Back in the day, I used to have my freshmen and sophomore students write letters to celebrities as an early first semester assignment.
The lesson was meant to teach the students how to write a professional letter and all of the awesome things that come along with it, including how to address envelopes. Yeah, most had no clue.
We got some great responses back! It was always a treat to get a letter in the mail and present it in front of the class.
Fast forward a handful of years. I’m on Instagram and see that one of my students posted a picture of an autograph that they received. When I inquired about it, I discovered that Rachel had been writing letters and collecting autographs since my class.
I had to get an interview about Rachel’s experiences, so here you go!
Me: Tell me what you remember about the assignment in class. Who did you write to for the assignment? Do you remember how the other students felt about the assignment?
RB: This assignment was early in the school year in freshman English. Your important take away for this assignment was how to write a business letter. But this was a thrilling idea that I hadn’t imagined was possible at the time—getting in touch with famous people? We picked two celebrities and used a template you had given us asking each of them to visit the school and/or to send us an autograph. I wrote to Shirley Temple and Leonardo DiCaprio and unfortunately never received a response from either of them. Although if Leo shows up one day, I’ll expect a big thank-you for it.
I remember the other students I talked to in the class enjoying the assignment, since it’s a great universal way to get students that age engaged. Everyone had the opportunity to make the assignment their own, and I remember people writing to Disney Channel stars, hip-hop artists, and comedians young and old–people who were at the peak of their fame (in 2008) and people I had never heard of.
Me: So what inspired you to keep attempting to collect autographs after the class was over?
RB: I remember two people in my class getting responses from their chosen celebrities, and I was honestly so jealous. I continued thinking about who else I would want to write to and strategizing who might be more likely to respond. I also thought about what celebrities I admired the most at the time, and I began not only to want their autograph, but also just to tell them how much they meant to me. I’m a huge fan of The Monkees, and my first fan letter I wrote on my own was to Peter Tork. I’ll never forget the numbing thrill I felt when I got home from school one day and found I had received an autographed picture from him in the mail. To think he had (maybe) read my letter and taken the time to write out my name and a “best wishes” is still such a feeling.
I also can’t underestimate what a great cheap hobby this is, for the cost of two stamps… (Yes, always include a self-addressed stamped envelope with your letter.)
Me: I know we used a few methods to get celeb addresses. I’m not sure if those websites are still in use. How has your attempt to collect autographs changed over time?
RB: I vaguely but fondly remember the giant black book of celebrity addresses that you brought into our class, which I believe you took out from the library (even ten years later that seems so old school). You also recommended fanmail.biz, which is what I’ve used most of the time. I admit, though, that every once in a while I think of someone I really want to get in touch with but can’t easily find, so I’ve ended up doing a bit of stalking in some cases. These days, everything about everyone is available on the internet.
Me: How many autograph requests do you think you have sent out, and how many would you say you have gotten back?
RB: One of my biggest regrets with this hobby is that I haven’t kept track of who I’ve written to. Because I only get a response from a fraction of them. Some letters get “returned to sender” and some fall into the abyss. I would guess that over the past ten years I’ve written to over 200 people. And as of today I’ve received around 50 responses. I’ve kept every response, no matter what form that has taken. Anything from a signed 8×10 headshot to a name scribbled on an index card to the dreaded “stamp” (when the signature is from a photocopy or a rubber stamp). As I’m writing this, today I received a response in the mail from a member of another 60s band (The Association) and this gentleman wrote a short, sweet, and barely legible note to me on a scrap of what seems to be receipt paper. And I’ll treasure it forever.
Me: That’s crazy. It does look like a receipt! What are the coolest responses that you have received? Any that you were sure would not respond and then did?
RB: My mom named me after a character in a movie that she loved, and years ago I wrote to the actress who played that character in the movie. She had quit acting long ago and sort of fallen into obscurity, so even after being able to track her down I wasn’t sure how she’d react to my strange story. But this woman sent me a photo of her from the film and a lovely note in response. (Unfortunately she spelled my–and her own character’s–name wrong. But the sentiment is there!) She’s since passed away, so it’s an honor to have this keepsake and to have connected with her.
Also a recent sign of encouragement. A few weeks ago I received a response from someone that I wrote to EIGHT YEARS AGO. I only remembered that I wrote to her because she included my original letter with her response, where I mentioned my age at the time. So, I guess if you don’t get a response right away you really shouldn’t lose hope.
Me: What are your future plans with the collection or continuing to acquire autographs?
RB: It’s kind of funny to think about the future of this hobby for me. I’m a history person and a fan of pop culture of the 60s and 70s, so I mostly write to older people. Frankly, they are the people who are more likely to respond—I’m sure Harry Styles is not checking his PO box much these days. A good number of the people I’ve written to and even gotten responses from are not alive anymore, so there’s a sense of urgency when I write some of my letters. But I think there will always be people to admire, so maybe that means I’ll just have to wait until Leo DiCaprio or Harry Styles retire—then they’ll be checking their mail more often.
Me: What tips or tricks do you have for someone looking to get into that autograph game?
RB: Writing to people you admire can be intimidating, so thanks to the idea from your original assignment, I follow a form letter I’ve written and then adjust it for each person. My biggest request for people taking up this hobby is to write genuine letters. For me after all these years, it’s usually not as much about receiving an autograph as it is sending the fan letter. I write to people that I’m truly fascinated by and who have inspired me in a great or small way—“I often think about your role in -this-” or “Your music has been so inspirational to me.” If you are sharing your genuine feelings and spreading love, you’ll feel good about sending the letter no matter the result.
I want to thank Rachel for sharing these amazing experiences with us! I’m proud and excited that a fun assignment that I used years ago is still making an impact.
I wonder if any of my other students are still sending out fan mail…?
You can give Rachel a follow on Instagram @p.o.box9847
Thanks for reading!