Catfish’s Max Joseph: My Life As a Minor Celebrity

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Max Joseph. Photo: Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Nowadays it seems like everyone is famous. A little famous, anyway. You don’t have to be an actor anymore. Or a singer, a musician, an author, or even a beautiful socialite. There is a whole new diversity of fame sweeping the nation — you can be a YouTube chef, a fashion blogger, an Instagram girl, even a reality-TV-show sidekick … like me. For the last four years, I have appeared in more than 60 episodes of MTV’s Catfish, a doc-reality show about people who fake their identities online. The show has held a steady viewership, and anyone who watches MTV can attest to how often they rerun their shows — especially Catfish — resulting in D-list celebrity for me. But not too long ago I was just another anonymous citizen, free to roam the streets gawking, picking my nose, and giving 10 percent tips. But things have changed. I have changed.

I’ve always been behind the camera, but after seven years in L.A. directing web videos, I was still relatively unknown. Then, one day, Nev Schulman — the younger brother of one of my best friends and also the subject of the 2010 documentary Catfish, about an online romance gone awry — asked me if I’d be interested in helping him shoot a pilot he was making with MTV. At the time it sounded like a bad idea — why take this amazing documentary and spin it off into a cheesy reality show? — but there was no time for asking questions, as Nev explained the pilot was slated to shoot Monday (it was Friday) and the first guy he had asked to be his co-host had a scheduling conflict. Would I do it? And although I had previously thought little of the idea, I thought, Why not? It’s a pilot, after all. And if living in Hollywood for seven years had taught me anything it was that pilots rarely, if ever, get picked up. Plus, I needed the money. 

MTV gave me a six-season contract, and I signed it, laughing. Like that would ever happen. I had always imagined MTV having a much more rigorous casting process, one involving long lines of hipster, hotheaded, bisexual, multiethnic, omni-pierced, tattooed, vegan anarchists who looked great with little to no clothes on. But after a ten-minute conversation and a handshake, they let me inside the pearly gates of pop culture.

As it happened, the show turned out to be something I didn’t expect — a fascinating study in human behavior, modern psychology, and how our understanding of both has been thrown into disarray by social media. And, five seasons later, here I am: famous. But it wasn’t like one of those overnight-success montages. It was more like girls in braces asking for selfies, grown men thrusting their daughters and wives into my arms for a photo, Instagram followers multiplying, and the occasional free sandwich from a friendly flight attendant. 

The first time I was ever recognized was in October of 2012 in the Starbucks on the corner of 14th Street and Seventh Avenue. Some guy stopped me and was like, “Hey, aren’t you the guy from that show?” It was definitely surreal and somewhat intrusive (I wasn’t ready for it), but it did make me feel good — if I had to qualify the feeling, I’d say it belonged to the same kind of validating gratification you get from a “like” on Instagram, but much more amplified and longer-lasting. All of a sudden, I was visible. And other people turned to look, asking their friends who I was. Four years later, I am much more familiar with these pleasant imposition. I mostly get noticed in shopping malls, airports, red states. The Cheesecake Factory. I am more likely to get stopped in San Antonio or Oakland than in New York or L.A.

But this is all part of the basic package, like getting verified on Twitter or having people wonder if you’re gay. When I say I’m famous, I’m not kidding myself. I know my place in the celebrity kingdom — right at the bottom next to reality-show contestants, local politicians, and day-players on Law & Order. I now notice people staring at me a bit too long, or even whispering about me once I’ve passed by. I imagine this must be what it’s like to be a beautiful girl. But there are some aspects of my fame that must be specific to minor celebrity. Like when people who notice you feel compelled to Google you first just to make sure you are who they think you are before asking for a selfie, which is, I’ve learned, the new autograph. And that’s okay with me. Occasionally someone will request an actual autograph, offering me the back of a crumpled receipt before asking if I have a pen. The truth is that signing something takes a lot of thought — who do I make this out to? What do I say? Can this somehow come back to bite me in the ass? Selfies, though awkward, are generally quick, silent affairs that are over before you know it.

Another hallmark of minor celebrity is having people come up to you, saying, “I have no idea who you are, but my friends like your show and are too shy to ask for a picture." My personal favorite are the ones who take a selfie with me and then ask, “What show are you on, by the way?" Most people who recognize me don’t even know my name. They just yell out “Catfish!” or “Where’s Nev?” or sometimes just “Nev!” 

Sometimes people approach me and say, “I’m so sorry to bother you, but … ” or "You must get really tired of this,” before asking for a picture. I used to say this, too. One time I saw Jerry Seinfeld sitting on a park bench in Manhattan outside the Hayden Planetarium talking to a friend, and I went up to him and said, “Excuse me, I’m really sorry to bother you— ” and he cut me off, saying, “But are you really?” 

What’s easy to forget once you’re minorly famous is how nerve-racking it is to walk up to someone famous and interrupt them. When I’m taking a picture with a fan, it’s not uncommon for their hands to be shaking or for me to feel their heart pounding through their rib cage. But the best part is how easy it is for me to make someone’s day. Online, all I have to do is “favorite” a tweet or respond to someone on Instagram with a heart-eyes emoji. In person, all I need to do is limply live up to their sense of me and let someone Snapchat assault me for 20 seconds. It’s like being able to print money and give it away. There’s a warmth to it. All of a sudden, you’re hugging random strangers and their guard is dropped and some warm energy passes between you; I wouldn’t call it “love” because there are a lot of projections going on — some orgy of hero worship, transference, and adrenaline. This is not about meeting some gray-haired reality-show sidekick; they have just faced a fear and forced themselves to do something scary, and I am hugging them on the other side, and in our earthquake of happiness we are celebrating their bravery. That is something wonderful to be a part of. I didn’t get a hug from Seinfeld.

You may have begun to notice that minor fame is not without its unique anxieties. A year ago I actually got cyberstalked by someone who called me from my wife’s number and told me he was holding her hostage at my house (using my exact address). It was a hoax, of course. And then there are the more trivial issues. I often wonder if the waiters are now expecting bigger tips. I worry about revealing too much of my life on my Instagram posts. I often wonder if I should adopt a cause to call my own or start tweeting inspirational messages. And when tragedy strikes and the world takes to social media, is it now my responsibility to respond with #RIPs and #prayfors? I am stifled by the possibilitiestoo shy and self-conscious to leverage this power for world betterment or even personal gain. Most days I feel like the protagonist in Notes From Underground, forever overthinking myself out of taking any action whatsoever. My co-host, Nev, is much better suited for celebrity. In his own way, he has always acted like a celebrity, even before he was famous, and now the world has simply caught up. There’s a certain amount of entitlement involved that I just can’t get used to. 

For example, I don’t yet feel comfortable reaching out to other celebrities or even going up to them. Are we in a club now? Is there an understanding? One time, my wife — who is typically the least starstruck person I know — spotted “Chuck” from Gossip Girl (Ed Westwick) and beckoned me to ask him if he would take a picture with her. I was so nervous and bumbling that I didn’t even see his outstretched hand that he was offering me. He then proceeded to flirt with my wife before letting me snap a few pictures of them. The whole thing was very emasculating and made worse by the fact that he didn’t even know who I was. At least my wife walked away happy. 

I went up to Jeff Garlin once at Samy’s Camera in L.A. and found myself pathetically explaining to him that I was also on a show — like that somehow gave me permission to talk to him. I also still find myself waiting in lines for events, suffering the stares of people who recognize me and see me waiting just like them. Sometimes I'll try to somehow let the door person know who I am, but that just makes it more humiliating when they turn me away. My dreams don’t even know I’m famous yet. 

Has fame changed me? Has it made me happier? The truth is that I’m still the same moody guy from before, spending most days obsessing about things that make me unhappy. But now when I complain I get less sympathy from my friends. I am now less entitled to my self-loathing and indulgent wallowing. But, as any E! True Hollywood Story would tell you, celebrity is not a panacea. And most days, unless I get stopped on the street or asked for a selfie, I forget I’m famous at all. My dark days are still dark, and when I've worked up a good lather of self-hatred, there is no level of celebrity that can bring me back. In fact, sometimes it spins me out even more. I become disillusioned with all of this undeserved attention and feel like it would be better bestowed on a more talented, selfless, and altruistic person. And that’s when I’ll sign off for a few days, denying any and all celebrity attention.

Of course, there are also days when I crave and invite it. I often feel the pressure to "grow my audience." I know that Catfish won’t last forever, and neither will this minor celebrity. So shouldn’t I make hay while the sun shines? An army of followers is a valuable commodity, and being on a popular TV show is one of the fastest ways to get them. With a large following, the sky’s the limit: You can spark revolutions, start a meme, or, better yet, get that sweet, sweet endorsement money. Maybe I should've reached out to Touch of Gray years ago.

But having aspired to be a director, I've always counted on communicating to the public from behind the veil of a screen — always maintaining a safe personal distance. I guess I imagined that I could remain hidden there forever. But now that seems like an old-school notion. As a minor celebrity, I now have to become my own product or piece of art, which, although nightmarish at times, might actually be healthy in that it forces me to put myself out there and let people see me and connect with me. This is gratifying on a whole other level than having someone connect to something you made. But, in spite of this newfound power, I can’t seem to escape the constant overwhelming feeling that I’m squandering it all. That I’m not raising my voice at the right times; that I am coasting on good fortune, another vapid public figure with nothing to add except for the occasional complaint on Twitter. Perhaps I’ve just accelerated for myself what is inevitable for us all — that, like Banksy says, in the future we will all be anonymous for 15 minutes. As fame becomes more democratized, we might all have to start struggling with the powers, anxieties, and responsibilities of being a minor celeb. I wish I could say I’ve figured it out, but I’m not there yet. Maybe next season?