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Three Tales of Local Stardom

By Curt Wozniak

The first local celebrity sighting is a rite of passage for anyone who has started over in a new city. Sure, you’ll need to find out which coffee shop serves the cheapest café mocha and which deli dishes the best Reuben, but nothing tells you that you’ve made yourself at home in a community like knowing when to get starstruck in the grocery store. Only after the name Gerry Barnaby means something to you can you call yourself a true Grand Rapidian.

Every community has its favorite personalities, whether they’re charismatic elected officials, heroic sports figures or wacky drive time DJs. Grand Rapids is no different. In fact, with entertainment traditions that stretch back to the old Vaudeville circuit, local affiliates of three of the four major broadcast networks and our very own contribution to the 1990s alternative rock phenomenon, Grand Rapids isn’t nearly as celebrity starved as one might expect a medium-sized Midwestern city to be.

That doesn’t change the fact that we still are a medium-sized Midwestern city.

In America’s cult of personality, the nuances of fame in a city the size of Grand Rapids are interesting. If GR sometimes feels like a small town to its residents who haven’t won an Emmy or recorded a No. 1 single, it shrinks to microscopic proportions when total strangers approach like they’ve known you for years as you lunch at Taco Bell.

Grand Rapids Magazine recently explored the nature of celebrity with three of this city’s recognizable names: WZZM 13 news anchor Kim Covington; screenwriter, director and producer Rodney Vaccaro; and singer/songwriter Brian Vander Ark of The Verve Pipe. These three local celebrities offer three very different takes on fame in the River City.

Occupation: TV news anchor/reporter
Celebrity status: High profile
Claim to fame: Covington has been the 5:30 p.m. anchor and “On Your Side” reporter for WZZM 13 News in Grand Rapids since 1998.

Kim Covington knows what an asset it can be for a broadcast journalist to have a face that viewers can trust. What she didn’t know was that for her, part of earning that trust would involve a station marketing campaign that plastered larger-than-life images of her visage around the city.

“We started those billboards soon after I was hired here five years ago,” Covington said, embarrassed. “It was such a shock. When I first saw them, I was like, ‘My face is so huge!’ I mean, I always criticize myself anyway, then when you see your big ol’ head on billboards, it’s like, ‘Yuck!’”

Covington has gotten used to the billboards. In fact, her sense of humor and down-to-earth nature are two of the reasons WZZM viewers have warmed up to this St. Louis-area native. Today Covington receives so much mail — everything from unsolicited makeup tips to pleas for advice on personal, non-news related problems — she’s had to hire an intern to help her answer it all. “People e-mail me and want me to solve their problems for them,” Covington said. “They come to me with all sorts of things; I’m amazed by that.”

A love for the immediacy and power of television news prompted Covington to refocus her career after a couple of radio internships failed to spark a similar passion. “(Television) is just the most powerful medium,” she proclaimed. “You can reach so many people with it and affect change.” The inevitable status and recognition that goes along with being on TV didn’t play into the equation. “It’s wonderful to know that people are watching, but when I’m out with my family or out with my husband, or at church worshiping, (being recognized) continues to catch you off guard a little bit,” she admitted.

However, Covington has learned to use her status to give back to the community she says is the friendliest she’s known in her 17 years in broadcasting. “I’m one of the founding board members of the Multiracial Association of Professionals,” Covington explained. “And Channel 13 has been able to promote the events that we do. … We are the ‘healing the racial divide’ station, and a great part of that has been building this partnership.”

Occupation: Writer/producer for various film and TV projects in L.A., frequent guest director at Circle Theatre in Grand Rapids
Celebrity status: Hollywood insider
Claim to fame: A fixture in the local theater scene through the 1980s, Vaccaro moved to Los Angeles in 1990 and has since optioned several scripts, including the Showtime original movie “Run the Fields Wild,” which won the Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Special in 2000.

In 2002, Community Circle Theatre celebrated its 50th anniversary. Later this season, Circle moves into new digs on the Aquinas College campus. Adding to the atmosphere of excitement in June — whether he wants to admit it or not — is Rodney Vaccaro, visiting director for Circle’s production of Neil Simon’s “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” and one of the local theater community’s favorite sons.

“I’ve noticed that there’s a little less excitement each year,” Vaccaro deadpanned, phoning from his home in Los Angeles. “The theater community, like the movie community, is young and it has a very short memory.” All kidding aside, Vaccaro’s enduring commitment to Grand Rapids is a big deal. So says Lynn Brown-Tepper, production manager for Circle Theatre. “We’re very fortunate,” she said.

Fortunate, yes. Effusive, no. Vaccaro may be just one degree of separation away from A-list stars such as Matthew Perry (who starred in his 1999 film “Three to Tango”) — making him just three degrees away from Brad Pitt (you make the connection) — but as a rule, the Grand Rapids theater community has not been starstruck. “I haven’t noticed a difference in the way people treat me in Grand Rapids,” Vaccaro said. “Usually it’s just, you know, ‘Rodney’s back.’ That’s it.”

Outside the theater community, however, Vaccaro has encountered some exceptions. “People are intensely interested in the culture of celebrity,” he explained. “They always want to know what celebrities I know — and I don’t know a lot of them. I meet a lot of them, but that’s just a whole different world. I mean, writers don’t generally travel in those circles.”

Vaccaro lives a pretty guarded life in California. He still prefers family time with his wife and daughters to face time with movie industry movers and shakers. And he can’t think of many ways he’d rather spend his summer than directing a show in Grand Rapids. “Any artist has a city that’s a muse,” he said. “Joyce had Dublin … Woody Allen has New York … and for me, I’ve got Grand Rapids.”

Vaccaro admits that his relationship with GR raises eyebrows in the show business world — especially among that small population who were also born here. According to Vaccaro, that’s too bad. “It would be wonderful to see Gillian (Anderson) come back and do a show, or Paul Schrader or John McNamara,” Vaccaro said. “But it’s kind of funny. When I talk to friends of mine who are from Grand Rapids and have moved out … they just wanted to get away and find something else.”

He continued. “The problem with that is that what you are is inside of you; it doesn’t matter where you live. So most of the people I know who were miserable in Grand Rapids are pretty miserable every place.”

Occupation: Singer/songwriter
Celebrity status: Yesterday’s rock star, today’s grassroots artist
Claim to fame: Vander Ark fronts alternative rock band The Verve Pipe, the West Michigan group that enjoyed national success with its major-label debut, “Villains,” which boasted the No. 1 single, “The Freshman.”

Celebrities don’t have to be resilient. Burning out and fading away is part of their lore. Artists, on the other hand, are a different story. And that is the story Brian Vander Ark tells these days.

Vander Ark’s celebrity dwindled after The Verve Pipe’s second and third records failed to duplicate the success of the platinum-selling “Villains.” RCA Records dropped the band last year. Today, as Vander Ark re-emerges with a new independently released solo album, the creatively freeing experience of recording it still quickens his cadence with excitement as he discusses the halcyon days of The Verve Pipe. He misses those days a little, but not for the reasons you’d expect.

“From 1995 to 2000, the schedule was really hectic for The Verve Pipe,” Vander Ark recalled. “But we had so many people taking care of everything for us, I probably got more sleep and was more relaxed during that time than I am now.”

On his recent spring tour, Vander Ark and his tour manager booked every show themselves, promoted the shows themselves, and even took turns driving the RV. This grassroots approach doesn’t exactly encourage healthy sleeping patterns, but Vander Ark enjoys being in control.

“Right now, I have my finger on the pulse of what I’m doing artistically, and that’s more satisfying and gratifying than I ever thought it could possibly be,” he said. “I’m hesitant to sign with another label just because I don’t want to give that up.”

After stints living in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City, Vander Ark has settled back in Grand Rapids. The smaller the crowd, the harder it is to get lost in it, but Vander Ark says he prefers a sense of community over a sense of anonymity at this point in his life. “I generally like people and I like conversations,” he said. “If I didn’t, and wanted to be left alone, I would move to one of the Havens. But Grand Rapids is nice; it’s very comfortable right now.”

Vander Ark’s hectic schedule affords him little time to spend on the local music scene that launched his career. When he does go out to catch a band, he contends that his fellow Grand Rapidians do not treat him like a star of MTV videos and feature films (his acting credits include “Rock Star” with Mark Wahlberg) — at least not anymore.

“During the heyday of The Verve Pipe, there was about a 50/50 chance that someone would come up to me and say something obnoxious, but that’s pretty much over now,” he laughed. “I’ve been part of the community so long, it’s not such a big surprise to see me any more. Generally, I’m left alone.” GR

Curt Wozniak is an aspiring local celebrity and the Grand Rapids Magazine staff writer.

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