The Mirror
2009-06-13 4:01

The most important lesson I ever learned was shown to me at a news-stand in Tel Aviv, by a guy in an open jacket and a gleaming white shirt. His name was Chubby Checker, and he taught the world to twist. He also taught me the meaning of the word ‘star’.

Photographs do not define stardom. There might be 300 paparazzi in the
street outside your flat, which makes you today’s ghoulish sensation, but it doesn’t make you a star. And
magazine covers are not the big issue — I should know, because I’ve made the front page of the glossies from Rio to Tokyo, and Moscow to Istanbul… to name just four cities where I don’t speak the language! Believe me, when you have to ask a cafe waiter to translate the headline over your own picture, you don’t feel like a star — you just feel like you woke up in someone else’s dream.

Fat and thin have nothing to do with stardom. Young fans who buy magazines like Heat and Grazia need to remember this: anyone can get an eating disorder. It doesn’t make you famous, but it can make you very ill.

Even talent has very little to do with celebrity. Reality shows like mine are ruling the ratings across Europe and America because viewers love to see newcomers with incredible gifts — but most of the brilliant acts will not go on to fame. It’s the audiences who decide which performers will taste real stardom.

And that’s what Chubby helped me to understand, years before I ever dreamed of the big time. For many celebs, their careers are over before they learn this lesson, but I was lucky — it was the first thing I discovered. I was still at school, and the summer hit was Let’s Twist Again. I remember it was never off the radio in the US airbase in Cyprus,where my American girlfriend introduced me to hamburgers with mustard.
My parents were separated, and when it was time for me to visit my father, a career soldier in the Israeli army, I had to go back to Tel Aviv. I must have been 14 or 15 years old, and I was hanging around on Allenby Street, when I saw a glamorous man with dark skin and a gleaming shirt. He was, unmistakeably, a pop star.

If he’d been an alien, i could not have stared harder. This guy had a smash No 1 hit, and in my eyes there was no bigger feat of stardom. Even Elvis couldn’t go higher than No 1.

Giddy with my own daring, I approached him for an autograph — and realised to my embarrassment that I didn’t have a pen. Nor did Chubby. I was standing there stammering, trying to tell him about the great times I’d had dancing to his record, and most celebs would have just given me a grin and a handshake and moved on. (Plenty of celebs these days would substitute a mouthful of abuse for the grin, and a one-fingered gesture for the shake.)

Chubby beckoned me to follow him and strolled down the street, looking every inch a dancer in his patent leather shoes. He stopped at a news kiosk, bought a pen, produced a photo from his jacket pocket and inscribed it with his signature.

That’s style. That’s stardom.

The kid on Allenby Street made only a momentary impression on Chubby Checker, but I’ve never forgotten him.
That’s why I have never turned down an autograph request, why I spend hours meeting my fans after every show and book signing, and why I try to answer every email personally, even though I receive something like 300 on an average day.

To me, it’s the basic rule of stardom: the fans come first. So when a young woman from Reading called Becky
contacted me to say that her Mum, Dina, and her sister, Jess, were big fans of my QVC jewelry range, I picked up the phone. Dina had a birthday coming up, and Reading is just down the road from my home, so it was only natural to ask them to drop by for a photograph and a chat. They wore their
jewelry — and of course they brought a spoon.

I also emailed back as I always do when I received this picture from a young German fan, Philipp Mertins, who has amassed a collection of books, posters, memorabilia and cards featuring my
It seems extraordinary to me that I can still be such an inspiration to youngsters like Philipp — he’s a teenager, and I’m more than twice the age Chubby Checker was, that far-off day in Israel.

It’s my job, my duty and my delight to instill a lesson of real value in young fans. Philipp wanted to know more about the mentalism marvels he’s seen on my show, but when I called him I wanted to implant a truly priceless seed in his mind.

“Work hard at school,” I told him. “I’m setting you a mission: choose your goal in education, and go for it. If your
target is university, focus all your mindpower on achieving it. Don’t get drunk, never touch drugs, stay away from smoking. Be positive, and believe in yourself. I believe in you.”

Half a century from now, I hope Philipp will still be inspired by that message. That’s the power of a lesson begun
when Chubby Checker walked to a news-stand… and proved himself a real star.

The photographer and film-maker Emma Brumpton visited my home to take pictures of me with my spoon-encrusted Cadillac, as part of the Israeli Channel Ten documentary. The pictures came out so well that we’re thinking of using them for a collection of posters and postcards.


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