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Warren Clements: Word Play

Close encounters of the third-person kind Add to ...

Rob Ford, whose courting of disgruntled taxpayers may win him the mayoralty of Toronto on Oct. 25, was talking about himself the other day. "I think people know who can put an end to the wasteful spending at City Hall and stop the gravy train," he said. "And Rob Ford will do that. ... I just know Rob Ford's campaign is doing very well."

Recent Word Play columns

This discussion of oneself in the third person (he) rather than the first (I) is a surprisingly common phenomenon among celebrities and those who imagine themselves to be celebrities. They see themselves as a brand, and speak of the brand the way others would, at a remove. There may be arrogance at work, or a defensive separation of the private person from the public persona, or a belief that this is what celebrities are supposed to do.

Divas do it all the time. Supermodel Naomi Campbell was furious that the United Nations forced her to appear in The Hague to say whether former Liberian leader Charles Taylor had given her a blood diamond. But she retained a rock-solid sense of her international status. "You bring Naomi Campbell to the stand and the whole world knows," she said.

Kitty Kelley, in her biography of talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, said Winfrey is given to such statements as "Oprah does not walk" and "Oprah does not do stairs." But a lot depends on how those lines are delivered. Is Winfrey being pompous, or is she mocking herself and the whole cult of diva-dom? Self-ribbing seemed to be at work when Kevin Crull, tapped to be the president of CTV after next year's planned reorganization, acknowledged that he had much to learn about running a network. "There will be kind of, you know, a university curriculum created for Kevin. Hopefully it's CTV 201, not 101."

Others use the third person to distance themselves from evidence of embarrassing behaviour. Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, was caught on tape saying she could arrange a meeting between a supplicant and ex-husband Prince Andrew in return for more than $1-million. When Ferguson appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Winfrey replayed the video. "Actually, I feel sorry for her," Ferguson remarked after watching the virtual Ferguson. "She looks exhausted."

Musician Wyclef Jean, late of the Fugees, decided he wanted to run Haiti for a while, and was miffed when the country's electoral council ruled in August that he wasn't eligible to contest the presidency. He explained to CNN's Larry King that he would be a bridge between opposing factions in the country. "Meaning that Wyclef Jean can sit with any political party, have a conversation," Jean said. And again: "This is not even Wyclef saying, 'I want to be president of Haiti.' I'm being drafted by the youth!"

It's possible that all these people grew up watching the Fonz on Happy Days. Henry Winkler's character was always pulling that third-person act: "The Fonz changes for no man, hey!" Maybe viewers thought the character's coolness would rub off on them if they did likewise.

Singer Christina Aguilera told a radio show last April that, after giving birth to her son Max, she was more "comfortable in my own skin. I think [I'm]even a more sexual Christina." Ozzy Osbourne, explaining that he used a ghost writer for his biography, said, "Ozzy didn't actually sit down and put pen to paper, because if that was the case we'd still be on [page one]"

Amanda Lepore, friend of pop star Lady Gaga, reported that Gaga had caught the bug. "She was super nice and down to earth. She was like, 'Oh, Gaga would do this,' 'Gaga that.' But not like it was her, like it was a third person. I think she crossed that boundary."

In short, if you hear a celebrity say, "I'm not myself today," nod sympathetically. The person may genuinely believe it.

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