14 Photographs That Shatter Your Image of Famous People
When you step out the door, you're playing a role. Whether you're a hippie, stock broker, police officer or biker, you dress the way the world expects you to dress, you act the way the world expects you to act. So you can imagine how much more intense this is for celebrities, whose very careers depend on managing a public image down to the molecule.
But even they can't keep the occasional image-shattering photo from leaking out to the public ...
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Pool Hustler
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who, when seeing this photo, immediately hear "Werewolves of London" in their heads, and those who do not. That is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago, showboating in a pool match with local civil rights leader Al Raby.
And no, this isn't one of those photo ops where a public figure poses with a prop to look like regular folk. King was a hell of a pool player -- he took up the game in college almost 20 years earlier, and in the early days of the civil rights movement allegedly won the respect of local gang members by playing (and presumably beating) them at it.
Which is amazing, considering that a man who would attempt a shot like that in the middle of a match is probably something of a sore winner. "Looks like you lose again, Johnny Switchblade! Now pardon me while I do a victory lap around your pool hall while riding my cue like a horse."
A Young, Cool Stephen Hawking, Standing With His Bride
On one hand, none of us probably thought that Stephen Hawking was born in a wheelchair. But as a pop culture figure, his wheelchair and electronic voice are his thing, and against all logic you find it hard to think of him any other way, like how you can't think of Hulk Hogan without the tan and mustache.
That photo up there is from 1965, when a 23-year-old Hawking married Jane Wilde. That was after his diagnosis with ALS, the disease that would put him in the wheelchair (note the cane). But just a couple of years before that, he had no idea he had a degenerative disease -- he was a healthy, active, drinking college student at Oxford:
Seconds after this picture was snapped, his pants hit the floor.
Then, one day he noticed he was having trouble keeping his hands steady, and once fell down a flight of stairs. Hey, best to go get it checked out, right? Could be, like, an ear infection or something throwing off his balance. That's when the 21-year-old (now studying for his Ph.D. at Cambridge) was told he'd be bedridden soon, and dead within a few years, a prognosis that is true for almost every ALS patient. Hawking, somehow, is still alive 50 years after his diagnosis.
Young Bill Clinton Wants to Crash on Your Sofa for a While
Tell me that man's beard is not full of Cheetos dust. That is an early 1970s Bill Clinton in his Yale days, with Hillary. Only I'm 99 percent sure that nobody called him "Bill" back then. No, a guy like that would have a nickname like "Meat" or "Boner" or "The Dude." Seriously, tell me you can find any difference between the future president in the above photo and Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski:
Both of them look like the kind of man who would interrupt a night of desperate last-minute cramming with "Dude, put down the book, I just had the best idea. It's gonna make us all rich, man. Now, just hear me out, OK? What if you could make a taco shell out of Doritos?"
Mister Rogers Is Flipping You Off (With Both Fingers, No Less)
If you see this photo out of context, your jaded mind will immediately assume you're seeing either 1) a young Mister Rogers goofing around with his producer off-air or 2) a "F*&@-IT, WE'LL DO IT LIVE!"-type meltdown.
The reality, unfortunately, is that Mister Rogers appears to have really been wholesome all the way down, and here he's leading a group of children in a song that has them counting off each finger in turn. When they get to the middle finger, Rogers cracks up ...
"Now kids, you never do this with your wheel hand unless they've just merged without signaling."
... knowing that it is going to be screen capped and shared on the Internet 45 years later.
Hitler on a Snow Sled
What's hilarious about this one is that Hitler still looks ominous. From that children's snow sled he is going to conquer the world! Also, think of how different your impression of Hitler would be if he had worn that hat all the time. This looks like a particularly stupid Photoshop, but there are other pics of this from other angles and they're all equally silly (they're apparently scanned from a 1955 book by Hitler's personal photographer).
But honestly, though, did the man ever smile? Yes, he did:
"Oh heil no, you didn't just say that!"
And he also sometimes put on a suit and tie and posed awkwardly with his girlfriend:
"Did I blink that time? I think I blinked. Let's do one more. What do I do with my hands? What if I ... does this look natural? OK. Wait, I think I blinked again."
And here he is hugging his pet dog:
"Who's the dog of the devil? Huh? Who's a fluffy little devil dog?"
By the way, if you wonder why Hitler hated the Soviet Union so much, check out his terrifyingly sexy competition ...
Young Joseph Stalin Would Bang Your Girlfriend
That's right, ladies. The next time you're at a party and you see a guy who looks like a rugged, more handsome Keanu Reeves with Johnny Depp hair, playing a guitar and staring at you with his big, soulful eyes, keep in mind that in 40 years he could very easily turn into this guy ...
You can just hear panties hitting the ground.
... brutal Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
Michael Jordan Was a College-Age Urkel
No matter how it might seem when you're in high school, sometimes the line between jock and nerd is razor thin. Their genes might make those guys tall and give them the ability to dunk from the free throw line, but behind closed doors they're going to hike their pants way up and dance with an umbrella, as MJ was doing here in this 1983 photograph by Lane Stewart for Sports Illustrated.
There is a whole gallery of these, you can judge which one is the most embarrassing.
But, seriously, it's this one.
Yet that is not the dorkiest teenage celebrity photo we have. That would be ...
Teenage Eminem With Alf Shirt and Birthday Cake
I've linked to this picture, oh, seven or eight times in my career at Cracked, as it is my favorite celebrity photo of all time. I don't want to say that Eminem's claims of an impoverished life as an abused child aren't true -- I think everyone agrees that they are. To an extent. Still, sometimes he had a birthday and a cake and wore a pink T-shirt depicting Alf wearing X-ray glasses saying, "Hey, nice underwear!"
Still, brooding celebrities who build their career on their dark past do it at the risk of becoming caricatures. For instance, the same can be said of Kurt Cobain -- nobody is going to deny his depression or addiction. However ...
Kurt Cobain Eating an Entire Pizza
... it's still a shock to realize sometimes the man just sat down and ate an entire pizza like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo.
This is something everybody should understand about depression, by the way. Tell me you haven't at least once heard somebody say, "I refuse to believe it was suicide, I was just out with Mike two weeks ago. He was laughing and joking and eating an entire pizza like it was a video game power-up."
Then later played "Cat Puppet" with his daughter while doing a high-pitched cat voice.
Well, depression works that way. Movies have given us a skewed idea of how it works, because there, when a character enters his "dark period," it's with a montage full of sad music and drinking and moping in dim rooms. Real life isn't like that. Not only do moods fluctuate, but even when you're at your lowest you find yourself in social situations where you're not allowed to show it. If you're in a dark place but can't get out of your nephew's birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese's, you're going to put on a smile for the camera. You feel selfish bringing everybody else down. You put on a cheerful mask.
Then, ironically, if you start playing the role of the tortured artist later, you have to worry about the opposite -- being photographed in a moment of being goofy and carefree. On a similar note ...
Albert Einstein Was Your Drunken Uncle on Vacation
If you're considered the smartest man in the world, do you feel self-conscious about taking off your shirt and kicking back in a lawn chair with a goofy hat?
This is Albert Einstein getting some sun in Palm Springs, in 1932. Note his wild hair stuffed vertically into said hat. Still kept the slacks on, though, rather than breaking out the Speedo. You'll be thankful for that, once you see ...
Winston Churchill's Plainly Visible Dong
"I'm Prime Minister and inspirational wartime leader Winston Churchill, and this is my junk. Go ahead, take a picture, it's fine. I made the military invent Lycra just so I could show it off without getting arrested again."
What I enjoy most about that photo is how it's about 10 times more disturbing than if he were simply nude. I'm imagining an alternate history where World War II broke out and he had to be pulled off the beach to go address the nation, with no time to change clothes. So he's standing there before the press and talking about courage and perseverance and everyone is trying not to stare at his shrink-wrapped penis as he slowly becomes more and more visibly aroused.
Just a Normal, Happy Family ...
... the Manson Family, that is.
Charles Manson is the most famous serial killer of all time, and maybe the most famous criminal of all time. This is despite the fact that he didn't carry out the killings himself -- the "family" was a cult-slash-hippie commune that he formed that carried out at least a half dozen brutal killings on his orders. Look at how happy these freaks are!
See, you were right to be skeptical about hippies all this time -- they're all peace and love, but give them one charismatic dude in a loud shirt and they'll do whatever he says.
Jeopardy! Host Alex Trebek Was a Younger, Cooler Dick Clark
Yep, that's Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek as a smooth, hip 23-year-old hosting a show called Music Hop in 1963 on the CBC in Canada. He appears to be calling to a young lady to come sit on his lap. This link has video of the young MC in action.
This wouldn't be shocking if it were, say, a young Pat Sajak or Bob Barker. But the difference between Alex Trebek and other game show hosts is that Trebek always comes off like he's a wizard who somehow knows the answer to every single question on every subject. When a contestant gets one wrong, he doesn't look down and read it off the card; he makes sympathetic eye contact with the loser and says, "Ooh, I'm sorry, the Council of Pereiaslav treaty was of course signed in 1654, not 1655." And he has this look on his face like "I know you're kicking yourself for missing that one, we all have our moments of intellectual weakness."
"Don't worry, there's nothing wrong with being average. Or even stupid, for that matter."
So it's easy to assume he came out of academia somewhere, a genius with unfathomable encyclopedic knowledge who was chosen as the only man smart enough to host a quiz show where he routinely talks down to Ph.D.s like they're kindergarteners. But, no, he's just a TV guy, one who didn't hesitate to use his smooth TV hosting gig to charm the ladies:
"Don't try to hide your arousal, honey. It's not possible."
Colonel Sanders, Hanging Out With Alice Cooper
First of all, how many of you kids thought that "Colonel Sanders" was just a drawing on the KFC logo rather than a real person? He was a real guy, and I don't mean that in the sense that the chain had a dude dress up as him the way McDonald's has guys in Hamburglar costumes running around. He invented the KFC recipe and started the restaurant chain (at age 65, no less). And here he is talking to heavy metal legend Alice Cooper.
After hours of searching, I still have no idea whatsoever how a young rock star from Detroit and a fried chicken magnate from Kentucky wound up in the same room, or what they would possibly have had to talk about. And I guess I don't want to know, that's what makes it a classic in the Awesome People Hanging Out Together genre.
Seriously, you can get lost for hours in there.
What I do know is that these are two men who both knew exactly how important it is to your "brand" to maintain a unique, consistent visual presentation in public. For the last 20 years of Sanders' life, he would not leave the house without wearing the trademark white suit, black tie and Southern-style beard that made his image so memorable on the franchise's logo. Likewise, you never saw the menacing rocker Alice Cooper in, say, a huge Hawaiian shirt and bicycle shorts. It's all just part of the game.
Special thanks to Pauli Poisuo, "Luna Fortuna" and "Crumulent" for their suggestions in this article.
For more Wong, check out 17 Images That Will Ruin Your Childhood and 5 Terrifying Bastardizations of the Wikipedia Model.
Check out the movie version of David Wong's first book John Dies at the End, starring Paul Giamatti.
What the Hell Did I Just Read: A Novel of Cosmic Horror, the third book in David Wong's John Dies at the End series, is available now!