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Only in America

…would this man go from houseguest, to murder-trial witness, to a weird form of celebrity, to being a sought-after talk show guest, who is mobbed by fans and abhorred by others, to becoming who knows what next? That’s what makes him so telling on all fronts.

The first time I met Kato Kaelin was last May. I’d gone to Los Angeles partly to see my brother and partly to see the L.A. Opera’s production of Otello, which was the big event of the opera season in a town where the opera season is not a big event. Of course, you couldn’t get around the O.J./Otello parallels: powerful black man, successful in a white society, marries a gorgeous and desirable white woman, becomes jealous, and everything blows up. The opera revolves around a handkerchief, while the O.J. trial has been about a glove. The day after I saw the L.A. Otello, when I had a preliminary interview with Kaelin so we could “get to know each other,” it occurred to me that I was talking to Cassio. Remember the role Cassio has in Otello? He is this perfectly nice guy who’s kind of good-looking and kind of well-intentioned and kind of popular and kind of too trusting. He’s no genius, but his problem is not that. In fact, he’s pretty talented (Otello didn’t make him a lieutenant for nothing), but he doesn’t have much intuition about when to keep his mouth shut; he can’t discriminate between his friends and the manipulators who are using him; his ego is the size of Cyprus; and, because he lacks judgment, he can exhibit true idiocy when provoked.

You can’t help liking Cassio and feeling that he’s had a bum deal, and you also can’t help liking Kaelin once you actually meet him. I apparently passed muster at that first meeting in L.A., and I was granted a real interview six weeks later in Baltimore, where Kaelin was stopping off to do a radio show. We talked in his hotel room (unmade bed) for a while and had lunch and then went for a walk to see the sights of the town, and it was a pretty fun day.

Like Princess Diana, Kaelin seems only gradually to be adjusting to the responsibilities and pain of celebrity. It would be hard for anyone to be catapulted so abruptly from that level of obscurity to that level of prominence through absolutely no accomplishment of his own. But, for a catapulted person, he’s got a lot of aura (not evident on the O.J. Simpson trial stand, I know, but seriously, in real life, it’s there). I suspect that this quality, which is the reason for so many people’s prominence, is actually the result of Kaelin’s. He evinces a kind of feckless bigness of personality, an unjaded pleasure in himself, and a certain ease with the awe he now inspired (in the hundreds who asked for his autograph every time we went anywhere together, the hotel maid who blushed when he said hello, the limo driver who volunteered to drive him for free, the woman at the Peabody Library in Baltimore who profferred her card, saying she hoped he’d get in touch if he ever had any antiquarian books that needed restoration). Desperately keen to be liked, and doing his best to merit all the fuss, Kaelin seems to enjoy making people happy, and people make him happy. Bear in mind that it was because he was a houseguest that he became a household name in America. Indiscriminate friendliness is a requisite houseguest attribute. He was friendly with O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson (who don’t seem to have been very nice). Kaelin was sort of friendly with Marc Eliot, author of Kato Kaelin: The Whole Truth, whom he is now threatening to sue; Eliot also doesn’t seem that nice. Kaelin’s got this wall of image-makers who are definitely not nice, but to my surprise, I was charmed by Kaelin — more charmed each time I met him.

Kato Kaelin [to Raphael Benko, his agent]: If I stay tonight, will the [radio] station pay for the hotel room? [then to Interview‘s Andrew Solomon] Maybe you guys can pay?

Andrew Solomon: Well, I’m buying lunch.

KK: [laughs] So, how are you doing?

AS: Fine, thank you. I know you were saying on our way over here that you don’t feel great.

KK: I haven’t gotten more than two hours of sleep in four days. There’s so much going on.

AS: You were on the radio for what, four hours, this morning?

KK: Is that what it was? I had no idea it was that long. It was for the Kids Campaign [a children’s fund organized by WBAL radio station in Baltimore, which provides money for, among other things, sending underprivileged kids to camp]. I had a ball doing it, but I also know when I’m getting taken advantage of.

AS: And you got mugged last night?

Raphael Berko: Not mugged. Not mugged. [to AS] Are you recording already?

AS: Yes, it’s easier to leave the tape recorder running than to turn it on and off.

RB: O.K., I’m going to get out of here. [RB leaves the room.]

AS: So just to catch up since I saw you last — you just did your second Barbara Walters interview.

KK: Yeah, I did it Tuesday. Basically, I said to myself, “I’m done with this trail.” I didn’t even want to talk about it anymore, so I thought I’d finish it with Barbara and that would be it.

AS: Let’s talk about your sudden celebrity. Because here’s, I think, the thing striving actors in Hollywood are probably saying: You happened to be in that house on that day; you have no more talent than all the other struggling actors in town, and suddenly you’re becoming a national celebrity for absolutely no reason at all.

KK: I get a lot of people saying that, but I don’t know how someone could sit and go, “All right, the guy got popular because there was a murder.” I didn’t know anything worse could happen in my life. And I wasn’t the only witness. There’s been over, what? Like three hundred witnesses already. That’s what I don’t get. It’s this, for lack of a better word, destiny.

AS: But certainly the trial made you famous.

KK: I’m not really the one who can comment on this. All my friends say, “Well, this would have happened anyway.” they’re not surprised with where I’m at. The circumstance is the incredible part. But I always knew in my heart that something was going to be out there just for the world to nocie me. It sounds so cocky, but it’s happening.

AS: Can we talk briefly about the two things that have most intrigued me about you? The first one is: Your name is Brian, but you’re called Kato. Maybe everyone else knows how that came to pass, but I don’t.

KK: There are a few stories, but I’ll give you the real story. There was this TV show called The Green Hornet, and my older brother Mark used to have a friend who called him Kato [the name of the Green Hornet’s sidekick, played by Bruce Le]. And the name just got passed on to me.

AS: And the Simpsons had a dog named Kato, right?

KK: Uh-huh. They got an Akita puppy and the kids named him Kato. I was always hearing my name being called, and it was always the dog that was in trouble. But, believe me, I didn’t know they weren’t talking to me, because it was so loud — like “Stop it, Kato!”

AS: Did you raise any objections to the kids naming the dog Kato?

KK: No. I was honored. Are you kidding? I’m named after a dog — or, a dog’s named after me. By the way, Kato the dog was a big fan of Bruce lLee, too. [laughs]

AS: The other thing I wanted to ask you about is, of course, your hair. I have to admit that the only part of your whole thing I’m jealous of is your hair. [KK laughs] The rest of it, I’m completely glad it’s you and not me. But the hair. I would love to have the hair.

KK: If something like a job came up where I had to cut it, I’d do it.

AS: You would?

KK: Oh, yes, of course I would. I never even cared about hairstyles — obviously.

AS: And would you send it to your fans?

KK: My hair? Yes, I would. [both laugh]

AS: Tell me, because these fans that you have seem pretty obsessive, are they pursuing you in crazy, neurotic ways?

KK: There’s the Kato Kaelin Global Fan Club. It’s a worldwide fan club that originated in Toledo, Ohio. But I don’t get anything out of it. I said, “Whoever’s in charge, give the money to charity, and work something out with that.”

AS: Raphael mentioned something earlier to me about a doll?

KK: Yeah, someone offered a Kato doll. Like a three-foot doll that kids could hug. I don’t think it’s the right time for it, though. Maybe one day there wi8ll be a Kato doll. But first I want to back it up with some work. Like I said, I don’t want to be “Kato the trial guy.” I really don’t. Because it’s like everything I do is under a microscope. And my opinion is that sometimes people just want you to fail. Except your really good friends.

AS: Was it always clear to you who your really good friends were? Or do you feel like you’ve kind of changed your idea of who your real friends are since this whole thing began.

KK: No, I’ve always known why my best friends were. Always. Although I’m from Wisconsin, and my family is very open and trusting. That’s been my downfall. I’ve been too trusting.

AS: So, what’s the story with this guy Marc [Eliot]. You seem to have trusted him when the two of you began working on the book project, and then you withdrew from it. Why?

KK: I guess I did trust him. Then I felt changes happening during the process, but I went on with it. I saw certain things, and I was very uneasy. Still, I knew I owned everything, supposedly, as far as the [interview] tapes. I saw where it was going, but I thought, O.K., he can’t do anything anyway with me, because I can say no. So I went on with it knowing that I had the choice of everything [that would be printed]. It wasn’t so. But I was like, I want to get this process over with this guy. You know, sometimes when you trust someone in the beginning, and then you go, No, no, wait. I don’t trust it, but how do I get out of this thing? And that’s what it was. It’s really tough to have someone basically saying to you, “You want a million dollars, or what? I know what I’m doing. Will you believe me? Your lawyers are the ones that are screwing you. I’m the one who’s going to make you money in your pocket, then you can buy that car that you wanted.” That’s what it was like. People just don’t know. But they’ll get it one day.

AS: Do you think he did it deliberately, to sort of screw you?

KK: Put it this way. I’ve never really disliked someone —. I dislike this person. I don’t feel good that I dislike someone. But I also think that money is the root of all evil. I’ve seen it happen. Sometimes people who get wealthy when they are very, very young, it’s a curse to them. They don’t realize it, and I think that’s why drugs keep playing a role in a lot of [wealthy people’s] deaths, why there’s a lot of experimenting with certain aspects of one’s life, with sexual things and with drugs. And money is a certain kind of drug itself.

AS: Were you aware of the fact that O.J. had become incredibly successful and rich at a very young age?

KK: I never really thought about it. But I started seeing that. Yeah, I think things were probably given to him, like at USC [where Simpson played college football]. I think he had money and favors at a very young age. And I see that happening to me now. How people come up to me — just like today, I’m not going to mention names, but I was getting offered drugs. I was getting offered this whole experience of — everything. Because you’re accessible to everything, and people want to be part of it. They just want to be part of you. But these people have no clue. I get upset because they’re asking me to do things that make me realize they must think something else of me, and I don’t like that. I know what can happen to people in those positions in the media.

AS: After the radio show this morning, I saw, like, twenty-five fourteen-year-old girls surrounding you and pushing at you. Does that make you feel claustrophobic?

KK: Yeah. I was just in Detroit about a week ago. I got back to my hotel room around three in the morning and went down to the lobby to see if I could get some snacks, but everything was closed. Waiting for the elevator, three or four girls saw me and started going, “That’s Kato.” The next thing I knew — because there was a prom going on in the hotel — there were about fifty kids in this lobby area, and I was against the wall. They started taking pictures and pictures and pictures and pictures. Finally security came and got me — kind of pulled me into the elevator.

AS: Do you sometimes feel like saying, “Leave me alone,” and pushing your way out?

KK: I haven’t done that yet. But it’s hard to take my daughter out. She likes going to certain things that we’ve had to cut down on, like the mall.

AS: Why is it hard to take her out?

KK: Because I’d really feel terrible if someone shouted something mean to me and she heard it. That would hurt me so much, because I remember, as a kid, one time someone said something about my dad, and I cried and cried, because I didn’t want my dad to be made fun of. When you’re a kid, you remember things the rest of your life, and it affects you. The impact is incredible.

AS: Did you daughter know O.J. and Nicole?

KK: Yeah.

AS: And was she shaken up by what happened?

KK: Yeah, she was shaken up. She didn’t watch any TV. I called her mom and said, “This is pretty intense stuff.” So they kept her guarded. But she was friends with Sydney [O.J. and Nicole’s daughter] at that time.

AS: And were you friendly with Nicole’s children?

KK: Very friendly.

AS: Do you still see them?

KK: No, I don’t see them anymore. I man, we’ll always be friends, but I don’t see me getting together with the kids again. Just because of what’s going on — how the Browns might feel. I don’t know. I feel like I was in the middle of this whole thing. This neutral guy. And I can’t win. It’s funny, because I can’t win right now in a lot of other things, too. If I get work, people criticize me [and say] that I’m capitalizing on what happened. I’ve never lost sight of what happened, but I have to live. The stand-up comedy I’m doing is totally free right now. I’m doing it just for me to learn. I get money for doing some [celebrity] appearances, but [financially] I’m nowhere near where I should be.

AS: Would you be very rich if you’d allowed those three-foot-tall Kato dolls to be produced?

KK: I would have at least two million dollars in my pocket right now with stuff like that, and I know some people think I’m stupid because I haven’t done those things. But I feel like it will all come back. I sure hope it does, because I believe in myself. I believed in myself many years ago, and I’m not going to just fade out, I know.

AS: Is there anyone you look at and say, “That’s what I want to be like eventually”?

KK: I think I’d like to be where — and, my God, this is not me comparing myself to that person — but, John Lennon. I’m just saying the person. I can see where he was coming from. How he said [in Lennon’s accent], “At the time, we were more popular than Jesus. I didn’t mean we were more popular than Jesus, I meant at the time.” I thin fame hit those guys so fast.

AS: Since you identify with Lennon, who was killed by a deranged fan, do you every worry about something like that happening to you?

KK: I was asked a similar question before in an interview, and I don’t know if I should respond to it in print and then maybe give someone an idea. But I do have a dream constantly — of that one person. I don’t know why, and I don’t like that I keep dreaming it over and over. I can’t explain it. Someone once told me, “Don’t bring that up in your life because it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.” I don’t want that to happen. And I started noticing something else that I think I showed you on my hand. Like a year and a half ago or so, I just started noticing [shows the veins on the back of his hand] that the letters TV were coming out of my blood.

AS: Will you remind me when we’re at the photo studio to tell the photographer to take a picture of your hand?

KK: O.K. But I don’t know if this should… I mean, I’m sharing it with you just because I stay up at night a lot, and I have nightmares a lot. Nightmares of… I don’t know, they’re just very bizarre dreams.

AS: Listen, it’s getting kind of late. Do you want to go over to the photo shoot and get it done?

KK: Yeah, I do. I know that I could probably pass out for an hour before we go, if that’s all right. I feel my eyes are getting heavy — not from this conversation. [AS laughs] It’s more like the high from this morning is dissipating. It’s incredible when I’m out inn these towns. I have people telling me how they were waiting for hours just to meet me and get my autograph. And I feel so guilty. I always feel like I have to give them more than just Kato Kaelin.