Stars take precautions with fan mail
By Sherri Sylvester
CNN Showbiz Today Reports
A Fan Asylum employee scans celebrity mail
Hollywood, California (CNN) -- The fan letter, used throughout Hollywood history to measure a star's popularity, may soon be obsolete.
The threat of anthrax has created an atmosphere of postal scrutiny throughout the country, but the sheer volume of celebrity mail is posing problems for studio mailrooms. Many movie studios are returning letters, suggesting the e-mail alternative. Others have moved their mailrooms outdoors, and are using such precautions as rubber gloves and face masks while opening envelopes. Publicists and agents are routing fan letters through screening services such as Fan Asylum, a San Francisco-based company.
"Suspicious mail, if you go by the description they put out to the public -- that's 95 percent of our mail," says Tim McQuaid, Fan Asylum president. The 20-year-old company handles mail addressed to Whitney Houston, Boyz II Men, Melissa Etheridge, TLC and Matchbox Twenty.
Fan Asylum employees sort through thousands of letters, most of which are hand-written, come wrapped with packing tape, and include excess postage. Some are oddly shaped. And many fans leave off their return address, believing a star will open the letter out of curiosity, according to McQuaid.
McQuaid and his crew examine each envelope by hand -- albeit a rubber-gloved hand. They are no longer using automated letter openers.
The flow can become a flood if a star is in the news, McQuaid says. "Somebody like Whitney Houston ... in an active period when they're touring, can get two to three thousand letters a week," he says.
Stars want to remain accessible
Tracy Shaffer, a publicist with PMK/HBH, says the firm is recommending mail screening services to all of its celebrity clients. But she adds that many stars do want to remain accessible to their fans.
"Often times the people (writing) are sick, or they're needy, or they're in jail and they need a little inspiration," she says, "but given the risk inherent in opening fan mail, our clients have deferred that responsibility."
The stars themselves have mixed feelings about fan mail.
"I open my fan mail, and I get on a plane, and I hope that I don't get anthrax. I won't let it stop me because then 'they' win," says singer Barry Manilow.
But actress Dominique Swain says reports of anthrax have concerned her. "I've stopped (receiving mail)," she says. "It was getting more voluminous, so I got kind of scared. Then I was opening one of the packages and I sliced my thumb -- I was like 'this does not bode well,' so I've completely stopped."
Changes at awards shows
Kevin Spacey signs autographs
Fans may find their access to stars limited in other ways as well.
Emmy organizers have eliminated fan bleachers from Sunday's awards ceremony, where fans traditionally have taken their places in the stands to watch the nominees arrive.
The Grammys may end the practice as well, although they are still working out a multimillion dollar security plan for the event. The producers of the Academy Awards believe fans add an important energy to the show, but add that they will employ metal detectors and bag searches for everyone at the venue.
The perimeters of movie premieres have been secured, but fans are still able to line the sidewalks and collect autographs.
Although television tapings were off-limits immediately after September 11th, studio audiences have been allowed to return to show tapings.
Jackie Chan greets fans at movie premier
Then there are musicians, who often stop by record stores to perform and meet with fans. Most believe those events will never go out of fashion.
"I've always had extremely cool fans -- people that were just music lovers in general," says Sheryl Crow. "I've had a couple of stalkers, but I've never conducted my life with fear or paranoia."
Adds Mary J. Blige, "For some reason, I know who's who. The ones that hate me stay far away and just stare at me. And the ones that love me are crying and jumping all over me -- just open your arms and say, 'I love you too.' "
R&B star Brian McKnight takes a cautious approach. "I've always done meet-and-greets. I think that the people who go out of their way to call and win an opportunity to meet me are probably not the people who want something bad to happen to me," he says. "But at the same time, I always have four or five cops that are with me."
Security for celebrities is nothing new, of course. Even prior to September 11, many were wary of overzealous fans and the demands of the spotlight. Given the current charged atmosphere in the world, vigilance has become even more important.
But, like most Americans, they're also trying to live their lives as normally as possible under the circumstances.
Perhaps Melissa Etheridge puts it best.
"I'm not afraid of people, I'm not afraid of large groups," she says. "I personally am not going to let fear control me, or run my life or my career."
How are the stars reacting to terrorist scares? It depends upon who you ask.
"My people have got their hazmat suits ... I have taken some precautions because of it, but the one thing I've learned from playing a guy at the highest levels of the government -- you never discuss your security precautions."
- Rob Lowe
"I'm not gonna say whether I open things myself or not, but I think it's true that people should just live their lives and not let it consume them."
- Shannon Elizabeth
"I no longer receive fan mail, so anybody out there who's sending me anything -- I'm so sorry...postcards might be a good idea."
- Jill Hennessy
"No, I'm not actually, I've stopped. It was getting more voluminous, so I got kind of scared. Then I was opening one of the packages and I sliced my thumb -- I was like 'this does not bode well,' so I've completely stopped."
- Dominique Swain
"I get it after it's already been opened. I've always been cautious though because I attract a certain type of crowd that sends me very interesting things -- sometimes living, sometimes not."
- Marilyn Manson
"I always feel lucky to get fan mail. I don't know, they advised everybody not to open their mail if you don't know who it's from -- I think that's good advice. The whole thing is bizarre."
- Jon Lovitz
"It goes through several channels before it gets to me, but you know if it's my time, it's my time -- you can't live in fear, or else you're dead already."
- Teri Polo
"I open my fan mail, and I get on a plane, and I hope that I don't get anthrax. I won't let it stop me because then 'they' win."
- Barry Manilow
"Here's my approach to opening my fan mail: If someone hates me that much to send me anthrax, I'm doomed anyway because the entire planet is going to Hell. If some terrorist thinks that I'm the guy they should attack -- oh boy, we're all in trouble."
- Matthew Lillard