“Persona” is defined by Webster’s as “the image or personality that a person presents to other people.” We expect actors to pretend they’re someone else. Case in point: Anthony Hopkins, in “The Silence of the Lambs,” played a serial killer with a rather taboo diet. No one in their right mind thought Sir Anthony was an actual murderer with a taste for human flesh. He was playing a role, and he played that role so well it garnered him an Academy Award. In real life, however, we don’t play a part. We are the person we were biologically programmed to be, and that is who the world interacts with. Or is it?
With the proliferation of social media, we now have a platform on which we can voice our opinions, seek the views of others, and interact with people from one end of life’s spectrum to the other on any subject imaginable. This revolution has, for the most part, transformed our lives for the better. We now have the ability to exchange stories and ideas with people who, prior to social media, would have remained anonymous faces in an invisible crowd. The problem lies in what has become the cyber form of “liquid courage;” that is, we can more readily and more easily portray ourselves as extensions of what others see us as when the proverbial cameras are rolling. While most people seem to translate their real-life selves into their online persona successfully, there are always exceptions to the rule.
One such person who isn’t who he seems to be is NFL Hall of Famer Michael Strahan. In public life, he presents himself as an amiable and genuinely friendly guy who just happens to be famous and extremely gifted in athletics and in public speaking. However, after an experience with him on a flight not long ago, I have a different opinion.
On the flight, I was seated in first class and Mr. Strahan was seated in front of me. Knowing how exhausting frequent travel can be and wanting to respect his right to be able to relax during the flight, I waited until the plane landed to ask him for an autograph for my younger brother, who is a huge fan of his. I asked politely and made it known that he was under no obligation to sign anything, but that I would appreciate his kind gesture if he did. He obliged, and I produced something for him to sign and a writing utensil with which to give his John Hancock. When the pen didn’t perform to his satisfaction, he was visibly annoyed and wondered aloud why I couldn’t supply him with a pen that worked. After a few moments of watching his frustration grow, I took the pen from him and told him to never mind; it wasn’t that important. That smiling public face, to me, is a façade for an impatient and self-important person who would rather not be bothered by the plebeians should their accoutrements force them to spend a few extra moments waiting for their pens to perform satisfactorily. Perhaps he was having a bad day; perhaps he was tired. But when you’re a public figure with millions of fans and one asks you for a few moments of your time, they don’t care about that and neither should you. Suck it up, smile, and give that person a few pleasant memories and a memento of the brief time they spent with you, working pen or not.
But instead of focusing exclusively on the negative, I’d like to mention a couple of celebrities whose off-camera personality matches their persona when the red light is on.
Booker T. is a Hall of Fame wrestler from WWE. In public, he presents himself as a generous, family-loving man with a kind heart that overshadows his muscular frame. On yet another visit to Houston’s Intercontinental Airport, I noticed a crowd of people in my terminal, and they seemed to be holding spirals and books and a matter of other objects, and they seemed to be waiting for someone to sign them. That someone turned out to be Booker T. Huffman, who was not only signing something for all who requested his autograph, he was doing it with a genuine enthusiasm that, I’m sure, made each one of his fans seem important to him. He signed, posed for pictures, and had actual conversations with them.
Another person whose on-camera persona is seemingly indistinguishable from his off-camera self is the Food Channel’s Geoffrey Zakarian. Mr. Zakarian presents himself as a knowledgeable guy you’d have a good time hanging out with, the kind of guy that others want to talk to not only for the witty and informative conversation but also the genuinely interesting and affable company. I can attest to the fact that Mr. Zakarian is in private who he purports himself to be onscreen. While at a cigar lounge in New York City, he came into the room in which I was relaxing with a nice cigar after a filling meal. He was pleasant, gracious and grounded. We engaged in a conversation that went perfectly with our cigars.
In business and in my personal life, I detest fakes. Be who you are. If you’re a jerk on camera and off, be a jerk on camera and off— at least no one can accuse you of pretending to be something you aren’t. Don’t assume a mask and think that hides the ugliness from the masses. And be patient; not all of us carry a Mont Blanc.