What the Shaming of Geoffrey Owens Reveals

The reaction to the former Cosby Show actor working a retail job says a lot about how Americans understand success.

Peter Kramer / AP

One of the more deflating corners of the internet is a website called Cameo, which brokers personalized videos recorded by celebrities. You can, should you wish, commission a birthday wish or greeting for a friend or family member from stars including the comedian Kathy Griffin ($499), the Motley Crue front man Tommy Lee ($250), the former Real Housewife Brandi Glanville ($100), and the actress (and second wife of the current president) Marla Maples ($93). Each video takes an average of 30 seconds to record, Cameo’s website explains, which can mean a lucrative payday for a tiny amount of work.

The site itself isn’t depressing—what could better embody American entrepreneurship than monetizing the desire civilians have to be closer to stars? Rather, it’s the nakedness of the way in which celebrity value is assessed. Terrell Owens: $350. Soulja Boy: $100. Perez Hilton: $25.25. To misquote Mark 8:36, for what shall it profit a celebrity if he should gain a new revenue stream but lose his dignity? Not to mention: Who exactly gets to decide if—and why—a stint on Vanderpump Rules makes someone twice as valuable as a role on Real Housewives of Potomac?

In America, people like to think of fame only as an upward trajectory, not a crest and fall. The dream works that way. The ultimate goal is Making It, and once you Make It, you don’t look back. And yet here’s Cameo.com contradicting the weird paradox of fame: It has its own kind of currency, but it’s usually an intangible sort of net worth, not a practical one. You might be famous enough that people sneak photos of you browsing the magazines at an airport Hudson News, but behind on a mortgage payment or seven. And to admit financial failure is to somehow break a contract with fans by bringing yourself back down to earth, by dulling some of the sheen of stardom.

Hence the ungenerous response of a medical secretary in New Jersey when she spotted an actor she recognized from The Cosby Show bagging potatoes in a Trader Joe’s supermarket. Rather than wish Geoffrey Owens well, or offer him a compliment, the woman, Karma Lawrence, snapped photos with her phone and sent them to the Daily Mail, presumably for a cash fee. Owens looks disheveled in the photos, as many people do at work when they’re not expecting an impromptu paparazzo moment. He also looks startled, and wary.

“I would have thought after The Cosby Show he would maybe be doing something different,” Lawrence told the Mail. “It was a shock to see him working there and looking the way he did. It made me feel really bad. I was like, ‘Wow, all those years of doing the show and you ended up as a cashier.’”

Putting aside the question of why, if Lawrence felt bad for Owens, she decided to monetize her own interaction with him and share his current professional status with the world, Owens hasn’t actually “ended up as a cashier.” He is, at least judging by IMDB and his recent TV roles, a working actor. Within the last five years he’s appeared on Elementary, The Blacklist, Lucifer, Blue Bloods, Divorce, The Slap, The Affair, and The Leftovers, along with numerous other roles. He’s also a theater actor and director who founded the color-blind Brooklyn Shakespeare Company in 1990 after becoming frustrated with Shakespearean roles primarily going to white actors. Last year, Owens gave a free Shakespearean master class to teenagers in South Orange, New Jersey. His resume includes a stint teaching acting at Yale.

The shock, for many, isn’t that Owens is bagging groceries, as if that implies that he’s fallen from some protected perch. The shock is the realization that working side jobs is what the vast majority of actors do. The Better Things creator and actor Pamela Adlon said as much in her social-media posts about Owens on Sunday. “I had been a working actor for years,” Adlon wrote on Twitter. “Jobs stopped, as they do. I worked in retail. At a flower shop. I passed out flyers. It’s about the work. Work gives you pride and purpose. Your visibility as an actor never goes away. But the money sure does.”

The response to Owens’s Trader Joe’s job is only the latest expression of faux-outrage that a so-called celebrity is slumming it in the weekly workforce with the rest of us. In 2011, Radar revealed that the Hairspray star Nikki Blonsky was now working as a cosmetologist in Great Neck, New York. The story included a photo (naturally) of Blonsky sweeping up hair clippings with a broom. In 2015, the gossip site TMZ.com announced that the Twilight star and teen heartthrob Taylor Lautner had become a photographer, via a newsroom video featuring much laughter and mock applause from the TMZ team. “He looks like any regular old dude in a crowd,” one blogger noted. “He needs to sort of rebrand himself,” another argued, prompting the response, “As what?” (Lautner is still acting, appearing recently in the U.S. series Scream Queens and the British comedy Cuckoo.)

The TMZ video and its abject mirth, Karma Lawrence’s reaction to seeing Owens, the myriad aggregated Where are they now? lists on sites with names like Celebitchy and Dlisted—they all assume that fame and wealth exist concomitantly as binaries. You’re a star, or you’re not. You’re wealthy, or you’re not. But fame, especially in the internet age, seems to be much easier to find and harder to lose than a livelihood might be. It’s an asset, until it’s not.

America is also a hard, hard place for creatives to make a living. One of the things that distinguishes Trader Joe’s as an employer is its generous medical and dental plans, along with the fact that it contributes 10 percent of its workers’ salaries into their 401(k)s. In Denmark, the government provides annual stipends to hundreds of artists ranging from honorariums to full-time salaries. France also gives generous subsidies to creatives. In the U.K., where I currently live, a flourishing economy for down-on-their-luck stars has formed on television (much more so than in the U.S.), where pop singers and TV personalities duke it out in a series of ever more implausible reality shows with names like Extreme Celebrity Detox, Celebrity Wedding Planner, and Call Me a Cabbie (which might as well be called Celebrities Drive Taxis).

But America offers neither health care nor public pensions nor subsidies for artists, which leaves some actors having to work to pay the bills, whether at grocery stores or by selling personalized videos online. (It’s worth noting that Owens would have been receiving Cosby Show residuals until the show’s repeats were yanked off air by several networks after Bill Cosby’s sexual-assault accusations came to light, something the actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner has spoken about.) The strange irony of Geoffrey Owens being effectively shamed for having a job is that the subsequent furor has sent his name-recognition skyrocketing. What that means for his finances is anyone’s guess.