen, until I got bored of it.
Then last week someone reminded me how notable it was that this had happened to me, someone with a history of posting photos I’ve taken with celebrities on my Instagram. So I posted the photo on Instagram for my friends and followers to see, along with a caption that felt melodramatic, funny and true: that I had been chosen to share this story. Friends old and new rejoiced over my experience.
But soon enough the photo reached people I didn’t know: tabloid journalists who reposted it on “Page Six,” Us Weekly, The Daily Mail, and celebrity news outlets I’d never heard of. These reporters didn’t understand my sense of humor, and the story was taking on a whole new context. Suddenly none of this felt fun anymore.
The first time I took a photo with a celebrity was in 2001, when I was 9 and had convinced my parents to take me on a Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen cruise to the Bahamas. After spending a week on a ship posing for photos with the twins, I was hooked.
When I was 10, I booked my first big acting role, as a series regular on the NBC show American Dreams, which was set in the 1960s and cast famous musicians of the 2000s like Kelly Clarkson as famous ‘60s musicians. American Dreams provided me the opportunity to both meet celebrities on set and to hire a publicist so I could attend movie premieres to take even more pictures with them. I compiled a collection of photos with people like Colin Farrell and Christina Aguilera that I kept in a box in my bedroom. When American Dreams ended, I tried to go cold turkey back to a normal life of skimming through my friend’s mom’s Us Weeklys. I also started auditioning for new projects, and the tabloid taunted me with reminders of what my life would be like if I could just book another acting job: it would be one worth photographing.
Eventually I did book more acting jobs, but I was too old for taking pictures with celebs to be cute anymore. When I started working with Lauren Graham on Parenthood, I shoved my Gilmore Girls–loving past into a mental box and played it cool. I didn’t want my fandom to make me seem like I wasn’t hers or anyone else’s equal. Embarrassed by my past enthusiasm for celebrity in general, I adopted an ironic POV on fame and claimed I actually didn’t care about it at all. For example: I thought it was funny to challenge the construct of walking a red carpet by pretending to be on the phone?
Then a couple years later, after I’d taken a break from acting to study creative writing at a college in New York City, I was walking down Houston Street when I saw a group of people waiting outside a building. Some had cameras, some did not, but once I asked I found out they were all waiting for Kim Kardashian. I pulled out my phone to text my friends the news, and immediately Kim glided outside, flanked by security. She walked a few feet to an SUV idling curbside, people screamed, cameras flashed, and then it was over. Except, as I continued on my way, one of Kim’s paparazzi started filming me.
An account called @StupidFamousPeople later tweeted the video at me with the title “Kim Kardashian steps out in NYC, Watched By Sarah Ramos from Parenthood.” I was deeply embarrassed, thinking, Oh god, it looks like I was waiting hours for Kim Kardashian to leave her home. I sent the link to a friend of mine who’s also a Kim K fan, and he asked why I hadn’t posted the “amazing” video on Instagram yet. I followed his advice and posted the video. In the comments, people were kind, sharing their love and appreciation for the wacky situation my pop-culture devotion had put me in.
Emboldened, over the next few years, I posted my childhood collection of unflattering photos of me standing next to people like P!nk and Matthew Perry. My followers were supportive! They understood the illogical impulse of wanting to be seen with a celebrity. They were jealous I’d gotten to meet people they’d only dreamed of meeting in the 2000s, like Shane West and Hilary Duff. Most important to me: They didn’t think the truth about my past made me any less of a Serious Artist now.
In fact, I began to wonder if, as a former obsessive child fan turned actress and filmmaker, perhaps I might be uniquely qualified to explore our cultural obsession with fame. Or maybe there are a lot of other people like me in Hollywood (see: Hailey Baldwin’s past obsession with Justin Bieber), but I’m the only one tacky enough to admit it. Maybe @StupidFamousPeople — or perhaps even Something Greater — had called upon me to step forward.
When I posted the picture of Angelina Jolie to social media last week, I thought of it as another addition to the fan photos I’d been sharing with my followers for years. What I didn’t fully consider was that this photo wasn’t like the others I’d been posting. That this was the photo that the tabloid industry decided to blow up made me question my own behavior.
Surely Angelina Jolie had known it was a possibility that she’d be photographed selling dog treats. In fact, maybe this had been a publicity stunt and she was disappointed that no news outlets had picked up the story. But, I worried, what if she’d known being photographed was a possibility and she’d decided to do it anyway, for her kids? For the dogs! Or maybe she had such faith in humanity that she believed the people at the dog park would keep her presence to themselves … and I’d been the asshole who ruined it.
Plus, as you can see in the photo, two of Jolie’s kids are staring directly into the camera and seem to know exactly what’s happening. It reminded me of Cole Sprouse’s Instagram account @CameraDuels, through which he catches fans in the act of not-so-surreptitiously taking photos of him in public. I admired the way Cole turned an isolating paranoia about people secretly photographing him into an art project that challenges everyone else to examine their own behavior around celebrities, so … why had I taken this picture?
A few irate Angie defenders accused me of “exploiting” Jolie by posting the photo for “personal gain” and “publicity.” But I truly hadn’t meant to fuel the tabloids. And none of the people accusing me of exploiting Angelina Jolie seemed to be my followers, who knew the history behind my post. So where could these critics even have come across this photo if not in gossip publications that make money on pictures like this every day?
Still: Even though I didn’t anticipate this reaction from the tabloids, I should have. After all, this story itself is proof of the powerful allure of celebrity.
This photo is different from the rest in my collection because I took it without Angelina Jolie’s permission. The celebrity-fan social contract wasn’t signed; it wasn’t even drawn up. In the photo, it’s unclear if she’s playing the role of a celebrity, a Hope For Paws ambassador, or a mom at the dog park with her kids. As for me, am I a fellow actress, an excited fan, or a cashless, denim-wearing dog-mom? Honestly, I’ve spent way too much time trying to extract some great meaning from this stupid story. The truth is that I’m not going to dismantle the construct of fame in my lifetime. I’m probably not even going to stop partaking in celebrity culture. But I don’t have to participate in aspects of it that feel dehumanizing and exploitative.
At least, after all this, I can donate my fee for this article to Hope for Paws. I believe it’s what Angelina would want.