Alex Beam

Can fame coexist with obscurity?

A trip to China leads to consideration of the difference between Yao Ming famous and Julia Allison ‘famous’

Do you remember Julia Allison? I doubt you do. Allison was one of the first people to become “Internet famous,’’ a complicated epithet that meant 1) she was very well known among people who spent most of their day staring into a Web browser and 2) she was not going to be famous for very long.

“It’s hard to describe exactly what she’s famous for,’’ Wired magazine theorized in a 2008 cover story on Allison, who, unlike, say, Paris Hilton, hadn’t starred in a viral porn video to become an Internet celebrity. These days, Allison reports that she is covering fashion and speaking “on media, technology, and branding at Harvard, MIT, and Wharton, as well as at conferences around the world.’’

I started thinking about the pastry-like layers of fame when I visited China a few weeks ago and saw basketball player Yao Ming’s face on the side of every barn in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, which is a couple of thousand miles from Beijing. Ming may be the most famous man alive, it occurred to me. And he doesn’t even play basketball anymore.


The second most famous man in the world may well be the Williams-and-Berklee-College-educated Taiwanese pop star Leehom Wang. In Asia, Wang’s face is inescapable, as he has at various times endorsed McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Lay’s potato chips, and other nutritious delicacies on the world’s most populated continent.

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Traveling overseas, one ends up reading high-minded publications such as the Financial Times and the International Herald Tribune. The FT and IHT can’t seem to choke out an article that doesn’t mention Christine Lagarde, the new head of the International Monetary Fund. Lagarde is truly FT/IHT famous. Her predecessor, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was likewise FT/IHT famous, but then became New York Post/Daily News famous for some libertine behavior in a Manhattan Sofitel.

Back in his native France, I suspect DSK is now Le Nouvel Observateur famous, which probably suits him just fine.

A few weeks ago, I was in an auditorium packed with young people, many of whom had come to see . . . Marc Maron. Who the heck is Marc Maron, I wondered? He’s “podcast famous,’’ I was told. And deservedly so.

I’ve started listening to Maron’s wonderful, rambling interviews, recorded in his Los Angeles garage with famous and less-famous comedians. He recently re-posted his excellent interview with the late Patrice O’Neal, who talks about his jail stint here, and lots more.


My son and I were discussing comedian Demetri Martin the other day.

Me: “He’s black, right?’’

Son: “He’s white, you idiot. You wouldn’t know; he’s Comedy Central famous.’’

The pursuit of comedy fame is punishing. In addition to Comedy Central famous and podcast famous, there is Ding Ho-Inman Square famous (Barry Crimmins, Ken Rogerson, Don Gavin), from-Newton famous (Louis CK, Jon Fisch) and Alex-saw-you-at-the-Comedy-Studio-in-Harvard-Square-and-thought-you-were-funny-famous (Gary Gulman, the former Boston College tight end).

At the end of the day, the only kind of fame that really interests me is the renown that many people enjoy among their peers, but not in the outside world. Here’s an example: Ann Wroe writes the famous weekly, unsigned, single obituaries for The Economist magazine. They are truly eclectic (“Momofuku Ando, inventor of instant noodles’’; the great travel writer Eric Newby; “Thomas Wilson Ferebee, the bomber of Hiroshima’’) and artfully written.


“Wroe managed to write something interesting about Michael Jackson,’’ says her admiring colleague, obituarist Stephen Miller. “I would have thought that impossible.’’

Who is the best writer you’ve never heard of? My friend who tipped me to Carl Hiaasen years before Hiaasen broke through recommends novelist Tim Dorsey, author of “Florida Roadkill’’ and many other books. Dorsey is a former newspaper copy editor - must be smart!

My nominee for best obscurest writer would be Guy Vanderhaeghe, author of “The Last Crossing’’ and “A Good Man.’’ You’ve definitely never heard of George Witte, the book editor who championed Vanderhaeghe, and there is almost zero chance you have read Witte’s published poetry.

The best newspaper columnist you’ve never read? That would be Samuel Marchbanks, who regularly contributed to the Peterborough Examiner in Ontario. The sulfurous, hilarious Marchbanks was the nom be plume for the Examiner’s editor, the great novelist Robertson Davies. I have a “Marchbanks’’ collection strategically placed you-know-where, and all I can say is: “Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader,’’ you come in a distant second.

Journalism fame: what a sorry subject. For years I dreamed of emulating Carey McWilliams, the brilliant California writer and onetime editor of The Nation magazine. Now no one has any idea who I’m talking about.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is