Vying for fame — with those who share your name

By Caitlin Kelly

Those who aspire to fame — hell, visibility! — in their field need talent, hard work, education, connections, good luck, experience, opportunity.

They also need people to recognize and remember their name.

One reason movie stars change their names is to win an indelible place in the public imagination — would you rush as quickly to see a film by Allen Konigsberg (Woody Allen) or one starring Alphonso D’Abruzzo (Alan Alda)?

Your name is your brand.

Especially in an age of social media, when it might be read by (and re-tweeted to) thousands, if not millions of people.

For decades, very few girls or women, at least in my native Toronto and later in New York — and most importantly, in my work as a journalist — shared my first name. I’d never met another Caitlin Kelly.

Two highly-visible others share “my” name in the same elbows-out city — New York.

English: Bird's eye panorama of Manhattan & Ne...
English: Bird’s eye panorama of Manhattan & New York City in 1873. This town ain’t big enough for all three of us! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And one of them is a writer for the New Yorker.

“Congrats! Saw your great piece” emails arrive  in my in-box. For her. (For those of you beyond the U.S, a staff job at the New Yorker is, for many writers, the pinnacle of the profession, the sort of spot many ambitious writers deeply envy.)

My loving friends think I’m talented and know I live in New York so, hey, it must be me!

But it’s not.

Then came the fawning, hand-wringing email from some fangirl who assumed I was the other CK, asking me for career advice.

This Caitlin Kelly is a designer of elegant, upscale swimwear, whose name I began seeing whenever a Google alert sent me to her work, not to mine. She’s also here in New York, much younger than I, as is the other CK.

She called me the other day and we finally learned a bit more about one another. I’d been curious, as her work is lovely.

She sounds like a hard-working talented woman. We — somewhat oddly for strangers sharing a name — spoke at length and fairly personally.

We haven’t met, yet, although it’s possible we will. There may be an interesting story to write about “my” doppelgangers: how often (if at all) are they confused with me? How does that feel for them?

I checked out a few of the 26 (!) other Caitlin Kelly’s in the New York area, ranging from a college librarian (who’s emailed me a few times over the years) to a VP at Chase Morgan.

Twenty-six of us?!

Time for a CK party, I think.

Do you have a name shared with someone (else) who’s well-known?

How has that played out for you?

What’s your personal brand?

Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon, July 20, 1969
Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon, July 20, 1969 (Photo credit: Wikipedia) I’m also a fearless explorer, minus the helmet.

I recently attended a writers’ conference and listened to a panel teaching us “Brand You.”

Not the hot metal mark seared into your butt kind.

The “I’m unique because” kind.

I’m lousy at sound-bite self-definition, which is driving American business as never before, thanks to Twitter, (which I don’t use), Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media.

And tomorrow in Manhattan I’m attending a huge blogging conference, BlogHer, where I’ll have to tout yourself in a few pithy syllables.

I was raised, culturally (Canada) and by my (accomplished but quiet about it) family and by my profession (journalism) not to toot my horn all the damn time.

Have you ever heard of “tall poppy” syndrome? In Australia, the tallest poppy — i.e. the boastful braggart — gets its pretty little head lopped off for its temerity. The Japanese and Swedes have their own expressions for this as well.

Canadians just find chest-beating socially gauche, and assume you’re a pushy American. So that whole brand-building thing, there, is often considered about as attractive as passing wind. Modesty is highly prized, so how to “be a brand” and do so in a low-key way, somehow escapes me.

(Being modest is easier in a smaller nation with tighter social and professional networks. There are more than 300 million Americans, some of them breathtakingly aggressive. Remaining invisible often means professional suicide.)

I still think (yes, I know I’m wrong!), that the quality of my body of work should speak for itself. This constant, tedious “watchmewatchmewatchmeeeeeeee!” of a three-year-old at the pool — now considered part of “building your personal brand” — remains a behavior I find a little infantile. Even after 20+ years in the U.S. and near New York City, where sharp elbows are a pre-requisite for survival.

Here are a few phrases I think define me and my work:

passionate authenticity

insatiable curiosity

nuanced investigation

I love this song, Helplessness Blues, by Fleet Foxes:

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me

But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be
I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see

What’s my name, what’s my station, oh, just tell me what I should do

Do you have a brand?

What is it?

How did you arrive at it?