Walking around San Francisco with a mask every day means hiding an essential part of your appearance from the public. While the eyes are a window into the soul, the nose and mouth are portals to our symmetrical selves, completing the contours of our face so that everyone in sight can make an instant assessment of who we are — or who they think we are. For me, the coronavirus pandemic has tamped down a regular occurrence that would rile me every time it happened: A stranger notices my face from a few feet away, then says for everyone to hear, “Wow, that guy could be Howard Stern!”
The worst is when they won’t take “you’re mistaken” for an answer – as happened on a Sunday afternoon in 2019, when I stood on a street corner in an East Harlem neighborhood where no one knew me. I was a tourist in a city where you can get lost in anonymity, but a middle-aged woman was honking at me and furiously waving, then drove right to my corner as she stopped for the red light. “Howard Stern!” she crooned excitedly as she poked her head out her window. “Hi Howard!”
“No, I’m not . . . .,” I said as she bellowed from her car window. But as the light turned green and cars behind her were practically pushing her to move along, I gave into her fantasy so the traffic could flow again. “Hi,” I said, and she waved back and drove away – a case of assumptive misidentification that, before the advent of mask-wearing, would happen not just in New York and San Francisco but overseas, in cities like Lisbon and Porto in Portugal. And when it happened on a street where I could respond with a conversational reply, here was my usual answer: “I’m not even close to being Howard Stern. As a matter of fact, I detest Howard Stern. He’s overpaid. He’s overrated. And his utter buffoonery contributed to an inane culture that accepts ‘diss course’ for ‘discourse’ and helped give rise to Donald Trump – a president whose politics are the antithesis of mine.”
The answer I usually get from inquisitors. “Oh.”
It’s disconcerting to resemble a person you don’t like. I mean really don’t like. And I don’t think I really look like Howard Stern. For one thing, he’s much taller than me: 6-foot-5 compared to my barely 6-foot stature. And while our hair and hawkish/hookish noses might be vaguely similar, Stern’s immediate ethnic roots are in Europe, while mine are a global mix of geographies and cultures. Yes, I’m a half Ashkenazi Jew but I’m also half Mexican, with DNA that links me to Native America, East Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. The blood of disparate peoples courses through my veins, and it makes my blood boil to be linked to a pop culture figure who – through his radio parade called The Howard Stern Show – embodies a culture that rewards snide answers, dubious boasting, sexist idiocy, and an arrogance and belligerence that’s designed to embarrass, agitate, and, yes, entertain. That’s Howard Stern, who became very rich by trafficking in his brand of verbal narcotics. I say “narcotics” because it gets people hooked on – and tolerant of – a kind of toxic sensationalism that centers on sophomoric putdowns and superficiality, as in this 1999 on-air comment made 24 hours after the tragic Columbine shooting:
“There were some really good-looking girls running with their hands over their heads. Did those kids try to have sex with any of those good-looking girls? They didn’t even do that? At least if you’re going to kill yourself and kill the kids, why wouldn’t you have some sex? If I was going to kill some people, I’d take them out with sex.”
Stern was Trump’s conjoined twin, engaging with the future president about behavior that is morally if not legally criminal – as in 2005, when Stern solicited an admission from Trump that he barged in on women, some apparently as young as 15, at his beauty pageants: “Before a show, I’ll go backstage and everyone’s getting dressed, and everything else, and you know, no men are anywhere, and I’m allowed to go in because I’m the owner of the pageant and therefore I’m inspecting it. You know, I’m inspecting because I want to make sure that everything is good. You know, they’re standing there with no clothes. ‘Is everybody okay?’ And you see these incredible looking women, and so, I sort of get away with things like that.”
Heard by millions and millions of people, The Howard Stern Show helped lay the groundwork for the public’s reception and perception of Trump’s disgusting “Grab them by the pussy” remark, which was revealed in 2016 but had virtually no impact on Trump’s presidential campaign. Sure, Stern now says, “I just don’t agree politically” with Trump. And sure, Stern now says he was a genuine fan of Hillary Clinton and wished she’d gone on his show to boost her popularity and political base. But it’s way too late for regrets. Stern helped create a U.S. president whom many people call a fascist and an American Frankenstein. Notice I say “helped create,” since a thousand other factors gave rise to Trumpism, but the undeniable fact is that Stern was a factor. So that’s what I tell people who cozy up to me and expect some kind of positive, celebratory reaction.
I burst their bubble. I burst their bubblism – a condition that keeps people in cultural and political silos, especially at online sites like Reditt, where they talk about Stern, interact with their fellow bubblists, and worship at the feet of the famous and give these celebrities a respect that’s grossly out of proportion to their deserved place in society. While teachers around the United States struggle to earn $75,000, Stern reportedly earns $100 million a year (and is reportedly worth $650 million), which prompts his fans to adulate him even more. It’s no surprise that, during Gawker’s “stalker maps” period, where it tracked celebrities in real time, Stern was a target. Any sighting of Stern was a big deal – and that hasn’t changed in the year 2020. Which is why I get approached as often as I do.
I know some people would envy me for quasi-resembling a celebrity. In the surreal Instagram era that we live in, looks can be everything – and can lead to its own fame and possible fortune, which is why extreme worshippers will have excruciating plastic surgery to look like their heroes. Angelina Jolie lookalike Sahar Tabar and Kim Kardashian lookalike Jordan James Parke are the poster children for this extreme fawning. I didn’t pay a dime to achieve my look. Not one dime. It just happened through genetic circumstance. And if I really hated looking like Howard Stern – really despised the moments each year where people mistake me for the shock-jock – then I’d cut my hair short and stop wearing the glasses that also cement my resemblance to Stern. But I ain’t doing that. Instead, I use each case of mistaken identity as a chance to educate Stern’s fans – to connect the dots for them the way I’m doing in this essay.
Stern’s acolytes aren’t used to that. Not at all. And while I haven’t kept in touch with the scores of people who’ve stopped to ask if I’m Howard Stern – which is to say, I haven’t taken a poll to see if my dot-connecting and protestations have made a difference and changed their views about Stern, or celebrity-hood, or anything – I can say this: The pattern of mistaken identity has changed me. It’s clued me even more adroitly to the celebrity culture that drives so many people around the world – drives them to religiously follow celebrities on social media, as with Howard Stern (1.6 million Twitter followers) and Jennifer Aniston (35 million followers on Instagram); and even drives them to vote for celebrities who run for office without viable, meaningful political experience or public service, as with Al Franken, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Donald Trump.
It’s this out-of-control celebrity lionizing that really galls me when strangers ask if I’m Howard Stern. But if I’m honest with myself – if I parse out the levels of my animosity toward Stern and his place in the culture – I have to admit that jealousy is a factor. Yup. There’s a side of me that wishes people regularly walked up to me and asked, “Are you Jonathan Curiel?” There’s a side of me that wishes I were regularly on TV and had millions of social-media followers. I’ve been on the airwaves occasionally, as with my journalistic interviews that’ve made their way to C-SPAN. And I am on social media, but I’m mostly pedestrian at it, and have just 74 Twitter followers and 227 Instagram followers – which is about normal for Instagram and rather pathetic for Twitter.
Don’t get me wrong: People have asked me whether I’m me – including one time at a journalism awards ceremony, where I was getting recognized for my reporting on Arab culture and Arab politics and had to go on stage for a few minutes. It was nice to be recognized that evening. And it’s always illuminating to meet a celebrity – which I’ve done in my 30-year career as a journalist, as with my interviews with Aniston, Jackie Chan, Warren Beatty, and Omar Sharif. Hell, Aniston was honest enough to tell me about the chasm between fans’ perception of celebrity lives and the reality. “People tell me, ‘Your life is perfect,’ and they’re fed this idea that there’s this life without problems,” Aniston told me in 2002, “but they don’t know me and my life. Nobody gets away without some crazy days and hard knocks.”
I’m not even a fan of Aniston’s comedy, and I never watched Friends — not one minute – but I didn’t hate her, and I was good with writing about her 2002 movie, The Good Girl. Stern is another matter. It’s become personal for me. The hate is visceral. But I also know this: The hate could easily dissipate if I were to meet him and get to know him a bit the way I got to meet and know – if only for 30 minutes – Jennifer Aniston and Jackie Chan and other famous people like Rwanda president Paul Kagame. Every well-known figure in the world – whether Paul Kagame or Howard Stern – has a complicated legacy. I wrote about Kagame’s in 2005, a month after I interviewed him in person. Kagame committed genocide to stop genocide, scholars and critics now say. His legacy lives solidly in a gray area. Not black. Not white. Gray. As in, “There are contradictory truths here. Let’s not come to conclusions before we understand all the facts. I mean all the facts.”
It’s this kind of complicated existence that Stern and his fans avoid. Generally speaking, they relish the put-down. And they relish conversations that devolve into the gutter – that devolve into easily reductionist notions about women’s bodies, about sex, about politics, and about the world at large. This kind of reductionist view is good for Stern’s bottom line, but it’s bad for the world’s bottom line. It helped lay the foundation for the cultural dumbing down of America, and the cultural acceptance of politicians who can talk nonsense but still get elected to office.
I say “hell no” to this political dumbing down. I say “hell no” to rewarding superficiality in politics and the culture at large. And I say “hell no” to Howard Stern. But in this pattern of “hell no,” I know I’m being an extremist myself. I’m being like . . . well, Howard Stern. Almost twins. So, shock of shocks: We have things in common. (Hell, we’re both authors!) And guess what: I’m OK with that. I’m OK with occasionally being similar to Howard Stern. And if people are going to approach me like that driver in East Harlem – if they’re taking the time from their day to take time from my day – it’s fair for me to give them a Howard Stern-like lecture on what it’s like to look a bit like Howard Stern. In that moment, I am him. Like him, I’m using a short time – seconds, really – to be didactic and opinionated and (if I’m in the mood) darkly funny.
So, I’ll welcome the end of mask-wearing, the end of the pandemic, and the reemergence of being mistaken for Howard Stern, whenever it happens. And in the meantime, I’ll learn to actually thank Stern. And anyone who stops me or does a double take – like the woman two years ago on Fulton and Masonic streets who said she could empathize with my resemblance because people often told her she looked exactly like Sharon Stone. Truthfully, she didn’t. Not at all. I mean, I’ve met Sharon Stone. Talked to her for a minute. Wished her well (even though I think she’s an utterly horrible actress). And the Sharon Stone lookalike I spoke with in San Francisco was no lookalike. She was a look-a-little. Just like me. But a little resemblance, I’ve learned, can go a long way. It’s not a problem but an opportunity. It’s a chance to meet new people. Whether you like them – or look like them – is a whole other matter.
Jonathan Curiel has been writing about the arts for SF Weekly since 2010.
Quarantine Thoughts is an ongoing personal essay series focused on how the coronavirus, social distancing mandates and the economic fallout of COVID-19 is impacting locals. Read more essays here.