Should “Prince” Have Been Anything But?

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Was the construct of “Prince” any different from that of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust?

Before coming up with my alter ego’s talismans, I’d already taken some baby steps with her. In New York, I channeled the famous Princely gaze in an office elevator, in the airport and back home, in line at the post office. The puzzled and curious glances I got in return were reward enough, but I hadn’t considered that an alter ego could be more than a plaything. My reference point had been Prince’s image, but it’s taken me to mid-month to understand — yea, to know — that “Prince” the public persona was, in fact, an alter ego.

This is the part where celebrities can get messed up in the head. Chris Moon, the producer who co-wrote Prince’s first single, Soft and Wet, and who owned MoonSound studio in Minneapolis where Prince learned to record, has been sharing stories of Prince before he had a record deal on Facebook. People would be surprised to hear how intentional the branding behind “Prince” was, even back in the 1970s. Apparently, there was a lengthy process in choosing Prince’s name, as well as a strategic decision that Prince should be associated with a color based on Moon’s experience in advertising. And then there’s the story of Prince in his early days being seen on the street wearing jeans and looking unpolished, and two women passing him saying “Oh no, that can’t be Prince,” so that he never went out in public again without being fully dressed, groomed and in character. While this story and the fact that Prince dressed the part daily (and that’s why I followed his lead in February), I’ve started to wonder if Prince should have named himself something other than his own name, and whether or not he kept a mental distance from the character “Prince” that he played on stage — to great effect.

In The Alter Ego Effect, author and high-performance coach Todd Herman quotes legendary Hollywood agent Shep Gordon, who was asked at an event how he coached his clients to perform at a high level.

“I think each one is very, very different. I think there’s just one general rule that I used to try and give to every artist, whether they were chefs or they were entertainers. It’s that if you allow the public figure to actually be you, you’re never going to be happy. And you’re never going to be confident, because if you take the traits of who you are and develop that into a character that you understand, you’ll always know what that character should do, so when you’re in a press conference, you always know how to answer a question.”

“If it’s you personally, you never have the answers. It’s really tough, and when you take it personally, that’s when you start scarring. If a bad review is about that person, you change that person. If a bad review is about you, sometimes that wound can be very deep. So, I don’t think you can generalize, but if there’s any generality, I would say, if someone who’s in the public eye can understand that people aren’t loving you, they’re loving that character that’s been put in front of them. Even from my movie, I get people come up to me, “You’re the greatest. You’re unbelievable.” They don’t know me They know that guy. So, if you can keep that distance in your own brain, it’s much healthier.”

Living Like Prince means creating that safe separation between a public self, and a private self, and consciously distinguishing between the two. Because although a celebrity or entertainer or professional athlete has a clear use of the alter ego when they take the stage or get on the field or go in front of a movie camera, you have a use for this, too. You can step into your alter ego when you walk into a conference room for a sales meeting, or walk through your own front door and need to be a great mom, patient and kind and fun and loving, even after a long day at the office.

What I’ve learned is that while my alter ego is fun to trot out, she should be used sparingly. In other words, I don’t want to be her every minute of the day. But I want her qualities to give me some psychological separation from my everyday self so that I can step into the public eye and achieve what I want to achieve for myself.

2 thoughts on “Should “Prince” Have Been Anything But?

  1. Erica Louise

    Laura, this post is fascinating! It makes me think of how, as I understand it, Prince’s name was inspired by his father’s stage name/persona.

    As is well known, Prince’s father expressed that the name Prince was given in high hopes for, and confidence in, his son.

    Neal Karlen has noted that as time went on, Prince’s father became jealous. That strikes me as very human, but also potentially very destructive, should the jealously be significant. Here I find Neal Karlen’s reflection so poignant, asking a person to imagine what it would be like to have a father who is very jealous of you.

    • lauratiebert

      Hi Erica, Yes! It’s as if his father brought him into being by giving him that stage name. And by using “Prince” as his stage name, did it make it difficult for Prince to separate his real self from “Prince” the stage persona? I can imagine it would. This seems a particular hazard that musicians face, versus actors. Actors are understood to be, well, acting – and even then, people have a hard time separating a character on screen with the human being. But I don’t think that most people believe musicians are acting (even those Prince told his early band “I’m going to be sex” as his role on stage). And then add in the fact that this musician’s given name is also the name of the character he portrays on stage? Now, that one is nearly impossible to separate, both for the fans — and, I fear, for Prince himself.

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