Over the last week or so, there’s been an onslaught of intensely juicy stories centered around celebrities behaving badly at restaurants. In case you’ve been living under a rock, New York City restaurateur Keith McNally went viral after banning — and then unbanning — The Late Late Show host James Corden from his restaurant Balthazar for allegedly acting like an asshole. The story has had a surprisingly long life in the news cycle, fueling an ongoing obsession with celebrity restaurant gossip.
Immediately following the Corden story, service industry workers across the globe began sharing their own brushes with celebrity entitlement. In his forthcoming memoir Your Table Is Ready, Michael Cecchi-Azzolina, former maitre d’ at Raoul’s and Le Coucou in New York, dishes on harrowing experiences with then-actress Meghan Markle and Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour. Cecchi-Azzolina claims model Naomi Campbell was a particularly horrible customer; an unnamed source to the New York Post also names and shames huckster life coach Tony Robbins and basketball player Dennis Rodman. But why, exactly, are we so obsessed with hearing stories about celebrities treating workers poorly?
Outside of the fact that everyone loves to hear about a good tantrum, our culture has decided that treating waitstaff badly is one of the lowest forms of bad behavior. Even people who have never worked in the service industry know that the work is brutal and the customers can be even worse. Many people won’t go on a second date with a person who’s a bad tipper or a jerk to the waiter, and some employers even use restaurants as a barometer of sorts to determine how a person might behave as a manager. There are plenty of us who won’t even send a wrong dish back to the kitchen for fear of being perceived as entitled.
As such, these stories of bad behavior are essentially the inverse of the countless assurances in gossip rags that celebrities are “Just Like Us!,” posted alongside photos of famous people going to the grocery store and picking up dog poop. This “normal people” coverage is a particularly effective form of currency for celebrities: Perhaps in an effort to justify our obsession with famous people, we’re thrilled to participate in this myth-making because it makes us feel closer to, and more akin to, the celebrities we idolize. As Slate’s Ruth Graham wrote, it connects their “magic to our mundanity,” and everyone wins.
But when we hear about a celebrity acting entitled or otherwise dickish, especially toward service industry workers, it’s a stark reminder that these people actually live in a completely different world than the rest of us: a world where mistakes are whisked away before James Corden’s wife can ever see streaks of egg white in her all-yolk omelet, and no one ever says “no.”
For other celebrities who’ve already been described as nightmares to be around, like Campbell and Wintour, the impact of a scandal like this is greatly minimized. But for James Corden, who’s traded on his family-friendly, “nice guy” persona throughout his entire career, allegations that he treats “the little people” like dirt while fawning all over celebrities on his television show reveals the work that goes into crafting his “aw shucks” persona, and the disconnect that often exists between public and private. If he isn’t the guy who charmed millions on Carpool Karaoke, who is he exactly?
It is not surprising that a fancy restaurant like Balthazar — which is also a favorite of Wintour, Sienna Miller, and Meryl Streep — serves as the forum for this debate. It’s perhaps the most common example of the “haves,” or people who can afford to spend hundreds of dollars on a single dinner, mingling with the “have nots,” the people who prepare and serve that dinner to them. If a person behaves badly in this space — in public! with people around! — what monsters must they be in private?
Conversely, the James Corden fracas has also inspired people to share their experiences with celebrities that have actually been great. We’ve learned that Patrick Stewart is a generous tipper, and that Conan O’Brien will fire your ass if he catches you being mean to a waiter. There is a relief in learning that your fave is actually a good person — or more cynically, that they at least have enough good sense to know that they have to act right in public if they want to keep that self-created magic alive.
But feel-good stories will always have a much less viral quality than the negative ones, because there is nothing the gossip-consuming public (myself included) loves more than schadenfreude — especially when that schadenfreude involves a moral high ground.