“It’s Hollywood’s best kept secret, and a defense mechanism, of sorts.” A short story in which it is revealed how celebrities truly deal with the pressures of fame…
by: Sara White
Rick wasn’t a bad guy. Really, he wasn’t. But scrolling through headline after headline of pop culture writers digging up everything bad he had ever done in his life sure made him seem that way. That was their job, he knew, but he still hated them for it. And you could publish anything these days. Some PA he’d had a fling with years ago put out a tell-all substack about their time together. There had been an age difference, sure, but she had been 22, it was legal and he had real feelings for her at first. But that’s how flings were, it wasn’t his fault she got too attached.
Then there were the interviews with anonymous crew members and others who worked on his sets saying he threw temper tantrums when he got direction he didn’t like. He was a grown man, he didn’t throw temper tantrums. Everyone who had worked with him wanted to cash in on his humiliation, getting money for saying nasty things to make him look bad. He put the phone down.
Paparazzi had been camped outside the gate of his driveway for two days. They finally cleared out after one of them nearly assaulted a food delivery guy on a bike and Rick had his legal team threaten them with disturbance of the peace and reckless endangerment. He didn’t know if any of it actually applied but they believed it enough to go away. For now.
He hadn’t left his house in three days. In that time he’d had no more than a few moments of sleep. He could cut the phone off, he supposed, but he knew he wouldn’t do it. His agent would kill him if he stopped answering her nearly constant texts. And, who was he kidding, he couldn’t look away from this train wreck of his own making.
He rolled over and snatched his phone off the nightstand once more. Holding it over his face, its bright light casting shadows into the hollows of his cheeks, more texts from his agent, Laura, and some friends, emails from directors and publicists. He clicked on the texts.
Laura: Bottled water endorsement hanging by a thread
Laura: Thread snapped, it’s gone
Laura: What were you thinking going off like that?
Laura: You2 doing an interview on GMA to apologize 2morrow. Emailed you apology speech to give on set next week
Laura: If they even still want you by then
He clenched his jaw and wrote several draft texts telling Laura where to stuff it before giving up and sending a series of thumbs up emojis. He slammed the phone back glass side down and heard a crack. He’d have to get a new one. Well, his assistant would have to.
You2, his agent’s cute nickname for his Double, was being flown to New York on a private jet to do the interview. He had been in Cannes when it all went to hell. He always arrived a few days early for festivals so he could slip in under the radar. Now he would have to miss it and his PR team would be pissed. The Double was doing his job, being Rick’s public persona, while Rick was being himself.
He cringed thinking of the day he had Split. It hadn’t been painful per se but it hadn’t been a sensation he wanted to feel again. He’d won his first Oscar the night before and had partaken of a lot of celebratory champagne so assumed it was an effect of his hangover. But soon he had a splitting headache and could barely move. His throat was closing up and his insides were clenching. He passed out on the bed in his hotel room, phone in hand, trying to call help.
When he woke up Laura was standing at the foot of the bed talking with him. He thought he was having some kind of out-of-body experience, but didn’t people usually float up to the ceiling with those? He was still horizontal. He sat up too quickly and his head swam. His agent came over and put an ice pack on his forehead.
“Lie back down, you need rest,” she had said.
“What is happening?” He asked. His Double was wearing one of the hotel bathrobes looming over him and had a big smile plastered on his face.
“Hello Rick, I’m Rick, too,” he said. Rick passed out again. When he came to, Laura explained this had happened to many of her clients before and she expected it was coming.
“It usually happens with the first Oscar,” she said.
“The body can only handle certain levels of fame. The combination of work with the scrutiny and pressure of fame, it becomes too much. It reaches a crisis point and Splits itself. Sort of like cell mitosis on a large scale.”
“I failed bio in high school,” Rick said.
“Not all bodies are able to do it, of course. Like Elvis, the first true modern superstar. The only way for him to deal with that level of fame was massive amounts of drugs and alcohol. And you know The 27 Club, same thing. Musicians tend not to have the constitution for Splitting. A lot of it comes from getting famous gradually, not overnight. The body adjusts until it can’t anymore.
“It’s Hollywood’s best kept secret, and a defense mechanism, of sorts. All your talent, what earned you the fame, remains in you, the original. Whereas You2, well, they deal with the other things. The press junkets, viral videos, Met Galas. Your public persona, if you will.” Laura’s phone buzzed angrily. “Excuse me, I have to take this,” she said. He sputtered in protest but she was already up and gone. He was left alone with his second self.
“How are you?” Rick2 had asked. Did he have deeper dimples than Rick did? Rick chugged more water.
When Laura came back she explained the deal. This was how Rick got to keep a semblance of a normal life. He could act, do his job, and then go home at the end of the day in peace. His public persona and all the responsibilities that came with it would be relegated to his Double. They would even get him a prosthetic face mask so he could go out in public without being recognized while his Double was doing press. Nothing major, a slight adjustment to the nose, an extra mole. Just enough to make people say, “that guy looks a lot like Rick Connor,” before shrugging and turning the other way.
By that point Rick had begun to dread leaving his house. He was mobbed whenever he went out in public and the probing questions of interviewers grew more and more personal with each film. The Double was the perfect solution.
Until that damn gossip site. Everything was going so well until that thing started. Celebrity spotting crowdsourced by newbie PR reps and starfuckers. Any idiot with a smartphone sending whatever they wanted to some bitch hiding behind a handle and a flimsy disclaimer about how she can’t verify the claims she posts. Can’t verify, but happily broadcasts them to millions of followers. And now he was in this mess.
He was a method actor, Laura knew that. It’s why he hadn’t wanted to take the role of a plantation owner even if the script was pure Oscar bait. But she pushed him, and pushed him. And next thing he knew, he was in a fight with a Starbucks barista and the word just slipped out. He had been saying it all day on set. Everyone has a Freudian slip now and then! Except most people don’t have them while they’re being filmed by everyone in the store because OMG RICK CONNOR IS HAVING A MELTDOWN IN STARBUCKS better live tweet it. Then the gossip site put up a spotting of his Double in Cannes from some nosy employee at the airport. The Starbucks was in Burbank.
People were digging. Sad people with no lives and nothing better to do but sit on their computers all day and compare notes with other sad people with no lives. Dissecting every frame of the video from Starbucks, picking apart details in pictures from Cannes. Superimposing his Double over him, comparing their jaw lines and crow’s feet.
“Siri, remind me to make a Botox appointment,” he said as he scrolled through more Reddit threads about himself. His agent had her team on it. They were making accounts left and right to fill the threads with doubt and slightly doctored photos. Keeping the idea of his body double a fringe conspiracy, like when Twitter people became convinced Melania Trump used a body double in public appearances. But the story grew out of control.
Rick2 was a charmer. It was his only trait, really. The man could sell anything. His smile dazzled in a way Rick’s hadn’t in years and his laugh was richer, more authentic sounding. Rick let the lines get blurred sometimes between acting and life. It was all a performance, really. Unfortunately, he was never good at playing the nice guys. Anti-heros with complexes, that was his sweet spot. He could hold his own in an interview but the facade was thin. When Rick2 burst out, he’d taken all of Rick’s charm along with him.
Rick knew he shouldn’t but he did scroll through his social feed most days. It was his official account but it was not chronicling his life. It was all Rick2. Truth be told, Rick thought Rick2 was living his life better than he ever could have.
After about a handful of various pharmaceuticals Rick fell asleep. He woke to his droning doorbell when the sun still hadn’t peeked over the mountains. He ignored it, assuming a reporter got a bit too bold, and looked at his phone.
Laura: it’s me, let me in
He plodded to the door and flung it open. Before Laura had come fully into view he had already turned back towards the kitchen. He could hear the click-clack of her stilettos as she followed him. Who wore stilettos at five in the morning? He sometimes wondered if they had fused to her feet at this point.
“Coffee?” He asked.
“If you would have waited you would see I came prepared,” she replied. He turned around and saw she held two venti iced coffees from Starbucks. One of the straws had a stain of red lipstick on it so he took the other one.
“Thanks,” he said. “Thought you’d be in New York.”
“I don’t have to worry about him.”
“Do you get cable? GMA is starting.”
“Is that why you’re here? To watch me watch it?”
“Among other things,” she said with an arched, microbladed eyebrow. She kept staring and finally he moved towards the TV room. He flopped heavily onto the couch and gestured to the pile of remotes on the coffee table.
“Help yourself,” he said. His agent rolled her eyes but managed to find the right one to turn on the TV, cable box, and sound system. She pulled up the guide and navigated to ABC. The hosts were bantering with one another before Robin turned to the camera seriously to transition to his Double’s segment.
“A beloved Oscar winning actor has gone viral for some less than lovable behavior. Rick Connor was caught on camera in a coffee shop over the weekend hurling a racial slur at an employee,” she began.
“After the George Floyd protests in 2020 you would think white people knew better by now,” Michael Strahan said to applause and a few chuckles from the audience.
“We have Rick here in studio today to offer an explanation and, more importantly, an apology. Please welcome Rick Connor.” His Double walked out to a chorus of boos. Yet even so, he remained charming. He had the perfect penitent slump in his shoulders, the right furrow in his brow. He joined the hosts and clasped his hands together on his lap.
“Rick, hello-” Robin started, but his Double interrupted.
“Robin, first and foremost I want to say how sorry I am. And I don’t mean sorry that I was caught on video, but truly sorry for my words and my behavior. Like many people, over the past few years I have been listening to the stories of African Americans and learning more about the structural racist reality of our country. Then, in a heated moment, I forgot all of that. I was the worst of what our country can be, a privileged white man using his power to keep others down. For that I am sorry beyond words.”
“And why should that be good enough for us? Why should we believe the next time you’re angry and impatient that those instincts, those words, won’t come out again?” Michael Strahan asked. Rick crossed his arms.
“That’s a little unfair,” Rick muttered from the couch. Laura shushed him.
“That is a totally fair question,” Rick2 said. “And my answer is that I hope I can prove myself to you, to the entire African American community, each and every day moving forward. I have also given a considerable donation to the Black Lives Matter organization and am working with their executive director to determine how I can make an impact in my own community. I want to be a force for positive change, not the status quo.” The studio erupted into thunderous applause, many women standing on their feet. The hosts clapped as well, Michael Strahan clapping and nodding to signify his suspicions had been assuaged. As everyone settled down, Laura turned off the TV.
“That’s enough I think,” she said. “Do you think you could handle something like that?”
“You forget that of the two of us, I’m the one with the acting skills,” he said. She smiled but her eyes were still sharp.
“I’ve cleared your schedule for the day and booked you a stay at a spa. You can stay out of sight and relax so when you deliver your apology monologue you’ll be fresh.”
“Have you managed to clear the swarm of paparazzi outside my gate?”
“They left when the GMA appearance was announced, you’re in the clear.”
“Fine, let me change,” he grumbled.
A black SUV with tinted windows was waiting for him after he put on some presentable athleisure and chugged half of his coffee. Laura was in the backseat, phone in hand as always, tapping away. She didn’t look up as he got in, just told the driver to go.
Her silence suited Rick fine. He didn’t want to talk about set on Monday, or the media reaction to his Double’s apology, or even the weather. He had checked on his phone before leaving the house and the response was, as he expected, glowing. People on Twitter swore they saw tears in his eyes as he promised to do better. As if he could master the ability to cry on command. It had taken Rick months of practice. His Double was all style, no substance, that was the deal.
Rick was content to sit in silence and watch the Valley disappear through his window. He wondered what spa she was taking him to. There was one he favored in Malibu but he didn’t think she’d want to ride with him that far. It better be somewhere that doesn’t allow phones. He couldn’t handle being the subject of another celeb spotting. As the SUV hit clear highway and sped up he felt his eyelids drooping. He supposed he hadn’t gotten much sleep the past few nights. A quick nap would start turning this day around.
He woke up in a wheelchair. He was so groggy his vision was blurry and his mouth was dry. His first thought was that he must have been in a wreck, but Laura was striding beside him talking to whoever was pushing him. He was in a bright hallway with large windows and marble floors. There were potted plants along the walls and he could see a large atrium on his right side with even more greenery. He assumed it was a very exclusive spa because he saw only staff members moving around. They were all dressed in heather grey uniforms that looked like scrubs with a large crest over the left side of their chests. He liked a place that valued customer privacy, though he had never been to a spa that used wheelchairs before.
“…I’m glad you had space available for him, this could have been a huge monetary loss,” she was saying.
“Of course, we’re here to help,” someone replied.
He wanted to put his feet on the floor to stop the chair or to wave his hands to let them know he was awake and could walk himself. But when he tried to move he found his wrists and ankles were strapped to the chair.
“Laura what the hell is going on,” he said, whipping his head around trying to get a look at whoever was pushing him.
“Oh you’re up,” she said. “Just through here, thanks,” she gestured to his driver. He was wheeled into a room with what looked like a surgical table. Arrayed around it were large chrome machines beeping threateningly and IV bags of various colored liquids. Some burly men in the same uniform were waiting through the door. They moved to the wheelchair and unbound his ankles and wrists. He tried to kick them away and bolt but they were too strong.
“What the hell is going on,” he yelled, struggling against them. They grabbed him and shoved him onto the table before restraining him with straps across his ankles, midriff, and shoulders. Panting, he wriggled against the bonds trying to loosen them. “Laura what the fuck!”
Laura exchanged a glance with the woman who had been pushing his wheelchair and gave a slight shake of her head. When the woman departed Laura moved to stare down over Rick. “There’s no use fighting, you’ll only tire yourself out more.” She was right, he could feel how weak he was. Despite his panic his eyes kept wanting to close and his limbs were losing momentum.
“What kind of medical BDSM nightmare is this place?” He spat.
“You should have finished the coffee, then you would have been out the whole time. Now the doctor will need to sedate you again. Cumbersome.” She spoke not to him, merely around him.
“Sedate me? You drugged my coffee?”
“Not the first time but should be the last, yes.”
“You are so fucking fired!”
“I’m afraid you don’t make those decisions anymore. You’ve been overruled by the Board.”
“What do you mean overruled, what Board?”
“The Board of Directors of you. Me, your manager, your publicists, your lawyers. All the people who have made your career possible and whose livelihoods depend on you. Your behavior has been troubling us for a while and we’ve seen our returns decrease these past years. After the Starbucks incident we’d had enough. We called an emergency meeting and voted to remove you.” Rick felt a chill throughout his veins. He looked again at the machines around him.
“You can’t kill me, you can’t get rid of me at all, you just admitted your livelihood depends on me, you ungrateful little bitch,” he yelled.
“It depends on you, but you aren’t the only You anymore, remember?” Ice filled his veins as he understood her meaning.
“But he doesn’t have any talent! How do you expect to keep making money off an actor who can’t act?”
“Name recognition alone ensures he will have a steady stream of major studio work for many years to come. We’re already in talks with the MCU for a recurring part in their next phase. We’ll lose the awards season films, at least for a while. But there’s more money in commercial.”
“So you’re just going to kill me?”
“Unfortunately no. If you die, your Double dies. That’s why this place exists. It’s genius really, using the Splits to our advantage. You’ll be kept here, with certain sections of your brain removed. Nothing that would kill you but enough to take away most of your personality, your memories, the most troublesome emotions. And it will end any of the rumors of you being in two places at once. Win-win, if you think about it” she said. She leaned down to stroke his hair. “You’ll live out your days as a docile, amenable nobody.” Her phone buzzed and she raised it to her ear. “Hi, yes we’re here. Room 10. No, he’s awake. Sure, see you soon.”
“You won’t get away with this,” Rick said.
“Hollywood has been getting away with it for decades. When someone like you becomes too much of a liability to the bottom line, they are removed. It’s nothing personal, simply standard procedure.” There was a knock on the door and he heard footsteps. Struggling against his bonds he managed to turn his head enough to see his Double standing over him.
“You have to help me,” Rick said. His wrists burned from how hard he was pulling against the leather straps. “Don’t let her do this to me!”
“Hi Rick, how was your flight in?” Laura said. She and the Double both ignored his pleas and grunts of effort. The Double moved to Laura and gave her air kisses on both cheeks.
“Great to see you, Laura. Flight was smooth and fast, happy to be back in LA.”
“We just need your final sign off then the doctor can begin the procedure.” A nurse came forward holding out an iPad and the Double read over whatever was on the screen, nodding.
“Everything looks in order,” he said. He put his finger down to sign. Rick watched it all, mouth agape, and screamed as his Double and Laura shook hands.
“I should have pushed you into traffic years ago,” Rick screamed. The Double looked down on him and clicked his tongue.
“That attitude is exactly what brought you here, you had plenty of chances to shape up but you didn’t.”
“No one will ever buy you as me on set, you can’t do what I do.”
“I’ve been wanting to move over into acting for a while now. Laura says I’ve got the chops, and I think she knows what she’s talking about. I am sorry it had to come to this for it to happen but when opportunity knocked, I answered.” He shrugged then straightened up. A woman in scrubs with a medical mask over her face walked in.
“Is the patient prepped?” She asked.
“Everything is in order, I’ll leave you to it,” Laura said. She motioned for the Double to lead then followed him out of the room without a backwards glance. He could hear her heels clacking on the marble as a needle was pushed into his arm. All he felt was a flush of cold as anesthesia was pumped into his veins.
Sara White is a writer living in Atlanta. Her short fiction has previously been published in The Chamber Magazine.