My Time with Bill

I was sitting on an uncomfortable couch in the dressing room at Oprah; or maybe it was just me who was uncomfortable. After all, I was about to meet one of the most recognizable human beings on the planet—Bill Cosby.  I was his literary publicist. It was my job to accompany him to media appearances and book signings to promote his book, Come On People. It’s hard to describe how surreal it was to go from being a kid from Saginaw, Michigan to the representative for entertainment royalty. Until this moment, I had only heard Cosby’s voice on the other end of a conference call. Now I’m  in his dressing room.

The bathroom door swung open and he appeared to the sounds of instant laughter. He was wearing a light blue dress shirt, a dark blue patterned tie, a sharp navy blazer, and his boxer shorts. I stood up, unsure of where to look. Wisely, I chose his eyes. I reached out my hand and said something typical like, “So great to finally meet you, Mr. Cosby.” A few minutes later, now fully clothed in neatly pressed grey slacks, he sat down next to me to discuss the book and tour. My bizarre day got more bizarre as Oprah entered the room. The two shared a long friendly embrace and again plenty of laughs. I remember trying to calculate how much money was standing directly in front of me.

I spent the next couple of weeks off and on with Bill in different places—book stores in Chicago and Harlem and the Museum of African American History in Boston. I got a glimpse of what it’s like to be a megastar; to be someone everybody wants a piece of.  I saw how people catered to his every need. His mood could change from moment to moment. For this reason, people walked on egg shells around him and laughed at every thing he’d say, even if it wasn’t really funny. More often than not, he was the lovable Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable. One time, he insisted on walking a couple of blocks from one appearance to another.  There we were, just the two of us, walking down the cobblestone streets of Boston. Every head turned, cameras came out, and people shouted from their cars, Hey Bill! Over here! Bill Cosby! He seemed to revel in it. A woman walked toward us on her phone. He stood in her path and grabbed it from her. “Who is this?” He asked the unsuspecting person on the other end. It was the woman’s mother. “This is Bill Cosby. Your daughter is doing great. Quit nagging her. She’s fine!” The small crowd that had gathered shared a good laugh. He smiled as he handed the phone back to the stunned woman.

Then there were the not-so-great moments—times he seemed more like an ornery old man than a beloved star. He made people feel bad if they took too long to get a picture of him. He berated a young fan for getting in line twice to have a second book signed. He embarrassed her in front of hundreds of people and wouldn’t let it go. He insisted that only one man—an old friend—could drive him to appearances. I was not permitted to know the man’s name. He was to be paid in cash only, no checks and no tax forms. When Bill arrived at an event, I was to approach “Mr. B’s” driver side window and hand him an envelope with cash. It was strange. Another time, he arranged for my co-workers and me to get tickets to his performance in Nashville, only to take them away a few hours before the show because he wasn’t happy about some press coverage none of us could control.

In hindsight, the most disturbing thing happened at the Oprah taping. I saw him whisper something in the ear of a pretty young woman who promptly slapped him on the leg and walked away. At the time, I laughed it off. Now I wonder what he said to her.

Bill Cosby has been convicted of drugging and sexually assaulting a woman. More than sixty others have come forward with similar stories. It appears the image of this gentle, sweater-clad dad was just that, an image. I wish I could tell you he’s incapable of such monstrous acts. I cannot.

I have been in this business long enough to know this for sure: We create celebrity. We stop telling talented people the word no very early on.  They forget what it means. Time after time, I have seen people in awe over another human being. They want an autograph, a touch, or just a glance their way. I’m guilty too. You don’t think I loved telling people who I was with on the road during that time? You don’t think I was floored when Bill Cosby borrowed my phone and made dinner reservations for me and my co-worker at his favorite New York restaurant? They are important people and it makes you feel important to be near them. We forget they are just people, flawed people. Maybe even sick people. We don’t know them.  We feel like we do. We don’t.

When the Cosby story first broke I overheard someone say, “There are no heroes anymore.” Not true. We just look for them in the wrong places.

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