Celebrities Who Are Smart, Despite Being Celebrities

     It’s a fun pet peeve of us intellectual snobs to be annoyed by celebrities who spout off on some topic with no experience or education to back it up. We claim to find it annoying (though secretly love) to hear celebrities who got their high-school degree part time via personal tutor on the set of “You Got Served IV” hold forth on international finance. This helps distract us from another class of celebrity, the pretty folk with shiny white teeth who look just as vapid as any other celebrity, but who are actually waaay smarter than ourselves. We hate to admit that they exist, that you can look like Geena Davis and still ruin the curve on the calculus test, but they exist despite how much we wish they’d get frizzier hair and some back pimples. There are a handful of celebrities who are genuinely smart, talented, hard-working, intellectual, and they are the subject of this envy-filled essay.

These people are the opposite of shadenfreude. We need to coin a new Nordic-sounding word for them, for the feeling of inferiority about our own lives that we experience when we see them. Laurd-I-sucque? Oooiwastedmylife?  There’s someone on this list is better than you at whatever it is that you do — and what’s worse, it’s not their day job.  You like archery?  They’re an Olympic-level archer, in their spare time between movies.  If it helps you feel any better, some of them are doing the exact same thing to me…

To make this a proper competition, we’ll create a metric of just how much these celebrities make our lives seem pathetic in comparison.  Let’s call it the Resentment Index.  It’s a rough estimate of how many cliffs I want to jump off after reading their bios.  This Index is a composite of the following:

Foreign-language fluency:   Fluency in a non-native language, just because.  They didn’t pick up a fluency in Swedish because they had to, they picked it up for the hell of it.  Just for <disdain> pure love of knowledge </disdain>

Obscure, challenging sports:    Achieving world-class proficiency at some sport, which usually requires zen-like patience that you couldn’t maintain

Obscure, challenging science:   I particularly hate it when they have a better science resume than I do.  How dare they get accepted to a grad school that turned me down, only to drop out and start their acting career?

Jodie Foster

We begin our list of Celebrities Who Are Better Than You with Jodie Foster, well-known as one of the very few child movie stars whose life didn’t disintegrate upon adulthood. She denies the rumor that she is a member of Mensa, but just as impressive is that she’s a graduate of Yale with a bachelor’s in literature. Before college, she was valedictorian of her French-language prep high school, and as you might guess, is still fluent in French. She also apparently understands German and Italian though is not fluent. Fluency in a foreign language with no justification is to me one of the most egregious examples of despicable “love of learning” committed by these smart (yet still attractive) celebrities. I can barely type this essay in my native language! How dare she flagrantly flout her fluency? And as we’ll see, she’s downright amateur compared to other smart celebrities on our list…

Resentment Index:    2 for foreign languages, 0.5 for the “Mensa” rumor

Total of 2.5  


Her hips don’t lie about her fascination with Dungeons and Dragons.  While she lacks the world-class expertise in some odd hobby like archery, the Colombian singer Shakira is well-regarded for her intelligence and business acumen.  The claim is that she’s got a 140 IQ, knew the alphabet at 18 months, and was reading by 3.  I wouldn’t have guessed her to be a closet genius, but now that you mention it, she does have that slightly eccentric way about her that smart people often do, like they’re just barely able to contain their weirdness around other mortals.  And of course, she’s fluent in English, Portugese, and Italian (beyond her native Spanish).

Resentment Index: 4 for all the languages

Total of 4

Geena Davis

Haven’t seen her much lately, have we? Aside from starring in Stuart Little and her short-lived sitcom “The Geena Davis Show”, what has she been doing lately? I’ll tell you what — trying out for the FREAKING OLYMPICS, that’s what. Geena has somehow started a successful career as an archer, of all things, nearly making it on the U.S. Olympic team for Sydney 2000 games. How did your Olympic bid go? Oh that’s right, Mafia Wars on Facebook isn’t yet an Olympic sport. Besides her skill with a bow, she’s also a member of Mensa. Oh, and finally, she’s also fluent in Swedish, which she picked up as an exchange student in high school. I wasn’t kidding about the foreign-language fluency thing…

Resentment Index:   2 for foreign language (Swedish? really?), 2 for olympic-level athletics (archery?  really?), and 2 for genius-level smartiness

Total of 6

Jayne Mansfield

Another star from the bygone golden era of cinema whose intelligence went unappreciated in her time. She was apparently fluent in five languages and rumored to have an IQ in the ballpark of 160. Mother of Mariska Hargitay, who was a child in the backseat of the car in the crash that killed Jayne. Mariska speaks hungarian, french, spanish, italan, and english

Resentment Index: 5 for 5 (languages, that is), 0.4 for the movie career

Total of 5.4


Ryan Fitzpatrick

The only non-entertainer on our list is Ryan Fitzpatrick, current quarterback of the Buffalo Bills. If you follow football at all, Mr. Fitzpatrick was the guy who took over the Cincinnati Bengals for 2008 while Carson Palmer sat out hurt, then took over the Bills this season (2009) when Trent Edwards went down, developing a nice deep ball combo with Terrel “Mr. Congeniality” Owens.  He recently signed a $59 million contract to be the Bills starting quarterback through 2017.

He also happened to score nearly perfect on the NFL’s Wonderlic test, an intelligence test given to all drafted players — Ryan got somewhere around a 48 out of 50, and set a speed record by finishing the test in nine minutes. For comparison, Vince Young scored a 15, and quarterbacks in general average a score of 24. Oh, and he runs a 4.87 in the 40, bench presses 295, and has a 30 inch vert. How many situps have you done this year?

Interestingly, Fitzpatrick isn’t the only smart Cincinnati Bengal (despite rumors to the contrary) — the only perfect score on the Wonderlic test was achieved by Pat McInally, the longtime punter for the Bengals in the late ’70s. Cris Collinsworth, the NFL sportscaster and former Bengals wide receiver, got his law degree after retiring from the game.

Resentment Index: 3 for being the only nerd who can stretch a defense vertically with the deep-ball connection to Terrel Owens (and I get one point for using some football terminology), 1 for not beating Terrel Owens in the mouth with a helmet

Total of 4

Hedy Lamarr

You know this story, right?  You don’t?  How is it that I was able to hear you answer, through this blog post?  She was one of the great beauties of the golden age of movies (the 1940′s), legendary for her face and in later years for some unfortunate shoplifting incidents. She also happened to be a talented engineer, and holds a patent for “spread spectrum communications”, which she proposed as a way to make remote-control torpedos harder to jam. Her idea was to have the radio frequency used to control the torpedo jump around in frequency, in some predetermined but seemingly-unknown pattern that the Axis powers wouldn’t be able to counteract. Pretty far ahead of its time, and in fact is the basis for a lot of wireless communication today (like cell phones) — there are other good reasons besides avoiding jamming why you’d like to spread out and use the whole frequency spectrum, such as avoiding noise.

Resentment Index: 4 for having a scientific patent, 1 for being able to, at some point in her life, say “patent pending” to people

Total of 5

Danica McKellarDanica McKellar

At this point her story is quite well-known, so if this is breaking news to you, then I am a bit embarrassed for you.  But that’s OK, no shame in admitting it, especially at this website.  Danica is best remembered as Winnie from the TV show The Wonder Years, the girl-next-door to Fred Savage and to the rest of young male America.  She later went to college at UCLA (which is fairly common for child actors) and majored in mathematics (suck on that, Urkel).  Yeah, mathematics!  She got a Bachelors in MATHEMATICS.  What’s more, she coauthored a research paper as an undergraduate, which is pretty rare — so not only did she major in math, she was a standout talent among the math nerds.  Her paper is “Percolation and Gibbs states multiplicity for ferromagnetic Ashkin-Teller models on Z2” from the Journal of Physics A, 1998.  You can get the PDF from her website here.  Go ahead, download that sucker and give it a read.

Finished it yet?  I’ve got a master’s in physics, so I ought to be able to read this thing, right?  Nope.  It’s admittedly been a while, but I have a feeling this would have been pretty impenetrable even when I was at the peak of my mathematical powers.  In other words, she took time off from her acting career to be better than me at my particular expertise.  While I don’t understand her paper, I can give you a rough idea of why a mathematician would be worried about magnets, of all things.  As it turns out, a simplified model of magnets has become a really popular “model problem” in math and physics — its one of those example problems that you come across that yield a lot of cool results, and many of these results turn out to be really useful in completely different fields.  I remember coming across this little magnet model in neuroscience, of all places.  So while we still want to push the frontiers of magnet knowledge for its own sake, we also keep an eye on it for useful theorems that we can apply in other parts of math and science.

If that wasn’t enough of an explanation for you, check out this blog post from Professor Terry Tao (one of Danica’s math professors at UCLA), where he gives a description of her research that is only slightly less intimidating than her original paper.  Terry vouches for Danica’s mathematical skill, saying she was the 2nd best student in his topology class.  And for the record, the best student according to Terry was Danica’s coauthor on the paper, Brandy Winn, who went on to get a PhD in math.  And if you weren’t green enough with envy, Terry Tao himself is an unbelievable math badass.  Terry is actually a few months younger than Danica, yet joined the faculty at UCLA as a full professor while she was still an undergrad.  He published his first paper at age 15, beating Danica by almost a decade.

Resentment Index:  A whopping 7 for getting published in a mathematical physics journal.

Viggo Mortensen

While Viggo’s resume looks a little thin in the science department compared to others on the list, I include him here for his proficiency in just about every artistic medium not involving clog-dancing. He’s probably second only to Daniel Day Lewis on the leading-man-in-critically-acclaimed-movies list, but is much much cooler because not everyone has heard of him yet. But he’s just as much the critic’s darling in lots of other domains, including… (get ready to retch) … getting collections of his poetry published, his paintings displayed in museums, singing (including on the Lord of the Rings soundtrack), and composing (including — and this is my favorite — collaborations with the guitarist Buckethead).

Suicidal yet? Wait, it gets worse — check out his language count, according to wikipedia:

  • Bachelor’s degree in Spanish…
  • Fluent in English, Danish, Spanish…
  • Conversant in Norwegian…
  • Can get by in French, Italian, Catalan, and Swedish

Swedish! There it is again — you’ll recall that was Geena Davis’ inexplicable second language. Are we onto some genius-level plot here?

Resentment Index: 6 for all the languages (and that’s it — if you pick up Indonesian, Viggo, you won’t get any additional language points from me), 3 for general artistic accomplishments, -1 for heartthrob status (if I see your junk in another movie, you’re off the list completely)

Total of 8