At Work

Riches to Rags: Why We Don’t Expect a Celebrity for a Waitress

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Six-time Grammy-nominated artist Lana Del Rey was seen working at a Waffle House in Florence, Alabama last month. Donned in uniform and name tag with her stage name, the “Summertime Sadness” singer served coffee to unaware customers and took photos with surprised fans. In the days before her shift, she was seen elsewhere around Florence—though a resident of Los Angeles. 

Fans used one of her song lyrics to deduce she has friends in that part of the country. Still, Del Rey has yet to release an official statement regarding her employment status at the 24-hour diner. For this article, however, I’d rather explore why this story made the news than why she might be one of the House’s most recent employees.

A Reverse Cinderella Story

Five years ago, Cosby Show actor Geoffrey Owens was seen working at a Trader Joe’s. A photo of him went viral and received “job-shaming” online. But Owens got to respond to the ire in an interview on Good Morning America. He used his resurrected limelight to advocate for the dignity of work saying, “Every job is worthwhile and valuable…No one should feel sorry for me.”

The rags-to-riches trope gives us hope for our biggest dreams in life. It makes us think enormous success can happen to anyone. And because Cinderella began her story in rags and found riches as a princess, we think life at the top is guaranteed thereafter. Once the underdog upsets, they keep the title, right?

Perhaps this Waffle House story is merely evidence that the public underestimates the instability of show business. Because, when the trope reverses, we’re shocked, even offended that a celebrity should be living so lowly—as we see it.

Not All Jobs are Created Equal

Human nature has us ranking jobs by perceived importance. We disparage those doing grunt work—custodians, truck drivers, cashiers—and esteem the CEOs and celebrities. For example, throughout school, I was encouraged to keep at my studies because “you don’t want to end up working at a McDonald’s, do you?” Yet, the bias is illogical; these entry-level and blue-collar employees are as necessary to make the world go round as are their supervisors

Custodians keep facilities clean which protects against disgust and disease. Truck drivers enable interdependence around the country. Cashiers ensure your satisfaction and prevent theft. Employees of McDonald’s, Trader Joe’s, and Waffle House provide customers the ease of getting food fast. 

As Owens said, every task is necessary for our economy to function. If it lacks even the smallest cog, the gear train would begin to slip.

So we ought to see one another as Paul analogized Christ’s body, the church of believers in 1 Corinthians 12. At the time, believers in Corinth prioritized the more outward spiritual gifts—healing, prophecy, and teaching. But Paul exhorted them to recognize the equal need for the thankless gifts, like helping and administrating. He goes so far as to reverse our preferences saying the roles that seem weaker are in fact indispensable and the ones we see as dishonorable are deserving of that much more respect.

It is illogical and disrespectful to see someone as too important for a job. No job is more important than another. Nor is one person more important than the next.

Earthly Riches are as Rags

On what are our preferences based anyway? The king-author of Ecclesiastes wrote of the vanity of amassing wealth. He said, “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income” (Ecc. 5:10). Likewise he told of the futility of fame, “There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after” (Ecc. 1:11). The riches we attain on earth are useless in the next life. It’s as if we have stored up for ourselves rags, which are no more useful in heaven. 

It is wasted time to strive for earthly gain so we need not pity Del Rey’s seeming career demotion. In truth, it’s unlikely Lana Del Rey is hurting for cash. In March she released a new album and in July sang at the Newport Folk Festival. Some have speculated she was filming a music video at the Waffle House or that it might have been performance art. It’s since been revealed that, while in Alabama, she recorded music at a historic studio. 

While the mystery of her stint as a short-order cook remains, the intrigue is explained by the way our culture views work.

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