Remember Kimberly? She was the girl who moved to the beat of that other drum. While her adopted brother from Harlem was asking everyone what they were talkin’ ’bout, Kimberly was attending private school, deciding whether to go on ski trips with boys, and even grappling (for twenty-two minutes) with Bulimia.
Kimberly was also my very first crush.
I’m not convinced that I can entirely credit my crush to the lovely Dana Plato, who quietly played Kimberly behind her much louder costar. It was more that I had grown up just enough to notice the first age-appropriate girl who appeared on my TV screen. Nevertheless, there are some ‘firsts’ a boy never forgets—his first big TV, his first belly-laugh, and his first crush—so Kimberly lives on, to this day, in my affections.
The Girl Who Played Kimberly did rob me of something, though. She robbed me of the illusion that notoriety brings everlasting success.
This first happened when Dana Plato robbed someone else, too. By 1991, when she was a divorced mother, Plato used a pellet gun to hold up a video store in Las Vegas. Truly, the questions generated by such a short statement outnumber it by multiples. Why risk using a toy to hold up a store? How is a $164 haul worth $13,000 of Wayne Newton’s money in bail? In Vegas, aren’t there better odds at Blackjack? What the hell is a video store?
Most of these questions have the same answer: Plato had been caught off-guard by the downside of notoriety. Able to earn only long enough for her co-star to grow older and logarithmically less cute, Plato fell prey to a number of problems that she could no longer afford. Financial predators. A custody battle. A famous spread in Playboy (and, yes, that was back when they still photographed nudes.) Perhaps the most significant problem for Plato, though, was the expectation from her remaining fans that her persona remain highly public, and completely Kimberlesque. How could she help but feel desperation?
Plato didn’t turn to such desperate measures because she was no longer famous; she turned to them because she had become famously unsuccessful. In fact, a 9-1-1 call records the clerk from that video store reporting, “I’ve just been robbed by the girl who played Kimberly on Diff’rent Strokes.” She was recognizable enough to identify, but only in a way that recognized what she used to do. The clerk didn’t know her, just her TV character. It seems, now as then, that we only pressure actors to keep on being notorious.
But this is a price that is fairly new to most novelists.
There was a time when a novelist could reach unlimited success under a pen name; essentially, they would make up an entirely new persona for themselves, keeping their private lives… well, private. Technically, there was no need for notoriety. While there may still be a few pseudonymous authors out there, I can’t see a way to achieve it. In my own experience, every publishing professional who has personally corresponded with me has made very little comment about my plot-lines or quality of prose—features that once defined marketability—but has instead asked me questions about ‘successes’ that I don’t particularly want. How many followers do I have on social media? (My answer: 39). What strategies would I employ to market my own work? (My response: there’s a reason I didn’t major in Marketing.) Do I live in an area that would allow me to tour with my book? (My despair: only after an eighteen-hour flight.) All the questions seem to boil down to the same basic kernel of how famous I am, or how famous I am willing to be.
Perhaps Dana Plato was faced with a similar choice. During her training as an Olympic Figure Skater, perhaps a mentor or coach had told her that she needed to be more recognizable to achieve her dream. So, she allowed her fans to rob her of her privacy, never suspecting those others who would later rob her of her fortune and dignity. Plato couldn’t have known that her notoriety would be the very thief to steal her success.
I was robbed of something else, too. I was robbed of the hope of ever meeting my very first crush. I can’t blame the Girl Who Played Kimberly for that, though; it was an overdose of prescription drugs that stole Dana Plato from the shadows of her career into a place where we’ll never really know her. The shame lies not with her, but with those who move to the beat of just one tiresome drum.
It’s time to back off the pressure. It’s time for the drum of success to drown out the drum of fame.
That’s what Willis was talkin’ ’bout.