“Do you think Rachael Ray regrets her life,” I asked during the penultimate episode of “Food Network Star,” the reality TV series that has produced exactly one true star in 10 increasingly convoluted, laborious seasons . That was Guy Fieri, the frosted-hair purveyor of faux Americana and creator of, possibly, the Worst Restaurant in America. And Fieri won his way into the “Food Network Family” – as well as America’s arteries – way, way back in Season 2.
But back to my question, which was not unserious. Rachael Ray grew up in and around food – her family had four restaurants on Cape Cod; she managed a local pub in upstate New York; she once worked the fresh foods counter at Macy’s (which, in retrospect, seems completely unreal). Eventually, she started teaching cooking classes based on the “30-minute meals” concept, which led to a regular segment on a local New York CBS affiliate, which led to an appearance on the Today Show, which led to the Food Network, which led to spectacular, mind-blowing success. By my count, Rachael Ray has at least four television shows, a magazine that bears her name, a line of cookware, and more money than anyone reading this will ever have. Given her upbringing and her personal history with food, it is difficult to say that Rachael Ray has been anything but an unqualified success.
But at this particular moment, watching this particular episode, I genuinely wondered if she regretted her life. She looked tired and wary – as if she wanted no part in determining which of the four remaining contestants would, after 13 weeks/episodes, “win” the stardom she had spent nearly her entire life earning. She sounded worse – hoarse, mannish – as if she had just chugged a carton of cigarettes, or as if she had been talking nonstop for almost 15 years, which, as it turns out, she has. (It should be noted that Ray had vocal cord surgery about 5 years ago to remove a benign cyst). Given the time commitments of her various endeavors, I have to wonder when was the last time Rachael Ray cooked anything at all. I know she “cooks” on her various TV shows, but anyone who watches “Food Network Star,” or the network in general, knows that this is not cooking in any practical sense of the word. It is far more performance art – faux cooking for mass consumption.
That episode aired at the end of July this summer. Less than two weeks later, Robin Williams killed himself in his California home. What followed almost immediately were fond remembrances from those who knew him personally and three basic types of media accounts. The initial stories were primarily about how someone so beloved as Robin Williams, someone who made millions of people laugh, someone so talented, who had won an Oscar as well as multiple Emmys and Grammys, someone who had a family, who was The Genie in Aladdin and Peter Pan in Hook, could possibly kill himself. It was stunning. There were also the stories about the links between comedians and suicide, stories about how comedy frequently involves being emotionally naked and vulnerable to your audience on stage, which can mean being emotionally naked and vulnerable to the world, stories about how comedy frequently involves being able to laugh at yourself, which can mean allowing others to laugh at you. And finally, there were plenty of stories about the state of mental illness in our country, and the need for greater awareness of the problem – that it could happen to anyone, even Robin Williams. I found this one in Slate, written by someone who suffers from mental illness, particularly telling:
So many people have commented on how all the money and fame in the world couldn’t save Williams from depression. Not being famous, I wouldn’t know, though I can’t even imagine how celebrity complicates a mental illness. The mentally ill must wage a fairly constant internal battle. It’s exhausting, even without the public spotlight.
At the time of Williams’ death, I was in Maui, where there are vast expanses of beauty unlike anything I have ever seen before. A few millennia of volcanic activity has left its coastline littered with hard, jagged, coal-black rocks and towering structures that look like peanut brittle made of bronzed red sandstone. The geology contrasted with the translucent, turquoise water of the Pacific Ocean makes much of the place look almost extraterrestrial. There are swaths of dense forest, which open to sweeping valleys, acres upon acres of places where no humans ever walk. And, of course, there are beaches – beautiful, pristine places – almost everywhere you look. Tucked away in a U-shaped alcove, about a half-mile from the Kewala’i Church, Maluaka Beach was one such place. It did not have the breathtaking breadth of Makena Beach nor the inviting, communal feel of the various Kamaole Beaches along Maui’s western shore. Instead, it was an unassuming little place, like the beach lazily decided one day to nuzzle up to the water line and spoon for a little while. But the water was warm, the waves were modest, and there was a nice reef close to the shoreline where you could snorkel with minimal effort. It was about as perfect as perfect can be. Directly across from this spot, a developer was building four luxury residences – thousands of square feet of mahogany wood, open floor plans, top of the line appliances, sweeping views of the Pacific, and Infinity pools. The price? Just north of $8 million. So, there they stood, towering edifices of irony: The few people who could afford to pay such a price – celebrities, athletes, CEOs of tech companies – were the same people who probably could not enjoy the perfect little public beach only a few steps away, the very thing that made the homes so desirable.
We live in a culture that is seemingly centered on creating and celebrating fame. We have televised mechanisms to produce famous chefs, fashion designers, singers of all types, ballerina moms, Jersey Shore bros, stupid, vapid, housewives, and plenty more. Fame consumes many of those who seek it like a voracious velociraptor and often leaves them a pulpy, bloody mess as it passes by, looking for its next meal. It’s temporary and transient, fickle and capricious.
I’m not famous, but I find rich irony in something that can provide almost unimaginable freedom, and leave you free to do nothing; that can make you loved by millions, but feel completely alone; that means you need infinity when infinity is outside your front door.