Not all the changes I was experiencing were negative. I soon discovered that celebrity also had privileges. For instance, I suddenly discovered the wonders of first class air travel.
Prior to being on The Cosby Show, I had always flown coach. By the time my stint on the show ended, you would have thought I had been flying first class my entire life. It seemed as if every time I stepped on a plane the flight attendant would wink at me and as the door closed: “Mr. Phillips, will you come with me?” Boom! First class upgrade. If there were no seats available in first class, headsets and a bottle of wine would appear courtesy of the flight attendant crew.
In San Francisco, I was buying a ticket to Los Angeles and had a ticket agent refuse to take my credit card. The woman — a very pretty young, dark-skinned woman — just waved her hand, hit a few keys on her computer, and a minute later, wishing me a good day, handed me my ticket.
I once told that story to the actress C.C.H. Pounder. C.C. is a much bigger celebrity than I ever was. When I had finished the story about the plane ticket, she raised her eyebrows and harrumphed, “I’ve never had a ticket agent just give me a free ticket.”
“Then C.C.,” I replied with a sly smile, “you are obviously doing something wrong.”
Upgrades didn’t just happen on planes, but also in restaurants. There were many times, I walked into a restaurant to find a wait for a table.
“Excuse me. How long is the wait?”
There would be a moment and then a spark of recognition. “Oh. Give me a moment.” Two seconds later, “Please follow me, Mr. Phillips.” And once seated at the table, there were a handful of occasions when another customer picked up the check.
“Excuse me, Mr. Phillips. I just want to say how much we love the show. Dinner is on me.”
The perks, both big and small were abundant: free upgrades, free drinks and dinners, being put to the front of lines, backstage passes to concerts, and of course feminine attention — Lots of feminine attention. I loved it!
It is both cliche and true that nothing in life is free. I was soon to discover that the trade off for all this special treatment was the loss of my anonymity. It took a bit of getting used to, and f0r the most part, it didn’t really bother me. I liked the attention; it fed my ego, (which was developing a voracious appetite); it made me feel important. I was no longer Mr. boring homebody. I was Joseph C. Phillips, handsome and eligible bachelor from the Cosby Show.
In February of my first season, I traveled to New Orleans for the wedding of a childhood friend. My flight was delayed out of New York, so I arrived late. The bachelor party was well underway. In fact, by the time I arrived, it was almost over. My buddy picked me up at the airport and we drove back to the strip club to pick up the other groomsmen before heading out for a late night snack of pancakes. I had never been to a strip club before, but from what I had seen in movies, this did not appear to be a high class establishment. In fact, I would describe this place, with its rustic interior, as a strip joint rather than a strip club. I followed my buddy into the joint and down to the edge of the stage, where the other young men were seated. As I was being introduced around, the woman on the stage gyrated towards us and as her breasts swayed this way and that, in counterpoint to her hips, she asked, “Hey, aren’t you on The Cosby Show?”
“Yes. I am.”
“Wow. Can I have your autograph?’
You may be asking, “What does one say to a strange woman, standing naked on a stage, asking for an autograph?” Well, I looked her dead in the eye and said, “Do you have a pen?”
The next day, the wedding party went down to the avenue to watch the Mardi Gras parade. Having heard about Mardi Gras, I was excited to experience the festivities. For a time, I was just one of the revelers: catching beads, waving to the people riding the floats, and chatting with my buddy’s family, who I hadn’t seen in many years. Slowly people standing nearby began to notice me.
“Hey, aren’t you…?”
“Can I have an autograph?”
“Can I take your picture?”
My ego grew a huge erection. “How about that? I am in the middle of a strange city in which I know no one and people on the street are recognizing me.” I was thrilled! I signed everything that was put in front of me. After a time, however, the attention became a bit tiresome. I hadn’t anticipated doing an autograph signing on a New Orleans street corner. I had been enjoying the parade, but suddenly I was no longer watching the parade, I was watching the crowd, trying not to make eye contact with anyone and attempting to hide my face. It was the first time I recall trying to disappear in public. It was a trick I would attempt to perfect over the next few years.
The wedding reception was even less fun than the parade. The guests were excited to see a member of The Cosby Show in the wedding party. The receiving line turned into a rush past the bride and groom in order to take a picture with the television star. At one point my friend’s cousin spat in my ear, “I really resent you upstaging my cousin’s wedding!”
I was new to this celebrity thing. It was like a Ferrari — well, maybe a Nissan 300 — but at any rate, I hadn’t yet learned to handle it in the curves. In my mind, I was being nice to his guests. I certainly hadn’t set up a photo booth at the reception. Perhaps there was a way to turn his guests down, but I hadn’t learned how to do it. Being told off in the middle of my buddies wedding reception was a crushing experience. I loved my friend, and the thought that I was somehow ruining this day for him upset me terribly. When the tongue lashing was over, I lowered my eyes, tucked my smile away, and headed outside the ballroom into the lobby and sat by myself. I figured it was better for me to be away from people. I spent the rest of the evening sitting in the lobby, trying to avoid human contact.
After that experience, I was very careful about how I showed up to events. I have family in North Carolina — cousins and great aunts from my mother’s side of the family. I had met one of my great aunt and one of my cousins many years prior, but I knew no one else. I thought it would be great to attend the family reunion. I was looking forward to the event until my great aunt sent out a notice: “Come meet your cousin who is on the Cosby Show!” It was a sweet gesture. She didn’t mean any harm. I understood that she was proud and excited. However, I wasn’t prepared to spend a weekend in North Carolina being on display. I called and explained that I wouldn’t be able to make it, explaining that we big Hollywood stars are always soooo busy!
Next…Eyes Were Everywhere