You're famous aren't you? Er, what was your name again?

Trevor Phillips On the art of fame

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In this week of new beginnings, it may be time for an ur-text. Of course you know what an ur-text is - the original, unexpurgated text, musical or literary, showing the author's or composer's work without modification, allowing us to translate or interpret all further texts. Everything is built on that foundation.

If this column has an ur-text, it is a profound meditation on the nature of identity, in the work of a little-recognised group of philosophers who sum it up thus:

Who do you think you are?

Some kind of superstar?

The questions which week after week we worry about are bound by this couplet, the work of Mel B, Mel C, Geri, Victoria and Emma. Weeks of debate over the referendums; millions of words about the British nation after the death of the Princess; the unceasing search of the Blair Project and its acolytes for the New Britain; the backbreaking research of dozens of university departments - all condensed into 10 words masquerading as a pop song. It is awesome.

This week I found out that the second line of the rhyme has its own special meaning. It is in effect, no less than a critical meditation on the nature of celebrity. This is something I know about. I am myself at best a nanocelebrity - my recognition factor being somewhat smaller than a weasel's wedding tackle, as Blackadder would put it. I believe that there are fewer than two dozen people in this country who are so famous that they genuinely need no introduction. The test is whether nine out of ten of us can both recognise them and name them. You would probably recognise the Queen, but you'd miss Prince Edward in a crowd; you'd know Cilla; but, I promise you, you'd never know that Liam Gallagher wasn't his brother. Tony Blair, yes, but Michael Meacher? No way. There is an exquisite humiliation for anyone who imagines that appearing on TV makes you famous. Having been on the screens of the capital for more than a decade, on average once a week, I have learnt this the hard way. A few months ago, whilst filming on the streets of Hackney, I was approached by a young man who said how much he admired my programme. I promise that the pride I felt was not personal, but on behalf of the hard-working creative team that produces the show. As he turned to go he threw in one last query: "Oh, by the way, is your dad still reading the news, then?" I haven't yet figured out a way to tell Trevor Macdonald that he's acquired a new relative.

It may be that the young man was taught in Hackney's schools, and never got round to the lesson where they teach the distinction between a forename and a surname; but even so, I think it's a bit hard on poor old Trevor to suggest that he might already be reaching for the bus pass.

Not that he'd mind, I suppose. Oddly enough, the truly famous can be unusually modest; they remember your name, for example. As I examined some elephant dung at the Royal Academy's Sensation exhibition this week, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to be greeted by The Most Famous Living Author In The World. (Sorry Jeffrey; I could arrange the fatwa if you really fancied it, but it would make running for Mayor of London very, very hard - security would probably soak up next year's advance. It's Salman Rushdie I'm talking about.)

I hadn't seen Salman for some years, except across a crowded room, so I would not have expected him to remember me (shouldn't think he watches television a lot); more important, I wouldn't expect him to remember my wife's name. But he did. There is a class of hugely well-organised Americans who have your family history down in their address books, so that no business conversation passes without an enquiry about your younger daughter ("she must be nine now, right?") leaving you bewildered at their powers of recall. But he didn't have an aide-memoire, so it must have been genuine. Anyway, TMFAINTW was charm itself. So was The Great Interrogator, whom I had not met properly before, and to whom I'd never been properly introduced, yet who greeted me as an equal.

Yet 10 minutes later I bounded up to a lesser-known scribbler who has from time to time been paid by TV companies, and whom I had met briefly on a couple of occasions. I have never spoken more than a dozen words to the man. Yet he asked me if I was still doing the TV programme that he and I had hosted together, on a channel that I have never been near, and then started to talk about the times we worked together. Clearly, the old adage that we black people all look alike still holds for some. The chap has probably met only one black person in his life, and now imagines that we are all the same fellow. He may suffer from the same disease that afflicted the porters at my university. The son of Archbishop Tutu also happens to be called Trevor. Being what he is, and what I am, we came to know each other well, since we would regularly get each other's mail. Not that the envelopes said "Please give me to any black male answering to the name o Trevor"; they would clearly announce themselves as for "Phillips" or "Tutu". Somehow it all seemed too much.

But the people I feel really sorry for are those whose fame has become an adjunct to someone or something else's. The name Lorraine Chase will probably mean little to most of us; but "the Luton Airport Girl" places her instantly. And imagine being known only as Margaret Thatcher's husband. It's not worth it really, is it? That is why, to return to our ur-text, the Spice Girls have it right.

You're swelling out in the wrong direction

You got the bug, superstar you've been bitten,

Your trumpet's blowing for far too long ...

Andy Warhol promised fame for 15 minutes to everyone. Oprah, Ricki Lake, Esther, and, God help us, Vanessa are doing their best to deliver. But be warned .You can't be too careful with celebrity. Embrace it gingerly if you embrace it at all. It's not all that it seems.

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