“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” -Zen aphorism

Death has parted us from another pop star. Whitney Houston, aged 48, drew her final breath inside a bathtub full of water, her heart finally waving the white flag from a fourth-floor hotel room floating somewhere above the boulevards of Beverly Hills.

I grew up in restaurants and hotels, daughter of a restaurateur. People came around, people who were famous sometimes for one thing or another, people who had an entourage, people who tried to demand preferential treatment somehow. I didn’t necessarily recognize any of these people, sometimes I did, sometimes not, but there was a tension that hung around the kitchen and chef’s office when a VIP was scheduled to be in the dining room, a tension that would disappear the moment he or she arrived and everyone remembered the star was as human as the rest of us.

Later on, as I grew up and lived in Manhattan, seeing celebrities wasn’t any big deal. It’s what happens in New York, and only tourists dare make a garish scene and acknowledge the famous in any way other than that of a peer. Even if the heart is a teen-aged girl gripped with the Beatlemania of the moment, the exterior had to be cool.

When Marisa Tomei won her Oscar in 1993, a sizable contingent of industry types agreed that the award was largely undeserved.My Cousin Vinny” had none of the prestige of that year’s best picture nominees, “Unforgiven” and “The Crying Game”. The cast boasted no Serious Actors. Tellingly, Tomei’s was the film’s only nomination. And the marquee name? Joe-fucking-Pesci.

But, against all odds, Marisa beat out Judy Davis, Joan Plowright, Vanessa Redgrave and Miranda Richardson. That’s—count ’em—three Brits.

Tomei’s win was such an upset that, for years, rumors persisted that she hadn’t really won. That presenter Jack Palance had called her name by accident. That the true winner was Vanessa Redgrave.

It’s not true though.

And I for one never believed it was.

* * *

I’ve always had something of a soft spot for Marisa.

Back in 1994, I performed in a talent show at Jewish sleepaway camp. Because I was 9 and it was the early ’90s, I sang “Hero” by Mariah Carey.

In fact, I knew all the songs on Dreambox by heart. “Hero” and “Dreamlover” and “Music Box” and all the rest. I used to listen to the tape on my Sony walkman. I alternated between Dreambox and Forever Your Girl. Later, I’d move on to Jewel and then the Wallflowers and Third Eye Blind. At the time though, it was all about Mariah. (And, when no one was watching, Celine Dion.)

I sang “Hero” because I knew all the words and it’s with no small amount of pride that I tell you I received a standing ovation for my performance.

My stage fright was so bad that, when I sat down, I was still shaking.

“You know who you look like?” a male counselor asked.

“Who?” I responded, catching my breath.

“That actress, Marisa Tomei.”

I had no idea who Marisa Tomei was in 1994.My Cousin Vinny” was rated R and the only R-rated movie I’d seen was a snippet of “Pretty Woman” in a limo after my third cousin’s bat mitzvah. But even though I didn’t know who she was, I knew enough to be flattered. I watched Tomei’s career with interest and was pleased to see that, in time, she proved her critics wrong, garnering another two Oscar nominations.

* * *

The thing is, I don’t look much like her. I’m not nearly so pretty. I feel certain that no one would cast me as a stripper or ask me to dance coquettishly in a Hanes commercial.

Like most girls, I wanted the gamine looks of Audrey Hepburn or the smoldering sensuality of Liz Taylor. To be a cat on a hot tin roof. Holly Golightly. To be dark and delicate. To be desired.

But I don’t really look like celebrities at all. More than anything else, I look like those sepia-toned snapshots of refugees in line at Ellis Island. Or like those photos you see in “The Shoah”: somber-faced and sad-eyed, clutching a suitcase, a tattered yellow star affixed to my best wool coat.

I don’t look like celebrities. I look an understudy in a dinner theater production of “Fiddler on the Roof”.

When I was nine, I dressed up as Louisa May Alcott for Famous Person’s Day.My mother was heartbroken. She’d begged me to go as Anne Frank. “Think of how easy it would be!” she said. “We cut out a yellow magen david, tape it to your jacket and, voila!”

I held firm, though. Little Women was my favorite book and, more than anything, I was bound and determined to pay homage to its author.

I’ve come to regret that decision. After all, I look a hell of a lot more like Anne Frank than Louisa May Alcott.

* * *

When I was 15 or 16, my grandmother told me I looked just like Liza Minelli.

From her perspective, this was high praise.

She pictured “Cabaret”-era Liza—all big eyes and jazz hands.

I, however, pictured David Gest-era Liza—all drug addiction and wrinkles and encephalitis.

This well-meaning comment did little for my already-plummeting self-esteem. It’s no coincidence that in the year that followed, I stopped eating and assiduously avoided all things Fosse.

* * *

My sister once told me that an ex-boyfriend of hers said she was prettier than Natalie Portman. They’d had a class together in college, she said, and he assured her that she was, like, way hotter.

* * *

“You look just like Alexa Ray Joel!’ the waitress told me emphatically. “Just like her.”

“You know who she is, right? Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley’s daughter!”

She paused and then, after a beat: “She didn’t get her mother’s looks at all.”

Great. Just what every girl dreams of: being compared to the paunchy, sad-eyed Piano Man.

Anybody looking for a downtown man?

* * *

A friend of mine used to go around informing anyone who would listen how often she was mistaken for Keira Knightley. For a time, she had a glamour shot of Keira as her Facebook picture.

* * *

My second cousin, Ellen, weighed 67 pounds and was 42-years-old when she died in 2006. We scattered her ashes in a man-made lake at the park where she used to go jogging. For the last two decades of her life, that was all she had. Jogging and books and years of empty dinner plates.

It was hard to look at her.

But Ellen was sweet. She was sweet and she was sad.

She gave tight, hard hugs. Hugs so forceful you could feel her ribcage, her pelvic bone. Hugs so fierce you worried that her brittle little body might break.

Ellen preferred to skip family events as they often centered around meals. But when she did come, she would talk enthusiastically about the latest book she’d read or a foreign film she’d seen. She was nice to me.

She once told me that I looked like Isabella Rossellini.

“Just like her.”