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Geoffrey Owens, actor and Trader Joe’s employee, sparked a debate about how we value work

The actor, who played Elvin on the Cosby Show, said he hopes the conversation around how we value menial labor will continue.

9th Annual TV Land Awards - Red Carpet
Geoffrey Owens at an event in 2011 in New York City.
Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

This Labor Day weekend came with an unexpected reminder that the daily struggle is real — even for celebrities.

Former Cosby Show actor Geoffrey Owens made headlines this holiday weekend after a New Jersey shopper snapped photos of him bagging groceries at a Trader Joe checkout line — then provided them to the Daily Mail.

Instantly, Owens — who played the Huxtables’ affable son-in-law Elvin on the show from 1985 to 1992 and is still a working actor — found himself at the center of a complicated conversation about low-wage labor. It involved social media shaming, a backlash to the backlash, and a SAG-led campaign to celebrate the many actors who, like Owens, work less glamorous jobs to make ends meet and do what they love.

Ultimately, at the end of a whirlwind weekend, Owens appeared on Good Morning America Tuesday to discuss the situation — proudly wearing his Trader Joe’s employee badge, though he noted he’s since quit the store due to all the attention.

He opened up about the reality of working life for actors, and dropped plenty of compliments about Trader Joe’s as an employment option for an actor needing flexible hours to schedule auditions. The man who started out an object of shame established himself as a hero among actors and the working class alike — and a true example of why we celebrate Labor Day to begin with.

The Daily Mail piece made Owens an object of ridicule, but he was instantly greeted with a huge groundswell of support

The Daily Mail took a scornful approach to reporting Owens’ employment, publishing several photos of him in “a Trader Joe’s T-shirt with stain marks on the front as he weighed a bag of potatoes.” The tabloid also reported the average hourly wage at the store ($11), and implied that Owens was washed-up as an actor, quoting the photo-taker as saying, “Wow, all those years of doing the show and you ended up as a cashier.”

However, neither the Daily Mail nor Fox News, which circulated a widely-shared follow-up, made any attempt to contextualize Owens’s appearance in the Trader Joe’s line.

For instance, the outlets failed to note that more than two-thirds of all SAG-affiliated actors make less than $1,000 a year as actors. They also failed to note that Owens has worked steadily an actor throughout the decades: In addition to regular theater work, he’s been consistently active as a television guest actor every year but one since 2007.

Not only that, but the Yale alumnus has been busy teaching acting classes at Yale, Columbia, and the well-respected New York play incubator Primary Stages.

So Owens has been doing just fine. In fact, he has four productions wrapped this year alone.

But that didn’t stop some who read the reports from mocking him as a failure:

The overwhelming majority of people who read the Daily Mail and Fox News pieces, however, were outraged at the media outlets for sensationalizing the honest labor of a respectable man and dedicated working actor. Performers of all stripes and professional levels swiftly came to Owens’s defense.

In addition, many of them shared their own stories of working menial jobs to support their careers — including Brooklyn Nine-Nine and former NFL star Terry Crews, and Harry Potter actor Chris Rankin:

To keep the conversation going on Labor Day, the Screen Actors Guild honored Owens and launched the hashtag #ActorsWithDayJobs, as a way of celebrating and drawing attention to the menial labor and sacrificial work that often goes into creating and maintaining even the most successful careers — like that of legendary Broadway performer Liz Callaway:

When Owens finally appeared on Good Morning America Tuesday morning to discuss the weekend’s whirlwind media cycle, he came across as perfectly satisfied, confident, and in control of his career. Owens explained that he took the job at Trader Joe’s because the flexible hours allowed him to juggle auditions and his teaching job, and that he’d worked there for 15 months with only positive feedback from members of the public who recognized him.

Owens noted that there’s been a subsequent outpouring of interest from the industry in elevating his career — but he’s not interested in capitalizing on the momentary fame. “I don’t mind if people call me in to try out for things due to what’s happened, but I actually wouldn’t feel comfortable with something giving me a job because this happened; I want to get a job because I’m the right person for that job.”

The response highlighted a huge disconnect between how we glamorize actors and the day-to-day reality of their lives

Owens’s day job at Trader Joe’s unexpectedly turned into a teachable moment about the hidden but vital role retail and service occupations play in fueling our massive entertainment economy.

“We don’t tend to think of actors as laborers, despite the robust unions that represent them—Actors’ Equity and SAG-AFTRA,” Michael Schulman, writing in the New Yorker about the reports, noted. “One wonders if Owens would have drawn any attention if he’d been spotted working as a coal miner or some other ‘salt of the earth’ job thought of as honorable and manly, rather than in a ‘softer’ form of labor that is itself suffering from what The Atlantic called ‘The Silent Crisis of Retail Employment.’”

Schulman also pointed out that actors have always been unacknowledged members of the “gig economy,” with rotating jobs and hours. “By undervaluing the labor of creative professions, we put artists in a double bind: their artistic work isn’t seen as work, but it’s also assumed to be so lucrative that any non-acting job they might pursue is suspect,” he wrote.

It also served as a reminder that while we’re calculating the worth of actors, we should also be reevaluating how we value the art that they produce:

Owens told GMA that while he was initially “devastated” by the job-shaming media reports, he was immediately “overwhelmed in a good way” by the outpouring of support.

He then issued a mic drop on behalf of everyone who’s ever wondered where their next meal is coming from, or been forced to take an additional job to make ends meet.

“I hope what doesn’t pass is ... this rethinking about what it means to work, the honor of the working person, and the dignity of work,” Owens said.

He continued:

I hope this period that we’re in now where we have this heightened sensitivity about that and a revaluation of what it means to work and a reevaluation of the idea that some jobs are better than others — because that’s actually not true. ...

Every job is worthwhile and valuable. If we have a rethinking about that because of what’s happened to me, that would be great. But no one should be sorry for me. I’ve had a great life. ... I’m doing fine.