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Joy

Waiting For a Celebrity Autograph in Times Square to Feel Something

What I learned from standing outside "Good Morning America" for three hours, waiting for my favorite CW celebrity to emerge.

5:12 AM EDT on July 26, 2022

A huge crowd of people mill around a chaotic Times Square.

(Kevin Rajaram / Unsplash)

At some point during the summer of 2021, I fell into a deep depression that stuck around longer than my usual week or two of the blues. I didn't want to see anyone or do anything, so I stayed home and watched "Supernatural," a fantasy show on the CW about two hot brothers who drive around the country killing monsters and demons and feeling their feelings. The show is inexplicably 15 seasons long, each one more deranged than the last. In a few months, I made it through the entire thing.

It's not clear to me why this is what reset my misfiring synapses—the disassociation? The hot brothers' jawlines? The healing power of aughts CW dialogue?—but it did, and eventually I was able to go back to normal, or as normal as you can be when you're frequently terrorizing group chats by talking about a television show they'll never watch.

The hotter of the two hot monster-killing brothers is an actor named Jensen Ackles, who will probably be canceled within two weeks of the publication of this blog post. Earlier this spring, using the power of investigative journalism, i.e. Twitter, I discovered a press tour was taking him to New York. I decided that it was very important that I see him. 

I texted my friend Emily, whom I had pulled into my "Supernatural" spiral along with me, and we agreed to meet in Times Square at 6 a.m. that Tuesday to see if we could catch him outside "Good Morning America."

"I think this is the best idea we've ever had, actually," I wrote. 

Still, watching the hot brother on TV had saved me from a depressive episode. Surely, seeing him in person would solve the rest of my problems. 

I've lived in New York my whole life, and until this moment, it had never occurred to me to seek out a celebrity. New Yorkers tend to treat the stars that walk among us with indifference, unless a movie shoot happens to disrupt a street-crossing, and then we'll switch to disdain. It's not that we don't care at all, but it's understood that celebrities have private lives too, and that sightings are best kept to viral posts about how many times you saw Richard Kind outside of Zabar's, just as crying is a vulnerable, private act best done on a crowded subway.

There is also the fact that New Yorkers are cool. Cool people can't publicly be fangirls. That's for losers who live in Los Angeles. New Yorkers have things to do, delayed trains to catch, and public officials to rage-tweet at, and they have no time to openly worship overpaid actors with capped teeth. I have seen celebrities on the sidewalk, rung up celebrities at cash registers, interviewed celebrities, stumbled across celebrities filming, and one time while backstage at the Beacon Theater, Billy Corgan told me a harrowing story about threatening to beat up a fan with his guitar. But I never once let any of these celebrities know that I knew or cared about who they were. I might pay $50 to see Phoebe Bridgers perform in Prospect Park, but if I ever saw her in a restaurant, I'd probably hide behind a door. 

And yet, after several months of mostly living in front of a screen and over two years of limited person-to-person interaction, I wanted to see this particular celebrity in real life. There was no real goal here. I certainly didn't expect that upon spotting me outside the studio, he'd quit the rest of his press tour, drop his wife and family, give up his acting career, and pull me into the television with him so I could spend the rest of my life going on monster-hunting adventures and staring into his beautiful, perfect green ey—sorry, I got lost there for a second.

Still, watching the hot brother on TV had saved me from a depressive episode. Surely, seeing him in person would solve the rest of my problems. 

I got to Times Square on time and found the "Good Morning America" building at the corner of 44th and Broadway, where I stood awkwardly next to a giant photo of one of the hosts until a security guard called me over and asked me if I was there to see "the talent."

"You've got that look," he said, which I'm sure meant that he thought I looked really chill and cool and not like a tiny rabid badger seeking its prey.

He directed me to a barrier set up at the studio's side entrance. There were already a few people there, including Emily. I stood up at the front of the barrier next to an older woman, T., who it turned out wasn’t technically a fan, but an autograph collector, or "grapher."

T. and I started chatting, and I discovered she was a real pro. She spent her days going from studio to studio, premiere to premiere, movie shoot to movie shoot, collecting autographs that she "helped" people sell online. (She couldn't sell them directly, she told me, or she'd lose her Social Security.)

She was buddies with all the security guards and had long cased studio entrances all over the city. I told her who I was there to see, and she said that this was the spot to catch him at, because his next stop was "Live With Kelly and Ryan" a little further uptown.

"They have an underground garage there," she said. "He always uses a garage." She rattled off a few other celebrities who didn't like to sign autographs (Tom Hanks, Robert De Niro) and some who did (Matt Damon), and said that if I ever tried to get Harrison Ford's autograph, I'd probably get crushed to death in the crowd. Celebrities were more likely to sign at movie premieres and film festivals than they were outside of talk show studios, and most of them didn't like to sign during film shoots. 

She told me she'd make sure I'd get a photo with the celebrity—my celebrity. "They never say no to me," she said. "I get on the floor if I have to."

A little after 7 a.m., a black SUV rolled up to the curb and my celebrity rolled out of it. By now, a few dozen people had gathered at both sides of the entrance, and people started shouting for autographs. He waved, told everyone he'd sign on his way out of the show, and walked into the studio faster than you could say "B-list."

"If I had a nickel for every person who said they'd sign on the way out and didn't, I'd have a lot of nickels," a man standing behind me said. 

Technically, I'd already gotten the thing I came for, which was to see the hot brother IRL. Emily and I could leave and get bagels. But I'd already waited over an hour. I was in Times Square by choice. I was seeing this through.

Shortly before 9 a.m., a few other celebrities stopped to sign autographs and take photos on their way out of the studio, including Christy Carlson Romano, a former Disney Channel star. When they were done, T. showed me a photo Romano had signed. "This'll sell for $5," she said. 

The economics of waiting three hours to sell one or two $5 autographs didn't quite make sense to me, but the graphers explained the supply-and-demand system: The more a celebrity signs autographs, the less valuable they become, no matter how famous the signer. For instance, frequent signer Matt Damon's autograph also only goes for $5, even though he's a couple of notches above Christy Carlson Romano on the name recognition scale. Harrison Ford, who rarely signs, could have his signature sell for as much $400. If you hit up a talk show or movie premiere, you'd probably walk away with a handful of $5 to $20 signed photos to sell, but you also might get a biggie. That was part of the appeal. 

The man behind me who'd made the remark about celebrities not stopping on the way out told us he'd flown in from Oregon for the week just to collect autographs. This was a lifelong hobby of his; he'd been taking these kinds of autograph-getting trips for years and had amassed hundreds of them, he said. He knew T. from the graphing circuit, though he didn't sell the autographs he got. Professionally, he was a lawyer, and he didn't enjoy it. 

"That's probably why I collect autographs," he said. His wife makes him keep his collection in his office. According to him, the appeal of graphing wasn't just about getting people to sign. "Even better than the signatures, you've got the stories," he said. Most of his stories seemed to be about waiting.

If I had a nickel for every person who said they'd sign on the way out and didn't, I'd have a lot of nickels.

By 9:30 a.m., a sizable crowd had gathered behind us. The show was over, and we were waiting for the last celebrity—my celebrity—to exit the studio. 

At last, the doors opened, and he emerged. I got my camera out and snapped a quick photo…just in time for him to breeze by with another wave and get right into his black SUV. T. started screaming at him.

"You promised, Jensen!" she yelled. "You’re a liar!"

Then, as his car pulled away, she shrugged, and left to go catch him at "Live With Kelly and Ryan."

I could have followed her, but I decided to go home instead. After all that, I was looking forward to going back to my real life, one in which I did not wait hours just to get a glimpse of a famous person but simply watched 300 hours of his TV show. It turns out that waiting for a celebrity to marginally acknowledge your existence for two seconds doesn't feel the same as spotting one on the street or stumbling into one on a movie set. Instead, it feels like gambling. All that hanging around and waiting makes you lose some of your sense of time and space. You no longer have hobbies, interests, or a backstory. You're just one more thirsty fan waiting to hit an emotional jackpot: a $5 autograph, a photo for social media, a hint of attention from someone whose face you know a little too well. 

Of course, like gambling, that's kind of the point. Celebrity worship gives you something to lose yourself in, just as non-stop binging a TV show can make your brain forget you're sad. Celebrity culture dominates a lot of things—fashion, discourse, our own emotional responses. But how we feel about them is separate from who they are, and when those lines get blurred, it's at best disorienting and at worst destructive.

Here in New York, where celebrities live and work and interview among us, it's surprisingly easy to blur those lines, though it doesn't feel good when you do. When I recounted the "Good Morning America" experience to my friend Helen, she told me she was once having such a terrible day, she decided to stand in front of Taylor Swift's Tribeca place until she felt better. 

"It didn't work, it made me feel like a stalker," she said. "But I love myself for trying."

Unlike Helen, I didn't particularly love myself for trying. But I'll always have the story…and, after three and a half hours of waiting, this perfect photograph:

(Rebecca Fishbein)

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