Juggling and Celebrity

This post was originally written for the Juggling Edge discussion on the same topic.

I have a lot of experience with juggling, and some with celebrity, and some with the two topics combined. I’ll break it down into four points/stories.

American vs European juggling celebrity.

Back in the day, when I was well known for being a good juggler, performing at conventions and having a popular website, many jugglers I met knew who I was before I knew who they were. Up until 2004 it didn’t have much impact on my interaction with other jugglers. I performed a lot in the UK and Europe, and everyone was totally cool. All the other famous jugglers I met had the same experience, as far as I could tell, because while they were well known, they weren’t treated differently than anyone else.

In 2004 I visited the IJA summer festival in upstate New York. It was my first trip to the USA, and I was stuck by the many, many differences in culture, both in society in general and within the juggling scene. Just how different the IJA festival was from European conventions would fill an entire essay in itself, so I’ll stick to the topic at hand.

On the first day I performed in the opening dinner banquet show. The vast majority of the festival attendees were in the audience, so I guess I was immediately well known to everyone, even if they hadn’t known who I was before.

Then someone asked me for an autograph. I found this pretty strange. I can’t recall every being asked for one before. I know I’d been asked to sign things after a convention gala show before, but this would normally be one object that all the artists in the show would sign, like a book or a t-shirt. But here was a young juggler, maybe 16 years old, asking me to sign a juggling club.

I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I just said something like “Nah, don’t be silly.”

The next person who wanted an autograph had a ring they wanted signing. I wasn’t so surprised this time, but still felt super-uncomfortable standing in the middle of a hall, signing autographs. I made a joke about it, and signed the very thin edge of the ring, so my autograph was nothing more than a black line. I tried to make a joke of it, but really I didn’t want other jugglers to see my signature on something, and think “Who does Luke think he is?”

Once three or four other young male jugglers asked me for my autograph, other famous jugglers at the convention had already signed the props, so my name would just be one of many. Then I gave in, and just scribbled my name. I would always try to strike up a conversation with these jugglers, but invariably all they wanted was the signature, and then they’d head off to find another juggler to sign the club/ring/whatever.

One evening there was a circle of jugglers chatting, and this came up. I remember asking Jason Garfield about it, and he explained that it was normal for people to ask for autographs, and that he also felt weird about it. But he explained that the thing to do was just to sign your name, as to not do so would be a dick move. He had a lot more experience with American juggling celebrity status than I, and also way more experience making dick moves, so I took his advice.

I guess it all worked out at that festival, as I had fun hosting the final night of Renegade, I took part in some competitions, and handily won the People’s Choice Award.

To this day, I probably signed more autographs in my four trips to American conventions than in the (at a rough guess) 150 conventions I’ve attended in Europe. I think the difference between perceived celebrity is balancing out more now though, possibly due to the internet eroding the differences in culture, and allowing more access to jugglers directly, rather than via magazines, shows, and conventions.

A Non-Famous Juggler

In 2003 I attended a convention, and was asked to be in the show. I accepted, because that’s what I do. The host of the show was not a well known juggler, but was a professional. He was a super nice guy, and very good at his job. And he performed on cruise ships.

And boy, did he let everyone know about it. Maybe he hadn’t been doing it long, but he certainly saw himself as better than everyone else, because he constantly talked about it. “Yeah, on cruise ships were do lighting like this” and “When I’m working on cruise ships, I do this and this…”

As it happens, he probably was better than everyone else in the show, and the fact that he was a successful professional, and still is, only confirms that. But it really rubbed me up the wrong way. First, it made me not want to ever work on cruise ships, thinking that it might turn me into a dickhead. Second, I remember vowing to myself that no matter what I did as a juggler, I’d always remember what it was like to be an amateur juggler, and that someone regaling me with stories about previous bigger shows doesn’t impress at all. Doing a good job is the main thing that counts.

Since then I’ve shared the things I’ve learned as professional juggler, and helped as many jugglers as possible follow in my footsteps to being professional jugglers themselves, but I’ve tried to be sensitive in how I present myself. Each time I explain a point in a workshop, I make the reasons clear, and not just say “I’m a professional, and have worked in this or that venue, and this is just the way it’s done.”

A Famous Non-Juggler

Last year I worked on a British cruise ship, and they had booked a big star as special guest entertainer. He was TV celebrity, probably hosted game shows or something. Everyone on the ship was abuzz about him doing a show, and some of the cruise staff made up trivial excuses with the only aim of spending a bit of time chatting to him.

Funnily enough, I told this story a few months ago, and couldn’t remember the name of this star, which is relevant, but I’ll not name him now even though I do remember his name. There’s no need to be a dick about it.

Anyway, I grew up the UK at the time when this TV celebrity was at the height of his fame. However, my family never had a TV in the house, so 99% of popular TV culture passed me by. I knew this TV celebrity’s name, but literally nothing else about him. I didn’t know what he was going to do in his show, nor was I particularly interested in finding out.

In the end I was working on other things, and didn’t see his show. But I did go to the theater to practice once his show was over. I met him back stage in the dressing room, and he said he’d enjoyed my show. I said “Good to meet you, I’m Luke.” And then I asked him his name, because I’d forgotten it.

He said “Oh, I’m John Smith” and all I could think was “No wait, I’m sure it was something else…” And then I noticed from the expression on his face that he’d not been in a room in decades without everybody else in the room knowing his name. He thought that I was the one who was trying to make a joke at his expense, pretending I didn’t know who he was. Instead I was just trying to be polite.

As it turns out, I’ve never been on the other side of this situation. The reason is that I’ve never presumed that anybody knows who I am. Why should I?

When I meet a juggler for the first time, I always introduce myself by name, and most of the time the juggler will say “Yes, I know who you are!” This is a good bet, considering that I’m often on stages at the largest juggling conventions, introducing myself and others in a show. But even at the largest juggling conventions, maybe only half the people have been to another convention before, and only half of them go to see the opening show or an open stage where I’m hosting. To many people, I’m just another guy they’ve met in the main hall.

But assuming ignorance of my limited fame among other jugglers has served me well in the area of not-coming-off-as-a-dick. A fellow special guest at the French Juggling Convention last year met me for the first time while I was balancing a ball on the top of my head. I knew her from her youtube videos, and was a big fan. We started the conversation, and she started mentioning contact jugglers she thought I’d know. It turns out she presumed I was a contact juggler, due to me having a ball on my head. She had no clue what I really did, or who I was, and it turned out it didn’t matter either way.

Meeting Mr. Famous TV Personality made me thankful that I’ve always taken this course of action, because that was my first and only personal contact with him, and he came across as a bit of a dick. Sometimes I enjoy being a bit of a dick, but not as the starting point of a new relationship.

Point number four.

I started writing this post, went for dinner, and now I can’t remember the last point or story. Oh well. Maybe I’ll just add that one cool benefit of being a more famous juggler is that it makes you more appealing to the members of the opposite sex, a fact that I have taken advantage of numerous times over the years.

In conclusion…

I don’t really have a conclusion. I don’t even have anything to say about the Top 40 Jugglers of the Year charts, because I don’t take them that seriously. I have fun running the polls and presenting the results, and that’s all. If someone else thinks they are important in any way, that’s up to them.