It’s been close to a year since one of the more unusual jobs I’ve ever been involved in transpired, so I think it’s safe to tell the story as long as I honor the confidentiality agreement as it pertains to specific details of the project. It certainly ranks as one of the more bizarre things I’ve ever done… or never ended up doing as the case was.
Last year in early May I received a call from a part time rep that I’d done a few jobs through about a new project. She was unable to give me any details other than it was for a celebrity who called specifically for my artwork on a “project” she was putting together. The unusual part was this celebrity wanted to fly me out to L.A. immediately to work on the job on site for 4 days. No other details except that this celebrity had seen my work in Fade In magazine and thought my style was just what she wanted. The agent was reluctant to even tell me the name of the celebrity because said celebrity wanted to keep this all top secret, but she eventually relented and said it was Kirstie Alley of “Cheers” and Jenny Craig fame. I needed to agree to do the job and make the trip before Kirstie would give me any more details. All she would say was that Kirstie really liked my work and said I was exactly what she was looking for.
Ordinarily at this point I would have politely said thanks but no thanks. It’s never a good idea to agree to do a job before you know what that job is. I understand some projects depend on secrecy for various reasons but it’s not smart to go blindly into an agreement like that. I’ll admit that I was a little star struck. It was flattering that a celebrity would know of and like my work so much she’d fly me out to the west coast to work on a “project”, and I was intrigued both by the exotic nature of the trip and the mystery of the job. So, against my better judgement I agreed. I was given Kirstie’s private number and told to call her. I left a message with my number with one of her assistants.
Later that night I was at my 40th birthday party when my cell phone rang and it was Kirstie Alley. We don’t have a lot of celebrities around Minnesota… I’ve seen Prince once or twice, and Garrison Keillor occasionally, but that’s about it. I know artists in L.A. who wouldn’t bat an eye at getting a phone call from Kirstie Alley, but for me it was pretty surreal. She gave me a few more details but not much. I would be doing a series of illustrations for her project, over the course of a few days. I’d be staying at her house and working in one of the rooms there, she’d arrange the flight as well as my room and board. All other details would have to wait until I got there and would sign a confidentiality agreement. I was to leave the next morning for L.A. I had a chance right there to back out but I was still curious and her repeated assurances that my style was just what she wanted, coupled with the glamour of going to Los Angeles to work for a famous actress in her mansion was enough to keep me on board.
I flew out to L.A. a day and a half later and took a cab to Kirstie’s house. It was a huge, old Hollywood mansion just a few blocks off Sunset. I was greeted by Kirstie’s assistant Lauren, who was very nice and welcoming. I was told to make myself at home as Kirstie was out and would not be back for some time. I decided to go out and walk around Hollywood a bit, so I went several miles up and down Sunset seeing some sites and stopping to buy a digital camera. I eventually made it back just before Kirstie returned home with her kids and the nanny. She’d been to a bookstore to pick up some reference for me after their usual Sunday morning agenda. After a little settling in she and I finally sat down to discuss the job.
The confidentially agreement I signed is still in effect, but without being specific she was putting together a business venture that needed conceptual illustrations that depicted people in specific scenes with specific objects. She wanted a realistic look but with a touch of exaggeration and humor. She would describe the scene and objects needed to me and I would draw them. When she pulled out the “references” she had bought at the bookstore I knew I was in trouble. They were not pictures of the objects or examples of the specific environments she wanted me to draw, but several books full of Norman Rockwell illustrations. It was Sunday afternoon and she wanted me to create a dozen illustrations of elaborate scenes in a Norman Rockwell style by Thursday. That was impossible for me, but she insisted I was perfect for this and wanted me to work on the first scene.
I set up in a cathedral-like room of this big mansion, with floor to ceiling windows and a kind of nave at one end. It was full of stuffed animals (the toy kind), a brand new pilates machine and a huge pile of blankets and linen which was there as the linen closet was being redone. It must have been a big closet, as this pile was over 6 feet high. I did some frantic web surfing for references on the environment and objects Kirstie wanted me to draw, and spent a few hours trying to get something put together for her to review. It was really hopeless… I knew this was not going to work. Again I can’t be specific, but what she really needed was a team of artists including a conceptual designer and a set designer coupled with an illustrator to do the rendering. Even given all that it would be impossible to create so many Rockwell-like illustrations in so short a time.
I showed her my initial sketches and I could tell we were a long way from what she wanted. She kept referring to the Rockwell books. She was so enthusiastic about the project and my work it was hard to get her to understand what she was asking for was not going to happen. Eventually I spoke with Lauren and explained how Rockwell used extensive photo references of carefully set up scenes and drawing and painting studies prior to creating his illustrations. I didn’t bother to mention I was a far cry from Normal Rockwell in any case. Kirstie was insistent that I could do what she wanted, but I knew it was best to stop now. Kirstie was disappointed but understood. It was too late to get me a flight out that night but I got one for Tuesday and was back home by that afternoon. She paid me a small but reasonable amount for my time and efforts.
The job itself was highly unusual but the truly surreal thing was being in Kirstie’s house and seeing close up how a celebrity lives. She was surrounded by people all the time… maids, personal assistants, nannys, gardeners, personal trainers, etc. There was very little privacy for her or her kids, True and Lillie. The kids were both very polite and nice, as were all her “entourage”. Kirstie also was tremendously nice and made an real effort to make me feel very welcome there. I guess with people coming and going all the time, and so many non-family members that already live in the house it did not seem weird or awkward to them to have a strange man (some might say a very strange man) sleeping in one of the spare bedrooms and walking freely around the main floor. I was told to help myself to anything in the kitchen anytime. I would feel very uncomfortable with a stranger unsupervised in my house, even if it was at my invite. Kirstie and her kids took me out to eat at a Chinese restaurant Sunday night, along with Lauren and their nanny. Staying there was a little awkward for me but not because of anything they did or said… they could not have been more accommodating or welcoming. It was just weird to be in someone else’s home like that, especially a celebrity. Kirstie asked a lot of questions about my family and was very interested in my autistic daughter Elizabeth. She is close friends with John Travolta who has an autistic son, and she and I talked about the similarities in John’s son and Elizabeth. Elizabeth also knows who Kirstie is, as she watches old “Cheers” episodes and one of her favorite videos is the movie “It Takes Two”, which is an Olsen Twin’s film in which Kirstie also stars. She graciously signed a head shot for Elizabeth. She is also very funny as you would expect. There was a point when we were all in her kitchen, which is a kind of center of her house for all activities, and Lauren was preparing lunch for everybody. Kirstie was on a strict diet, and lunch consisted of sauteed vegetables like zucchini and squash. Lauren asked me if I’d like some. Kirstie laughed and said “Look at this guy… does he look like he eats zucchini for lunch? He needs meat!” I got a big turkey sandwich.
Of course there were some demands regarding their privacy. I was not allowed to take a picture with her or of her or her kids, even though I wanted to take them so I could draw their caricatures as a way of saying thanks for the hospitality. I wasn’t offended considering I heard they have had some recent problems with people going through their garbage, presumably for tabloid fodder. Kirstie also was not thrilled to hear I did work for MAD. It did not occur to me before I mentioned it that she has probably been the butt of more than a few jokes in MAD, although I have never drawn her for the magazine. I can certainly understand how she would dislike publications that ridicule her… she’s been a tabloid favorite for years.
The whole thing was very odd and surreal, but interesting. I felt bad I could not give Kirstie the artwork she was looking for but it was a mistake on my part to agree to go without knowing what they expected. When they wouldn’t tell me I should have said no. They did not seem to mind that it cost them no small amount of money for my flight and other expenses just for me to say I couldn’t do it, but I felt bad just the same. An interesting experience and lesson.
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